BWW CD Review: Seattle Symphony, Morlot, Pay Homage to Henri Dutilleux
Not many conductors have the privilege to be mentored by a living composer. Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot counts himself a part of that echelon. After studying contemporary master Henri Dutilleux's (1916-2013) The Shadows of Time as a 2001-2002 Fellowship student at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home at the Tanglewood Music Center, Morlot sought out and met with Dutilleux in the composer's Paris home.
The younger and older musician bonded together in a huge way. "He made an important era of 20th-century music come alive for me," says Morlot, "And in the process deepened and enriched my understanding. I feel grateful to have known him."
Since starting his tenure with Seattle Symphony in 2011, Morlot has championed Dutilleux's music, and has made it his mission to promote the composer's works, both in concert and in the recording studio. The resulting Grammy award winning 3-disc project, recorded with the orchestra over the past several years, has been a labor of love for the conductor.
Dutilleux's finely detailed, impeccably crafted music shows him to be a master of atmosphere, and of exciting, pulsating rhythms: a rare combination of Pointillist imagery punctuated with a rainbow palette of orchestral color and timbre. It's absolutely arresting to the ear, and despite its Stravinskian harmonic luster, recognizably French. Morlot says the beauty of Dutilleux's music captivated him from the very first moment. "I wanted to start a journey with the orchestra because I believe exploring this music would generate for our musicians a different way of making music together," he explains.
Volume 1, released in 2014 (https://www.amazon.com/Dutilleux-Symphony-monde-lointain-Shadows/dp/B00IXWIGDK/ref=sr_1_3?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1470694782&sr=1-3&keywords=henri+dutilleux), received three Grammy nominations: Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Instrumental Solo by cellist Xavier Phillips and Best Engineered Album. The second volume, released in 2015 (http://www.seattlesymphony.org/watch-listen/recordings/dutilleux2), received Grammy nominations for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album, and won the Grammy award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo by violinist Augustin Hadelich. The latest in the series, Dutilleux: Volume 3, releases on August 12 of this year, to help commemorate the centenary of the composer's birth.
"This final installment encapsulates all that we've accomplished on this repertoire over my tenure so far, and I think Dutilleux would have taken great pride in the fact that his music is being played so often in Seattle and with such dedication," says Morlot, who
feels that the orchestra's journey with Dutilleux's music has helped The Players acquire a fundamental understanding of the composer's extraordinary body of work.
"From day one when we played the Violin Concerto back in 2011, to today in 2016 when we end up with a Grammy with the recording of the piece, I feel the 4 or 5 years have allowed us to understand this music with such intimacy."
Indeed, Morlot's crisp yet sensitive conducting, accentuated by the exquisite, impeccable orchestral playing on these recordings, reflect a keen grasp of the composer's style. Grammy award winning violinist Augustin Hadelich holds a similar view. "When I came to do this recording in 2015 I was really impressed with how well Ludovic and the orchestra know the style. I can't imagine a better orchestra to play Dutilleux with."
"I feel the orchestra has fallen in love with this music, which is a big statement, because when you embark on something like this you take a bet," says Morlot. "You say, 'Look, I believe this music is something you're going to be playing wonderfully well, that you have to know intimately. I want you to love it as much as I do, because I'd like to tell that story to the community and the world with you.'"
Seattle Symphony principal bass JorDan Anderson confirms Morlot's sentiments. "I'm grateful to Ludovic for opening my mind to this new composer, whom I probably would have come across but not really explored," Anderson says. "It's really expanded my awareness of some incredible colors and sonorities I wouldn't have heard before. It became this odyssey over years and years."
Simon Woods, Seattle Symphony president and CEO, feels that the project's focus on recording all of Dutilleux's major orchestral works reveals much about the orchestra's individual identity. "Landing on the idea of Dutilleux as a composer to focus on was probably a stroke of genius. The music was unknown here in Seattle...much less known in the US than it should be," he says. "For Ludovic it's been a tool to work with the orchestra to grasp the distinctive 'sound world' of French music."
Woods is justifiably proud of the orchestra's own recording label, Seattle Symphony Media, and feels fortunate in having world class recording engineer Dmitriy Lipay overseeing the process, especially in a radically changed recording industry atmosphere. "In the old days the orchestras were always subservient to the needs of the label. The advantage of having our own label is that we can use it to reflect what we stand for," Woods says. "I think when you listen to the sound of these recordings they really capture the sensual feeling of Dutilleux's music, the sound of the orchestra in Benaroya Hall, in a most wonderful way."
Clearly Morlot's personal and professional encounters with Dutilleux were life changing. He speaks fondly of the precious hours he spent in conversation in the composer's typically small apartment on the Île Saint Louis in Paris, where the young conductor would sit with him at a grand piano, every inch of which was occupied with scores, photos and papers. "The first thing he would offer you when you walked into his apartment was an aperitif, a martini...he always was a very warm host," says Morlot. "During those conversations we would talk not only about the music but also literature and the visual arts. Then I would ask about stories of Paris of the 30s, 40s, the era I never got to know."
Just one brief question from Morlot would elicit a treasure trove of memories from the composer of his encounters with the musical greats of that time: Darius Milhaud, Honegger and more. "To hear him talking about Ravel and Roussel and Prokofiev, Stravinsky and so on, when he was in Paris - the musical heritage was phenomenal," Morlot remembers. "It was like getting in that cab from Midnight in Paris and traveling back 50 years. Each time I would call him and say, 'would you have a little time to see me?'" He would say, "Oh, I'm very tired... why don't you just come for a few minutes." And then a few hours later we were still having those wonderful conversations."
Morlot's fond remembrances extend to his very last encounter with Dutilleux, who despite his infirmities and the limitations of old age still preferred accompanying his guests down the flight of stairs of his second floor apartment to bid them farewell from the street. "I had to insist on that occasion that it's not going to happen because he was suffering so much," Morlot says. "I remember walking on the Île de la Cité in Paris and turning around. There he was in the window waving good-bye.
"Dutilleux was so much more than just this beautiful painter of sonic sounds and landscapes. I find that his music will change us because it has so much wealth. It grabs your heart, and imagination, on the very first listening."
CDs may be purchased at Symphonica, The Symphony Store, at Benaroya Hall. Digital downloads and CDs are available through iTunes, Amazon, Qobuz, Primephonic, Acoustic Sounds and HD Tracks. Recordings can be streamed through Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Rhapsody and Microsoft Groove.
Photo credits: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc