Conductor Ludovic Morlot (left) leads the Boston Symphony and Richard… (Stu Rosner / Boston Symphony…)
Even the greatest ensembles have their rough patches, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is no exception. Having endured the long goodbye of Seiji Ozawa, its 15th music director, who departed after 29 years in 2002, the 131-year-old ensemble faces another wrenching transition. The venerable orchestra is making its way forward following the resignation of Ozawa's successor, James Levine, who announced his departure in March after years of poor health and last-minute cancellations. Yet despite such trying times, the BSO's vaunted reputation for musical elegance and subtlety survives intact.
"There are big power American bands, but that's not Boston's culture of sound," said Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony's managing director since 1997. "Our focus is on refinement and beauty. We can play loud too, but other orchestras have to push to get a certain sound."
So it's no surprise that plenty of music-loving Southlanders are looking forward to the ensemble's California tour, with stops at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara (Thursday), the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert (Friday) and Walt Disney Concert Hall (Saturday). The tour, which begins with two concerts in San Francisco on Tuesday and Wednesday, marks the orchestra's return to Los Angeles after an absence of 20 years.
FOR THE RECORD:
Boston Symphony: A Dec. 12 Calendar review of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Dec. 10 appearance at Walt Disney Concert Hall said conductor Ludovic Morlot was making his local debut at the performance. In fact, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles in December 2007. —
The tour was originally to be led by Levine, but his resignation forced the orchestra's management to seek a replacement. The pinch-hitter is Ludovic Morlot, a rising French conductor who this season assumed the music directorship of the Seattle Symphony. Though he lacks the cachet and experience of Levine — who still holds the title of music director of New York's Metropolitan Opera — Morlot is more than a convenient replacement.
His strong ties to the orchestra date back a decade, to when he was a conducting fellow under Ozawa at Tanglewood, the BSO's summer home. Ozawa then invited him to cover a few concerts during the winter season and later gave him some lesser conducting assignments. Eventually, Morlot auditioned for the job of assistant conductor of the BSO under Levine, whom he had never met. He got the gig and served from 2004 to 2007. Since then, he directed the orchestra twice as a guest conductor before being asked to take on the California tour and two Boston programs immediately prior to it.
Just about any conductor would relish the prospect of leading this storied ensemble, let alone one with the strong personal ties Morlot has to it. But for him, the attraction extends beyond personal experience and into the realm of history. "Their tradition with French music is something I can identify with very strongly," he said, referring to the ensemble's long association with Gallic scores and conductors, including some especially revered BSO music directors. "Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux, even Ozawa had a feeling for this repertoire — not to mention Serge Koussevitzky."
The tour will reflect that affinity by including Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé" Suite No. 2 on the Disney Hall program and Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture on the Santa Barbara and Palm Desert programs.
Morlot cites the orchestra's distinctive character among its chief appeals. "It's clearly an orchestra that doesn't play from the score, but rather from having the music in its muscles," he said. "I don't have to fight to achieve a little crescendo or some rubato. When you do French repertoire with the Chicago Symphony, it takes more convincing or more work to make things happen. They are more a German orchestra. Despite what people say, orchestras have feelings for certain languages, and the BSO has that for French, for sure. They can play lightly and yet keep the warmth, which is unusual."
The conductor also praises Symphony Hall, a brick edifice that has served as the orchestra's home since 1900 and is regarded as among the finest concert venues in the world. But Volpe goes further, suggesting that the hall has actually influenced the ensemble's character. "This hall has very much shaped the identity and culture of sound of the orchestra," he said. "When the BSO goes on tour, we are one of the few ensembles to play in halls less good than our own."
Yet despite its glorious past, the BSO is an orchestra in transition these days. "I think you'll see more changes," said Joseph Hearne, who has served as a double-bass player in the orchestra since 1962, when Erich Leinsdorf was music director. "Certainly the French tradition lasted a long time, and in Ozawa's early years, it was like a copy of Munch. But then he put his own imprint on the orchestra. As for Levine's impact, it's too soon to tell."