An Artist’s Legacy: Ludovic Morlot’s Uncommon Tenure with the Seattle Symphony

Ludovic Morlot conducts the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall in 2016. (Photo: Brandon Patoc)

The Seattle Symphony experienced a meteoric rise under Ludovic Morlot’s leadership. He leaves the orchestra after eight transformative years.

By Rosalie Contreras

The Seattle Symphony’s meteoric rise under Music Director Ludovic Morlot is one of the most exciting success stories among American orchestras in recent years. Ludovic’s inspirational leadership paired with the talent, innovative spirit and determination of musicians, board, administrative staff, audiences and the larger community, created a rare alchemy that resulted in exhilaration and acclaim radiating far beyond Benaroya Hall.

“It breathes”

When Ludovic first arrived in Seattle, he envisioned creative programming on the main stage, but also craved the adventurous experiences modeled after the Rug Concerts presented by Pierre Boulez in 1970s New York. Could such an experiment work in Seattle?

After seven seasons of the [untitled] series, which has explored composers from John Cage to Agata Zubel, the answer is a resounding “yes.” These performances regularly sell out to those seeking a rare and magical experience, happy to perch on cushions, sofas, stairs and yes, actual rugs.

As former arts critic for The Stranger Jen Graves wrote in 2012 about the first [untitled] concert, “… the audience wandered at will between different floors to sample different acoustics, stretched out on pillows, lined the stairs, perched on stools sipping drinks. This is your new symphony …. It breathes.”

Derek Bermel
Vice President of Artistic Planning & Creative Projects Elena Dubinets, composer John Luther Adams and Ludovic Morlot following performances of Become Desert at UC Berkeley in 2018. (Photo: James Holt)

The adventurous programming extended to 58 commissions and 56 world premieres by an impressive roster of composers ranging from John Luther Adams to Aaron Jay Kernis to Caroline Shaw. Several of these projects, including John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, Kernis’ Violin Concerto performed by James Ehnes and Morlot’s brilliant exploration of French repertoire, have earned the orchestra five Grammy Awards in the past five years, as well as the distinction of being named Gramophone’s 2018 Orchestra of the Year. Adams’ next major release, Become Desert, which comes out June 14, 2019, is another example of the beautiful collaboration that Ludovic fosters between conductor, composer and orchestra.

Including the all-Dalbavie disc coming out July 26, 2019, Ludovic has conducted 19 recordings on the Seattle Symphony Media (SSM) label. SSM launched in 2014 following a newly inked agreement with Seattle Symphony musicians that allows the release of a significant number of recordings each year from both live concerts and studio sessions, a first for the Seattle Symphony and an unusual arrangement among American orchestras. In addition, Ludovic conducted the Seattle Symphony on other labels, perhaps most notably in five previously unrecorded works by American composer George Perle on Bridge Records.

Turning Point

A defining moment in the orchestra’s history was the 2014 performance at Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring for Music festival. Morlot conducted the orchestra in an audacious program of Varèse’s Déserts, Debussy’s La mer and Adams’ Become Ocean, which the Seattle Symphony commissioned and premiered in Seattle the previous June. The piece, part mesmerizing beauty and part social commentary on climate change, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

The New York Times’ Carnegie Hall review stated, “The performance Mr. Morlot coaxed from his players was rich with shimmering colors and tremulous energy. The engagement of the musicians with this work, and with Mr. Morlot, came through in every moment.”

[Listen to the full concert at Carnegie Hall, available from NPR Music]

Ludovic Morlot conducts Stravinsky’s Persephone in 2018 with puppetry and staging by Michael Curry. (Photo: Brandon Patoc)

Other bold programs ventured into the theatrical with dramatic use of staging, lighting and costumes in works such as Stravinsky’s Persephone with sets designed by Michael Curry of Disney fame, and Ravel’s Lenfant et les sortilèges, which incorporated projections and sculptural costumes to breathtaking effect. Composer celebrations, festivals and collaborations included the American music festival, Tuning Up! in 2016, the city-wide Shakespeare Festival in 2018, and a season-long exploration of Berlioz that culminated in Ludovic conducting Beatrice & Benedict at Seattle Opera.  

“Ludovic prominently placed the Seattle Symphony on the global map by guiding us towards receiving international awards and recognition for recordings and partnering with the leading composers of our time,” commented Elena Dubinets, Vice President of Artistic Planning & Creative Projects. “Seattle audiences experienced amazing music by such composers as Kinan Azmeh (Syria), Du Yun (China), Dai Fujikura (Japan), Heiner Goebbels (Germany), Giya Kancheli (Georgia), Alexander Raskatov (Russia), Luís Tinoco (Portugal), Agata Zubel (Poland) and many others, all present in Seattle for the premieres of their compositions conducted by Ludovic. Elliott Carter dedicated his last orchestral work to Ludovic. We have co-commissioned many of these pieces with major orchestras in Europe, Asia and the U.S., and the name of the Seattle Symphony is now carried on the scores of all these pieces when they are performed anywhere in the world.”

Genre Busting

Beyond inviting collaborations with the most exciting composers and musicians in the classical realm, Ludovic also created partnerships with artists from a variety of genres including Mike McCready, Sir Mix-a-Lot and Bill Frisell. The collaboration with McCready and other members of Seattle bands Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains and Temple of the Dog resulted in a compelling performance and recording in tribute to Mad Season and former bandmate Layne Staley. The concert recording was one of the last releases to feature Chris Cornell, loved by music fans all over the world.

The collaboration with Sir Mix-a-Lot, with the premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev’s orchestral arrangement of “Baby Got Back,” shattered centuries of classical music tradition with a viral video, viewed over seven million times.

