Tuesday: Dresden. Friday: Stockholm. Monday: New York. For some, the jet-setting lifestyle is an elusive and exciting dream; for the French conductor Ludovic Morlot, it is business as usual. The young and accomplished Morlot, 35, is one of the conducting world’s rising stars, and this season is likely to prove very important in the development of his career. Having already led such ensembles as the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, Mr. Morlot is anticipating his debuts with the Cleveland Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, and BBC Philharmonic. This spring will also witness his first appearance with the Juilliard Orchestra, with which he is looking forward to a satisfying musical collaboration in the preparation of an interesting and diverse program.
Mr. Morlot, formerly assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony under James Levine, made headlines three years ago when he stepped in for an ailing Christoph von Dohnanyi to conduct a series of subscription concerts with the New York Philharmonic. He took over for the venerable maestro with very little time for preparation and was greatly lauded for what The Times hailed as “fluid and lucid” results.
Particularly interested in composers who were active around the turn of the 20th century, Mr. Morlot has selected an unusual pairing of works for his first collaboration with the Juilliard Orchestra: Ives’s Ragtime Dances and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. In a recent telephone interview from Paris, he explained his choices. “I always wanted to do the Symphonic Dances alongside something that would clash [with] it but that would really go well with it,” he said. “I came up with the idea of the Ives Ragtime Dances for many reasons. First, Ives and Rachmaninoff, even though they come from completely different backgrounds, are almost exact contemporaries. I thought it would be interesting to see what two composers with completely different backgrounds but living at the same time would write.”
In addition, he was attracted to the fact that both pieces were written in America, albeit in very different languages. In these two sets of dances, each composer references his own work as well as the vernacular music of his respective homeland. Also, both made the decision to integrate the saxophone into the “classical” orchestra. “The use of rhythm in those two pieces is very exciting, I find, and very modern,” added Morlot, who will be conducting the Ives for the first time. “It’s the first time I’m going to pair those two works together, so I hope it works.”
He remarked, however, that when it comes to orchestral music, American composers are still largely unknown in Europe—another reason he is eager to conduct the Ives. “I like American music,” he said. “Many times I have tried to program [Ives’s] Three Places in New England with well-established European orchestras, but it’s always a big struggle and a hard sell. Ives is almost completely unknown on this side of the Atlantic.”
Diversity is of great importance to Mr. Morlot, who considers his programming choices carefully. “I always try to find some kind of contrast that makes one listen to a familiar piece with different ears,” he explained. “If you hear a Mozart symphony after you hear Ligeti, somehow you hear it differently than if you hear it on an all-Mozart program.”
Mr. Morlot said he is pleased to have the opportunity to work with Juilliard musicians, particularly the student conductors, whom he hopes will feel free to observe rehearsals and ask questions. “I find that young conductors are a little bit preoccupied with technique and I find that, in general, technique is only an issue if it’s a problem,” he remarked. “If your musical ideas are strong enough, I think we don’t even have to talk about technique. I always found that the most valuable advice I got from conductors was [from] watching them conduct as much as possible.” He also noted that it is critical to “have the courage to ask questions when you have them.”
Mr. Morlot, who values the collaborative aspect of music-making above all others, noted cheerfully that the role of the conductor is not what it used to be. “The relationship between conductor and orchestra has changed. It’s more democratic. It’s about making music together, [and an] exchange of musical ideas.”
Perhaps it is this attitude that has garnered him so much success, especially in circumstances where, even in the early stages of his career, he has been asked to substitute for much older, more well-known maestri. “Of course it’s nerve-wracking,” he said, “of course it’s intimidating. When you stand in front of the New York Philharmonic for the first time, you have a clear level of humility that you must put across; the players will feel that. If you are willing to learn from every musical experience and musical encounter, I find that the process is very natural.”
“When I get in front of Juilliard players,” he concluded, “I will have as much to learn from them as they have from me.”