BWW Interview: Morlot Part 2: Opera vs. Symphony, Losing Sleep Over Programming, and the Next Generation
EM: Do you feel equally passionate about opera and symphonic music, or do you lean toward one or the other?
LM: I love it all. It's a very different agenda. Opera is something that you control much less as a conductor, a leader, a Kapellmeister. I very much agree with Christian Thielemann when he wants to call himself a Kapellmeister as opposed to a conductor. Kapellmeister has this resonance that we're still musicians doing this as leaders or coaches as opposed to just an administrative role. In some ways opera puts you more into that skin. Conductor sounds very dry to me (Laughs). What I find extraordinary in opera, which I never experience in a symphony performance, is that when all the elements align wonderfully well something is being created at a level where you can just marvel at seeing this unfold so beautifully and naturally. You know you have a very small part in this ultimately, because it becomes exponential to what you've injected into it. I find symphonic music, because of the pattern of how we work - opera unfolds over five, six weeks of work when a symphony production is around four, five days if you're lucky - really is much more dependent on what you as a leader can inject into the performance. There's less time for all the different ideas to merge, and create this cohesive result. So I find opera much more satisfying when it works, but incredibly frustrating much of the time, because a lot of things don't click for the same reasons that they can click. It's not all dependent on you. A singer doesn't show up on that day, or the chorus has to dance around 15,000 miles away from you or the orchestra. All kinds of things happen that can create a lot of frustrations. Ultimately when it comes to the music itself, opera and symphony, no big difference. The operas I love usually have this very strong orchestral craft. But I love the voice. The human voice is ultimately the only thing we can say we try to recreate as beautifully as we can with a violin, a flute, so I think possibly to work with the voice is much more natural and instinctive.
EM: I was so gratified to learn that you'll be doing Ravel's L'enfant et les sortiléges, which I first performed as a student at Tanglewood with Leinsdorf and then at the Met. It's an exquisite, enchanting work, and close to my heart. What made you decide to program it with the Symphony this season?
LM: Ravel of course is a very special composer for me. I started talking to Seattle Opera because we wanted to have a bit of a platform to do opera in concert. So I went straight to Aidan Lang (/seattle/article/BWW-Interview-Aidan-Lang-and-Seattle-Opera-Form-a-Perfect-Marriage--Part-1-20160111 ) because I wanted to make sure if we do this we do it in a way that invites their audience to cross to the other part of town and encourage that adventure of people being curious and not feel like it's one thing or the other. Our orchestra plays at the Opera, in the pit, so it's very important for me to be able to capture some of this artistry and craft they have on stage. Ultimately I find opera performance is always more satisfactory in a concert performance musically when it comes to the artistry. Everyone hears one another better, emotionally you can gain in having productions, so I find it interesting to explore opera in concert. Ravel was not something Aidan was contemplating having in the opera house for some time. I felt it was the right move to start with this rather than with a big romantic opera. We'll have it semi-staged somehow but I didn't want it to be too complicated. I wanted to focus on the interpretation. It's also one of my very fond memories of studying with Ozawa. My first summer as a Tanglewood Fellow, I was assistant on the Ravel double bill at the opera there. Seiji conducted L'Heure Espagnole and Robert Spano did L'enfant et les sortiléges. I was assistant on both. It brings great memories.
EM: Do you feel your affiliation with the University of Washington as Affiliate Professor of Music and Chair of Orchestral Conducting Studies integrates with your work at the Symphony, and what are your goals with the program?
LM: It's a little selfish for me, a position like this, I'll tell you why. I've never really believed that conducting was something you can teach. I think you can create this mentor-protégé relationship with young artists who you think have a voice and have talent. But I'm not a fan of the "traditional" conducting course where you conduct in front of a mirror and pianos. I wanted to be involved with a conducting program only if it could actually involve a real liaison and collaboration between the institution I work with, the Seattle Symphony, and the University program. The selfish point is that my only aspiration to teach, to be involved with conducting students, is because it's a wonderful asset to learn about myself. By trying to help someone develop as a conductor I'm constantly facing a mirror. It's like what you do with your kids at home. The minute you tell them to do this or that, you have to be pretty serious about what you're actually trying to establish. Therefore you have to ask yourself that question - why would I be so convinced about he or she doing or not doing that when I didn't even contemplate it for myself. This relationship from teaching is incredibly valuable for my own sake as a growing artist because I take it very seriously as what I feel I offer them I must contemplate for myself. This is in that sense a role I feel very privileged to be establishing here. I have a wonderful teaching partner, David Rahbee, who I invited from Boston to be involved as director of the orchestra program, which is very linked to the conducting program. We created together an orchestra on campus that meets weekly, where the conducting lessons take place. I wanted the conductors to be able to conduct a full size orchestra, not pianos or quartet. It's all about creating a sound, and when you conduct pianos you don't create anything in terms of sound. It becomes very technical and mechanical. Once we could create that platform for them to work with a live orchestra weekly, then I felt this the kind of conducting program I'm interested in. Of course the wonderful thing of doing side-by-side between the Seattle Symphony and the University orchestras is the great appeal of my own work with the young musicians. This partnership with David, creating this kind of environment, has been very strong and exciting.
