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Originally published June 29, 2010 at 3:03 PM | Page modified June 29, 2010 at 6:56 PM

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Rising French star Ludovic Morlot chosen to replace Schwarz at Seattle Symphony

It's official: The Seattle Symphony Orchestra's baton will be passed to a 36-year-old French maestro, Ludovic Morlot, when Gerard Schwarz steps down from the music directorship a year from now. Morlot assumes the title of "music director designate" this fall.

Special to The Seattle Times

Ludovic Morlot

French-born Ludovic Morlot (LOO-da-vick More-LOW) trained as a violinist, and later studied conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in London and then at the Royal College of Music. A former assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony (2004-07) and conductor in residence with the Orchestre National de Lyon (2002-04), Morlot has a long relationship with the Paris new-music Ensemble Intercontemporain. He has led most of the world's major symphonies on three continents. Morlot and his wife and two young daughters live in his birthplace — Lyon, France — but will relocate to Seattle.

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

By the numbers

Full-time musicians: 91

Conductors: 3 (music director, assistant conductor, director of choral activities)

Annual performances: 230

Annual attendance: 320,000

Budget: $22.5 million

Discography: More than 125 CDs on 7 labels

Source: Seattle Symphony

Melinda Bargreen, Special to The Seattle Times

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It's official: The Seattle Symphony Orchestra's baton will be passed to a 36-year-old French maestro, Ludovic Morlot, when Gerard Schwarz steps down from the music directorship a year from now.

Morlot assumes the title of "music director designate" this fall, at the beginning of the 2010-11 concert season, and becomes music director a year later, when he starts an initial six-year contract.

Schwarz, music director of the symphony since 1985, assumes the title of conductor laureate in the summer of 2011, when his current contract expires.

In 2011-12, Morlot will conduct a minimum of eight weeks during the regular concert season. He will conduct a minimum of 13 weeks each season through the end of his initial contract in 2017. Symphony sources declined to discuss compensation.

Boyish and energetic, Morlot is known as a consensus-builder. He made a positive impression on both the musicians and the audiences in his Seattle debut as guest conductor last year, and again in his return in April.

"I'm very grateful," Morlot said of his appointment in a phone interview last weekend from Algeria. "I will bring all my energy and love for music to the orchestra. They have unbelievable enthusiasm and energy, and they listen to each other like they were playing chamber music. We can both grow together."

Schwarz, now in his 25th season as music director, announced in September of 2008 that he would step down when his contract expires in June 2011. A search committee was formed, headed by Nancy B. Evans, former Washington first lady and a longtime Symphony board member. The committee kept mum about the search, and the consensus in the music community was that it might take a long time to act.

This week's announcement took many by surprise. But Morlot's recent last-minute re-engagement as a guest conductor last April when another conductor canceled was surely a signal that the committee wanted to hear and see him again.

According to search chair Evans, that last-minute substitution helped confirm Morlot as the committee's unanimous first choice, because he showed "remarkable poise, artistic presence and leadership qualities" under stressful circumstances.

Seth Krimsky, the orchestra's principal bassoonist and a search-committee member, termed Morlot's hiring "very exciting," citing Morlot's rapport with the musicians and his successes with top orchestras. Orchestra spokesman Timothy Hale said the players looked forward to a bright future with "an enhanced national and international presence and continued artistic growth."

At 36, Morlot is fairly young in a profession in which octogenarians often are still active. But Seattle has a history of mid-30s music directors: Schwarz was 38 when he became music director in 1985 (36 when he took the lesser post of music adviser). His predecessor, Rainer Miedel, was 37 when he became music director in 1976.

So what kind of a music director will Morlot be? He is new to this post, having been a frequent guest but never the top artistic presence of a major orchestra. American orchestras are different from European ones, who generally receive more state subsidies and rely less on individual and corporate donors. The ability to cultivate meaningful relationships with music-loving donors — an arena in which Schwarz moves with the agility of Baryshnikov — is crucial to the success of a music director, who not only conducts but is the top artistic administrator of the orchestra.

In Seattle, the Symphony music directors have been the musical figurehead of the city, active in education, charity endeavors and ceremonial occasions. The Symphony management was therefore relieved to hear that Morlot and his family will relocate here.

"Absolutely, we will live in Seattle," says Morlot. He and his wife, Ghizlane (a translator and landscape designer), have two daughters, Nora (7 ½) and Iman (4 ½).

"I want to be part of the community. I want to know the city and its people."

Morlot has already demonstrated a strong interest in music education, conducting the Netherlands Youth Orchestra on tour. He excels in wide-ranging repertoire, both traditional and contemporary. And he has earned lavish praise for his work with major orchestras: last month, a Chicago reviewer called him "the fabulous 36-year-old Frenchman who's fast become a welcome face here," and an Atlanta critic observed that "Morlot will soon be big-time." (Morlot has appearances scheduled this summer at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival; the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts; and Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado.)

Asked to characterize the Seattle Symphony, Morlot responded that it's too early: "It's like coming into a new family. You can't summarize a person unless you know them more intimately. But first off it is clear this group is striving for excellence and the love of music. I want to listen to them and learn more."

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for classical KING-FM (98.1). She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.


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