Today’s Sound

Ludovic focused on developing the sound of the orchestra, introducing repertoire that the Seattle Symphony hadn’t typically performed in the past, including music of the French masters of the 19th and 20th centuries. Since his arrival in 2011 Ludovic hired 32 musicians, including eight principal musicians and five assistant or associate principals. An important change during Ludovic’s tenure was the move from three to four positions for wind instruments and trumpets. This is critically important to enhance the quality of the orchestra, and to attract and retain the best musicians.

President & CEO Krishna Thiagarajan, Ludovic Morlot and Board Chair René Ancinas with a 2019 Grammy Award. (Photo: James Holt)

While the audition process includes a lot of input from musician committees, the music director has the final say, and Ludovic’s hires represent approximately 30% of the orchestra. This, along with the expansion to four winds and trumpets, are examples of the lasting impact that music directors can have.

“Since I first played with the Seattle Symphony in 2012, I’ve witnessed the orchestra grow artistically at an exponential rate — and we are not slowing down,” shares Assistant Principal Trumpet Alexander White. “Ludo has always demanded an in-depth, nuanced approach to music-making from the orchestra centered around a deep dive into the French repertoire with pieces both familiar and unknown. This approach, combined with the musicians working with Ludo to make myriad fantastic hires during his tenure, has brought you the five-time Grammy award-winning, Gramophone Orchestra of the Year, the Seattle Symphony, as you know it today. Here’s to the great work done by Ludo with the musicians, staff and board of the Seattle Symphony!”

Seattle First

The mission of the Seattle Symphony is to unleash the power of music, bring people together, and lift the human spirit. From his very first season in Seattle, Ludovic dedicated himself to our community, personally conducting Family Concerts, strengthening relationships with local arts partners and later joining the faculty of the University of Washington School of Music.

An important but often-overlooked program inspired by Ludovic is the Family Connections ticketing program, which invites up to two young people, ages 8–18, to attend most Masterworks and Pops concerts free when accompanied by a paying adult ticketholder. This removes barriers to concert attendance, allowing countless parents, grandparents, music teachers and others to share their love of symphonic music with the young people in their lives.

Seattle audiences from all walks of life have responded with great affection to this emphasis on all the ways the orchestra can connect with the community, from free Community Concerts to the ever-expanding reach of Link Up for school children and the Simple Gifts program for those experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.

Audience Kudos

“The one thing I wish I could have done, or said, was to let Maestro Morlot how much I appreciate what he has done for and with the Symphony. There is a new life in the orchestra and in the music I very much enjoy. I am quite grateful for his work.” – Patrick A.

“One of the joys of my life is when I am an enthusiastic member of the audience at Benaroya [Hall]. Ludovic Morlot is a treasure and always makes me feel like all is well in the world when we are able to join him in celebrating the magic of music.” – Jacqueline S.

The Morlot family with Becky and Jack Benaroya at an event welcoming the Morlots to Seattle in 2010. (Photo: Ben VanHouten)

One metric that says it all, the orchestra experienced 10% growth in paid Masterworks capacity since Ludovic’s arrival.

The achievements reached during Ludovic’s eight-year tenure can be described as nothing short of remarkable, and his impact on this orchestra and community will continue to be visible and felt for years to come. From moving performances brought about by stellar programming and artistic leadership, to evolution of the orchestra’s quality, critical acclaim and award-winning recordings, measurement in the near term is abundant.

“The power of Ludo’s personality cannot be underestimated in this success,” shares President & CEO Krishna Thiagarajan. “He connected with people and his family made themselves a part of Seattle. Their personal connection created a bond of trust and credibility among our audiences. He took a very traditional symphony orchestra and made it one of the most innovative in the U.S. What is most impressive is that the audience came along on this bold journey that Thomas will continue. I look forward to Ludo’s return in two years and I am excited for the possibilities his work opened up to us! Thank you, my friend.”

“My dearest Ludo, … You have touched my heart,” adds Becky Benaroya. “What a huge void you will be leaving, but you have also left your mark. Seattle loves you, you have done so much for our city, and you have given so much honor to Benaroya Hall.”

There are many more such sentiments from audiences near and far, but perhaps the last word should go to Sir Mix-a-Lot, as he proclaimed onstage in 2014 to thunderous applause, “This man is the shiznit!”

Thank you, Ludovic Morlot, for eight transformative years!

You have led us on a journey of unforgettable music, and together we have listened boldly. Make your donation in tribute of Ludovic Morlot today.

Give Now

The Seattle Symphony is grateful to the following donors for your special gifts in tribute to Music Director Ludovic Morlot, and his outstanding contribution to the orchestra and our lives.

Jennifer and Kurt Adair
René and April Ancinas
Rebecca Benaroya
The Larry Benaroya Family Foundation
Paula Boggs and Randee Fox
John Delo and Elizabeth Stokes
Dr. Susan Detweiler
Liz and Miles Drake
Jim and Gaylee Duncan
Jan and Brit Etzold
Senator and Mrs. Daniel Evans
Judith A. Fong
Michael Gandlmayr
Lenore Hanauer
Jean-François and Catherine Heitz
Norm Hollingshead
Nancy Neraas and Michael King
Dana and Ned Laird
Jeff Lehman and Katrina Russell
Marks Family Foundation
Benjamin and Kelly Martz
Yoshi and Naomi Minegishi
Gary Morse and Ellen Bowman
The Nakajima Family
John and Laurel Nesholm
Rosalind Poll
Dana Reid and Larry Hitchon
Seattle Symphony Volunteers
Patricia Tall-Takacs and Gary Takacs
Dr. Robert Wallace

Posted on June 5, 2019