Orchestra of the Year

Gramophone Awards 2018

Thomas May takes a closer look at the Seattle Symphony, who have won the only 2018 Gramophone Award to be voted for by the public

‘Listen boldly’ enjoins the logo which the Seattle Symphony introduced in 2011 to mark the beginning of Music Director Ludovic Morlot’s tenure. In the years since, that challenge has been directed not just to their audience but to the organisation itself. Listening boldly means acknowledging the need to reimagine its own identity and taking steps to reposition the SSO within an increasingly compartmentalised cultural landscape.

All of which the orchestra has done – and continues to do – with results that have made the music world at large take notice. The vote of confidence by the Seattle Symphony’s own community finds dramatic affirmation in this year’s inaugural Orchestra of the Year Award. This freshly introduced category is the only one of the Gramophone Awards voted for by the public: by readers of Gramophone as well as visitors to the magazine’s outlets on social media. Among the eight shortlisted ensembles, which included such illustrious contenders as the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the London Symphony, Seattle was the sole non-European orchestra. What’s more, the final tally came to an astonishing 41.8 per cent voting on behalf of the Seattle Symphony out of the total number of ballots cast (24,151).

The orchestra has transformed itself into a cherished, integral component of the cultural life of its rapidly growing home city through imaginative programming, collaborations with artists from a diversity of genres, and initiatives that mirror the progressive vision of its audience (including work with the homeless and inmates of local prisons). One especially memorable event was a live-streamed concert last year, planned on the spur of the moment, responding to Donald Trump’s just-announced travel ban. It featured music and musicians from the seven Muslim-majority nations targeted by the ban.

The regular season programming has come to reflect the most enduringly important innovations undertaken in the Morlot era, which have been additionally guided by the vision of former President and CEO Simon Woods (who moved south at the start of this year to take up his new position as CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic – the RSNO’s Krishna Thiagarajan takes his place starting this season). With visionary input by Elena Dubinets, Seattle Symphony’s Vice President of Artistic Planning & Creative Projects, the blend of familiar repertoire with new commissions has won respect among music lovers increasingly concerned about giving a platform to the diversity of creative voices at work today.

Through its recording projects, the Seattle Symphony of course continues to win admirers even among listeners who have never set foot in Seattle. Gerard Schwarz, Morlot’s predecessor, presided over a lengthy discography (on Delos and Naxos), and the Seattle Symphony reinvigorated its approach to recording with the launch of live recordings on Seattle Symphony Media, its in-house recording label, in 2014. The wizardry of recording engineer Dmitriy Lipay naturalistically creates the illusion of being present at one of the Seattle Symphony’s concerts at Benaroya Hall, the orchestra’s headquarters in downtown Seattle, which opened two decades ago.

Lipay won a Grammy Award in 2017 for his work on the last of the three volumes of Dutilleux’s orchestral works, one of several highlights the French-born Morlot has introduced to Seattle during his tenure as part of his efforts to fill in important gaps in 20th-century repertoire and contemporary music: one of his latest releases focuses on the music of Olivier Messiaen. The conductor has also enjoyed enduring success with his encouragement of composers with an aesthetic connection to the Pacific Northwest – most notably John Luther Adams, whose first orchestral commission, Become Ocean, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music; Morlot’s recording with the Seattle Symphony additionally secured the orchestra’s first-ever Grammy Award in 2015.

The Seattle Symphony’s recordings also give a foretaste of a major transition soon to come. In the autumn of 2019, Thomas Dausgaard, who also helms the BBC Scottish and Swedish Chamber orchestras, transitions from his current role as Principal Guest Conductor to become the next Music Director. Dausgaard’s account of Carl Nielsen’s Third and Fourth Symphonies with the orchestra was reviewed in August, and Gramophone chose the Danish conductor’s interpretation of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (in the completion by Deryck Cooke) as Recording of the Month in September 2016. Shortlisted for last year’s Gramophone Awards, the Dausgaard Mahler was predicted by David Gutman in these pages to represent a potential ‘game-changer for all concerned’. How right he was.

Thomas May is a freelance arts writer based in Seattle and is a regular contributor to The Seattle Times.

Two recent recording highlights from the last year are:

Messiaen Poèmes pour Mi etc 

Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot (Seattle Symphony Media) 

'Morlot gives the impression that the entire cycle is moving inexorably towards the climax of the final song (beginning with the line ‘Carillonne, mon coeur!’), which is so euphoric it practically vibrates.' Andrew Farach-Colton (October, 2017)

Read the full review

Ives Three Places in New England. New England Holidays 

Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot (Seattle Symphony Media) 

'In a work like ‘Decoration Day’, however, Morlot’s seriousness – his obvious conviction that every note matters – illuminates the visionary in Ives’s music. The main section of the movement is ravishingly played by the Seattle Symphony, and when the raucous march intrudes near the end, it doesn’t scream or swagger; it swells and soars. A sublime moment – one of many on this provocative disc.' Andrew Farach-Colton (September, 2017)

Read the full review

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2018