Like many of the so-called high arts, symphonic music suffers from its intimidating reputation as both boring and good for you—a bunch of uptight blue-hairs nodding off in a golden room. The concert hall itself gets pegged as a bank-breaking fancyhaus people attend out of obligation to The Arts, if they even attend at all.
But none of these associations hold up when you consider our hometown symphony. A ticket to see the Seattle Symphony's Masterworks series, which often pairs old-school classical compositions with weirder contemporary stuff, costs way less than the price of arena rock shows and roughly 75 percent less than a ticket to the football game—if you could even get one. The orchestra plays in prisons and in schools all around the city. They play with artists like Pearl Jam and Sir Mix-A-Lot even as they collect Grammys for their recordings of new music. They're a fucking municipal treasure.
But the Seattle Symphony's badassery means bubkes if you don't know how to enjoy the music, or if you had a shitty music-appreciation teacher, or if you think you're going to get laughed out of the concert hall for wearing clothes you can afford. So I sat down and spoke with Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, and I asked him for some tips on how to appreciate the thing he's dedicated his entire life to.
If you've never listened to symphonic music before, what are some tips on engaging with it?
The best thing you can do is to come to the concert with complete openness of being moved by the storytelling. If there's one thing you like about the music, then that should be enough reason to come back to it. The next time you hear the piece there might be three things you like. And then 10. And then 100. And then you can't live without it anymore.
But storytelling implies language. And languages put images in your mind, which are entertaining. How does a violin create a story?
Aren't we born with that language? Before we even talk, we sing. The problem is that when you're 12, people start telling you not to sing anymore because your voice is crap or that it's out of tune because it hasn't been trained. But every human being coming into this world knows how to sing.
My feeling is that playing music with a flute or a violin or a trumpet is that you're just trying to re-create—with a piece of wood or metal—what the human voice does very naturally. We all know that vocabulary, we all know that language enough to link it to some emotions that we've lived through.
Why do conductors always look like they're a little bit ahead of the symphony?
It's something very practical. You have 100 musicians onstage, and they're all creating a sound—but each musician produces the beginning of their sound in a different way. Think of the strings, for instance. They put the bow on the string, and when they do this [he pretends to draw the bow across the strings], it takes some time for the strings to vibrate and produce a sound. Just half a second—not even. If you're blowing a trumpet, the sound comes out immediately. If you bang on the percussion instrument, you just do this [he bangs a glass cup with a spoon] and the sound happens. Boom.
The producing of the sound is very different in every section of the orchestra, so the conductor in some ways has to generate a gesture that can be different for all those different sections individually but also as a whole. When I do this [he holds his arm in the air], the strings will actually respond to my gesture differently from the trumpet or the timpani or the bass or the flute. The violinist might begin to move at the top of the gesture, and the timpani might strike at the end of it [he brings his arm down]. By rehearsing and developing a technique that everyone can read, the orchestra agrees where the note should happen during the gesture or after the gesture happens.
So you're not just a metronome? What does the conductor actually do?
I am the time for them, yes, but it's more like a heartbeat. If I were just the time, the music would be incredibly boring. Like just breathing for 20 minutes with exactly the same pattern, which would be the end of life.
With my right hand I'm trying to create a breath for the orchestra. The left hand usually has more to do with the emotion of the music. If I want them to play louder, I can encourage more power from my left hand or from my body. Or I might want them to play shorter—make one section or another section sing a little bit more.
There are also engagements with eyes, facial expressions. The hands are only about 10 percent of what you do when you conduct. Your body language is very important. It's all in how you breathe, how you use eye contact—just like in a conversation.
What do you do as a listener when you hear something and don't like it?
If there's one thing I liked in it, just one tiny thing, I give it a second chance. There are a couple things I won't give a second chance to. Not only is that okay, and I'm comfortable saying so, but I'll build a case for it! A couple years ago, I played Villiers, a composer that I knew a bunch of people in the hall will not enjoy. Before I played the piece, I turned around and said I expect some you not to like the piece, but I hope that you'll at least love hating the piece! It's not enough to not like it. One has to give it a chance.
People want to see themselves represented onstage. Conductors tend to be white dudes. Your principal timpanist is African American, but the majority of the musicians onstage are white. Is there something that the symphony is trying to do to get more people of color onstage?
We audition musicians behind a screen, so we have no chance to establish a sense of a balance when it comes to diversity. It's about who plays the best that day. We're stuck with what we choose as a matter of artistry. I'd love to have more diversity in our orchestra. I'm aware of that problem.
We try to create a lot of concerts where we invite different communities of people onstage. We have a Celebrate Asia event every year, which features many Asian performers and is embraced by the Asian community as well. We just did a collaboration with Earshot Jazz Festival.
And what do you say to people who think the symphony is too fancy or who otherwise feel unwelcome there?
Symphonic music has become elitist because we made it so. No one should stop you at the door because you're not wearing a bow tie. If some people sitting next to you think that you're wearing the "wrong outfit," that's their problem. We're all there to listen to the music and relate to that live experience with our own emotions.
So what parents should be telling their kids when they take them to the symphony is "Try to hear the story"?
They'll explain a few rules. They'll explain roughly that there are strings, winds, percussion, a conductor. There's a score that everybody plays. Beyond that, the kids have to figure out what that means to them. Maybe they like a violin and want to find more specifics about it. I have no worries about kids being curious. I'm worried about them not even having the opportunity to be curious about it in the first place. And when I say kids, I mean that it can be someone who's 18 years old or just someone who has never experienced it. We're all kids when it comes to that element of wanting to be curious and grow as human beings. Experiencing live symphonic music is part of that process. Join it.Listen Here: Seattle Symphony Offers Free Download of Nu.Mu.Zu