EM: This season you will be conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for the first time. That must be very exciting.
LM: It is. It's mainly new music, so there will be two commissions in that concert. Also classics like Ravel's La Valse and some Ives, which I'm really fond of.
EM: Vienna and Ives - how interesting.
LM: It's hard to define what will be the right program making your debut with an orchestra. I'm always being driven making those program decisions. It felt quite right to be approaching that debut with new music combined with the great masterpiece of Ravel.
La Valse is very special to me. Of course it's this great homage to Vienna, but as Ravel was writing it the war broke out. When he went back to the piece, not being able to finish it so graciously, it becomes war music, this kind of ugly, violent piece. So I think it's interesting to do in that context with this orchestra. I've conducted quite a bit in Germany, but not in Austria. I'm eager to make my Vienna debut.
EM: I'm always a bit envious of conductors being able to decide on programs. It must be such an adventure.
LM: Oh, I lose sleep over programming. You can ask my family, my wife. I'm a maniac. The only frustration in getting to do eleven, twelve programs a year here is that it's so difficult to narrow it down to those. Not only pieces of music I want to do but combinations of them that I want to explore. It's fascinating. I have full books at home with programs. I could live for 600 years and still be unsatisfied about it (Laughs).
EM: I know the feeling. I can't live long enough to write all the stories I want to write. Do you encourage your children to learn instruments, or do you just want to give them a love for music?
LM: Until they started school they were backstage at the Opera. They grew fond of not only the music but the whole business around it. As very young toddlers they would visit the costume department, the lighting would have an effect on them, or if someone started dancing somewhere. So they developed this as a language. I don't' have any other aspirations for them but for music to be another language, so that not only they can communicate with that emotionally, but they appreciate it as something that leads to so many good things that can happen in their lives. Now that they're moving into their teenage years they're maybe a little less drawn to performances, but they once in a while not only enjoy but ask for it. That first memory I was telling you about has been very well founded. They also play instruments, violin, cello, sing in choruses, play piano at home. Clearly there's a desire to be curious about and have music in their lives and will remain so at some level. That satisfies me very much. I have no special aspirations beyond that.
EM: Most importantly, they enjoy the experience of music.
LM: And the social element, kids in the neighborhood to play chamber music with. You can always debate about making music your life and profession. I find it's more important they connect to it. If something leads them to be ambitious it would have to be their choice. It would be completely unnatural having music in the house that it wouldn't become natural for them. That's why I mentioned the language element. We speak French at home. I don't see any other way for them to embrace the fact that French is part of their lives. Same with the music. And opera too.
EM: Children are the future audiences.
LM: And we're being very condescending to them, saying, we're going to have to play Peter and the Wolf for you 200 times before you can move to the next stage. It's one of the most exquisite scores, a masterpiece so sophisticated it's not for children but for everybody. My idea of how to engage the young people is to erase all the intimate dating factors about a piece, to come to it at the same level you and I do. That's why I think new pieces and commissions and premieres are a really wonderful introduction for younger generations because they don't feel they have a lack of knowledge or experience with it. They feel completely fresh, open minded as to what it can be. It translates more the environment or sound they're used to. So it's actually a better entry point for them. They will come to love Brahms and Beethoven as well but it sometimes is not the best entry point.
EM: Some music that will make somebody older cringe, kids are totally open to. Their ears and minds are not corrupted yet.
LM: They are a step ahead of where we are. If they don't have this interactive, digital touch where they can control it, it's like 1,000 years old already. Music is no different. If they identify with it emotionally because it's what they taste everyday around them it becomes a very natural step for them, and they will push it further. As opposed to trying for them to embrace tradition and moving into this, they should come from the other way, back to tradition. It's the same way in Sonic Evolution. If they see electric guitar in the middle of the orchestra, it's not alien to them. It's, why not. Even a DJ triggering sound effects, mixing with live violins and cellos, is no bother for them, and why should it be.
As for us we have to digest it.
EM: I applaud you for all you've done so far.
LM: It's courageous but I think if in my position I don't make it happen it never will. We love our audience but we need to grow it. We don't need to comfort the one we have more than we need to encourage a new one to come in.
EM: So admirable, Maestro, and it's been such a pleasure speaking with you. I can't wait to see you perform on September 17th (http://www.seattlesymphony.org/concerttickets/calendar/2016-2017/symphony/opening-night).
LM: Thank you so much.
Photo credits: Lisa Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc