Symphony conductor putting Seattle music back on the map

by: Steve Raible Updated:

SEATTLE - If there's one thing Ludovic Morlot wants you to know: A night at the symphony isn't just for your grandparents anymore.

Since he took the baton in 2011 as maestro of the Seattle Symphony, he's encouraged a new generation, and different demographic, to visit Benaroya Hall. He's knocking down misconceptions about the symphony experience -- in a way few conductors have achieved. He does so by embracing, even encouraging, non-traditional music genres in the symphony's calendar of performances.

The result? Rave reviews. A pair of Grammys. And performing part of the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning film "The Revenant." Whether it's Mozart or Macklemore, Ludovic Morlot makes it very clear: All music is created equal.

"It might sound a little bit cliché, but for me, music is still the universal language," Morlot said. "This is the language that we can all communicate with. I can meet someone that speaks only Hungarian, that speaks only Serb, and we could take a violin and the piano and we can have a fabulous time."

For Ludovic Morlot, music has been his language since childhood. He wasn't exposed to music in his immediate family, so both of his grandfathers were the inspiration for an early love of music.

"The real passion for me started when I started going to concerts," he recalled. "I don't remember what music I went to listen to, but I remember the experience."

Those experiences defined his childhood, and shaped what would eventually become his career as a musician. His instrument of choice: the violin. Morlot spent a lot of time alone as a child, and he felt "great company" in listening to music, he said.

"Sometimes I would just come back from school and I would almost pick the violin just as a companion," Morlot said.

Today, that kid with the violin wields the baton as maestro of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. In his early 40's, he's one of the youngest conductors of a major American orchestra, and one of the most "in demand" as a guest artist around the world. At Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle, the man they call Ludo is driven to inspire his musicians and his audience. Driven to make his symphony the "heartbeat of the city."

"I would say we have two missions," he said. "One is artistic excellence in everything we do. From playing Mozart, to pop programming, to kids concerts -- family concerts, to community projects."

His other mission is the symphony's relevance in the Seattle community. During his time in Seattle, Morlot has adopted grunge and embraced popular tunes. He folded them into the fabric of the symphony in a way that's putting Seattle's vibrant music scene back on the map for another generation.

In 2014, Sir Mix-a-Lot brought the house down on the Benaroya Hall stage as part of the symphony's "Sonic Evolution" series celebrating local musical icons. Morlot also helped the symphony bring home two Grammy awards: one in 2015 for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. The symphony's first ever Grammy came a year before that for Best Contemporary Classical Composition of John Luther Adams' "Become Ocean." It's a performance that was later featured in the Oscar-winning film "The Revenant."

"When we win the Super Bowl, we take great pride in those achievements," Morlot said. "It's the same when the Seattle Symphony wins a Grammy, and the whole city is celebrating."

For those who might think the symphony experience is for older folks, not something young people do, Morlot is quick with a rebuttal.

"The only people that say this -- they never set foot into this building [Benaroya Hall]," he said.

Super Bowls and Symphony performances are rarely mentioned together, but Morlot frequently compares his artistry in leading the symphony to prowling the sidelines of Seattle Seahawks games.

"I'm the coach of the orchestra," he said. "When you go to a football game, occasionally you wonder what Pete Carroll is doing on the sideline, but at the end of the day, you just won a great game. That inspires you to want to go back to the stadium and build that passion for the game."

Like a good coach, Morlot knows it is the players that fans come to see, and in this case "hear." His job is to prepare and to get out of the way. On a perfect night, he wants the audience to know they've heard a piece by Brahms, and have to ask themselves 'Oh, by the way, who was conducting tonight?'

"This is also where I can start really enjoying the music making," he said. Because then it's not about me. It's about what is being created and that's bigger than me at the end of the day."

Morlot lights up when he talks about Seattle's music culture and the local audience at Benaroya Hall.

"Our audience is attentive ... we are spoiled here," he said. "So many audiences are noisy. You know, they run out of the hall before the last chord so they can get to the parking lot before everybody. Seattle is very different."

Morlot also says the Seattle audience loves "old stuff" as much as they love "new stuff." "They love to hate something as much as they love to love something," he said.  

Dialogue like that keeps Morlot energized and inspired to lead the Seattle Symphony into the future.

"I can't emphasize enough how privileged I am to be having this life, you know?" he said. My only regret is I'd love the days to be twice as long as they are."