If you're a gifted young conductor, how do you get noticed? One way is to take the podium on short notice, substituting for a famous maestro who is ill, and do such a terrific job that the orchestra and the public beg you to come back and conduct again. The most famous instance of this is, of course, the 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein's substitution for Bruno Walter in a 1943 nationally broadcast concert with the New York Philharmonic.
The French conductor Ludovic Morlot had his "Lenny moment" in February 2006, when he was called in to replace Christoph von Dohnšnyi, who was sick, to lead the Philharmonic in a polished performance of familiar Romantic works : in addition to a complex, challenging piece by the contemporary American master Elliott Carter. The accolades that followed these concerts were echoed in Baltimore, Chicago, and at Tanglewood, where Mr. Morlot made similar pinch-hitting appearances with major orchestras.
These were just the dramatic highlights in a career that has been building steadily since Ludovic Morlot, trained as a violinist, took up conducting at age 20. Now 34, he has since been engaged many times in his own right, not just for fireman duty. At the New York Philharmonic alone, he returned three times in 2007: for Concerts in the Parks, the Orchestra's residency at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, and a single Rush Hour Concert the following October.
Yet, while he is such a familiar figure in these parts, in a way he is still making a debut with the New York Philharmonic in his January 8 _10 concerts, leading works by Mozart and modern French composers. This is the first time the Orchestra has placed its faith in him to produce a week of programming. This month audiences can witness the result of an almost two-year planning process, in which the conductor consults, proposes, discusses, and negotiates with one or more soloists, Philharmonic administrators, and the Orchestra itself to create one piece of the puzzle that is a Philharmonic season at Avery Fisher Hall. When he steps onto this stage to conduct the Orchestra in January, he'll be facing an audience accustomed to hearing the world's best. That's a "real" subscription debut.
Often the starting point in creating a program is a concerto or other work suggested by the soloist, so Ludovic Morlot began planning this concert by getting acquainted with the soloist engaged for that week, the Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen. "Of course, I knew of his fine playing," the conductor told me recently by phone from Chicago. "But this will be my first encounter with him, working together. I like working with somebody new. It opens up my mind to new ideas."
Mr. Mustonen is known as, among many other things, a superb Mozart player, and so he and the conductor settled on Mozart's Concerto No. 11. Then, drawing on his own skill in French music and Mr. Mustonen's interest in more modern works, Mr. Morlot added a work by Messaien, and orchestral pieces by Debussy and the contemporary pioneer Tristan Murail. How will Mozart sit with these modern French composers? "Sometimes you want all the pieces to relate to each other," the conductor said, "but sometimes contrast is more interesting. Each piece reveals itself."
Still, it's not difficult to trace a line from Debussy's revolutionary ideas to Messiaen's adoration of nature to Murail's "spectral music," especially in Mr. Morlot's conception of them. The popular La Mer has been called Debussy's Romantic symphony, but this conductor says, "Erase 'Romantic!' He opened the door to Stravinsky, so he had no nostalgia for symphonies. Erase every previous performance you've heard. We have to make it new."
The organist and composer Olivier Messiaen studied bird calls extensively, cataloguing them and composing with them. Mr. Morlot says that Oiseaux exotiques is "the first Messiaen bird-call piece that works as a piece of music. It is freer in recomposing than the others. More than 40 different bird songs in a short span of time! Yet it's very simple to follow."
Born in 1947, Tristan Murail leads a school of composing known as musique spectrale, in which composers work as much with the acoustical spectrum as with musical scales. The technique may sound arcane, but it creates the kind of colorful and expressive world of sound that Debussy would recognize. "I love spectral music, and the Philharmonic hasn't done Murail yet," Mr. Morlot said. About the piece which he is leading in its U.S. premiere, Gondwana, named for the supercontinent that broke up to make today's continents, the conductor has described
it as "Murail's most successful large orchestral piece. You can feel the massive geological processes in it."
The phrase "massive geological processes" can also describe what it takes to bring an important new conductor to the Philharmonic's podium. Audiences will witness the result this month.
David Wright is a former Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic.