Ludovic Morlot Explores French Influences with Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot (Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

In his eighth and final season with the Seattle Symphony, Music Director Ludovic Morlot leads a season-long exploration of Claude Debussy’s music.

By Andrew Stiefel

For his final season with the Seattle Symphony, Music Director Ludovic Morlot will highlight the music of French composer Claude Debussy, who passed away 100 years ago this year.

It’s the final chapter of an eight-year journey.

Together, Morlot and the orchestra have embarked on an exploration of French repertoire spanning more than a hundred years of music by Hector Berlioz, Henri Dutilleux, Gabriel Fauré, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saëns and many others.

Morlot’s attention to the color, drama and distinctive sound of the music from his homeland — and the orchestra’s captivating performances — have earned the Seattle Symphony international acclaim, including two Grammy Awards for a recording cycle of Dutilleux’s major orchestral works and Gramophone’s 2018 Orchestra of the Year Award.

Music of Claude Debussy


As Morlot notes, Debussy’s music requires a special relationship between conductor and orchestra. “Although we’ve done a little bit of music by Debussy in the past few season, I find that this music needs to be done with a conductor and orchestra that have a long relationship,” explains Morlot. “Debussy has so many different layers. You need to have explored all those different layers independently before you can confidently put them all together.”

In his programs this season, Morlot intends to explore Debussy’s influences in addition to the composer’s music. Morlot began the year by pairing two orchestral showpieces from Debussy’s ImagesGigues and Rondes de Printemps — with Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen Suite, a selection of music from the Czech composer’s charming opera about an orphaned fox cub.

“Czech music, and Janacek in particular, is very much based on the rhythm of the language. And I find it especially true for the music of Debussy,” comments Morlot. “It has an articulation that is very close to how we articulate French.”

It’s a pairing he returns to throughout the season. For his final concert as music director, Morlot has paired Debussy’s moody and evocative Pelléas et Mélisande Suite with Janáček’s dream-like and emotional oratorio, The Eternal Gospel, on June 20, 22 & 23. The program opens with a nod to one of Debussy’s influences — Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

“You can’t approach Debussy’s music without touching on the music outside the French sphere that influenced him,” explains Morlot. “Wagner has to be there to some degree. Debussy wanted nothing to do with Wagner’s music, because he knew his influence was so strong.”

In creating his programs, Morlot seeks to create connections between the composers and pieces. For Debussy, that requires a nod to his contemporary, French composer Maurice Ravel. Together, Debussy and Ravel defined what is now regarded as Impressionism in music — a term that both composers rejected at the time.

In his second program of the season on September 27–29, Morlot presents Ravel’s rapturous Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 and the jazzy Piano Concerto No. 2. The concert also includes Debussy’s youthful Printemps, a lush, dream-like work that gradually blossoms into an animated celebration of spring.

Debussy’s Contemporary Influences


For his other programs this season, Morlot traces Debussy’s influence into the present with music by contemporary French composers Marc-André Dalbavie, Pascal Dusapin and Joël-François Durand, who currently teaches composition at the University of Washington.

Following in the French orchestral tradition established by composers like Debussy and his contemporary, Maurice Ravel, all three composers employ highly colorful and sensuous orchestral textures. Dalbavie, in particular, is known for his radiant, saturated scores.

For Dalbavie’s music, live performance matters. His works explore space and color: the same note sounds very differently when played by differing instruments, and even the same note from the same instrument changes when played at different distances or locations.

Morlot conducts Dalbavie’s orchestral score La source d’un regard, September 27–29. The score was written to commemorate the centennial of the birth of French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose ideas about sonority and instrumental color have influenced many composers, including Dalbavie.

The title itself neatly captures Dalbavie’s approach to music — it can be translated as “The Source of a Glance” or variously as “The Start of a Look” or “The Way to Begin Looking.” It invites us to contemplate the music from different perspectives, to enjoy the how the sounds blend together.

Later this year, Seattle Symphony Principal Flute Demarre McGill stars in Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto on April 18 & 20. In contrast to La source d’un regard, the Flute Concerto is a spinning, almost frenetic work that flies from moment to moment until the entire structure crashes to the ground in the finale. It’s a concerto for the orchestra as much as the soloist.

Join Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony for a season-long exploration of French repertoire, including music by Debussy and Ravel!

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Posted on September 23, 2018

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