Emmanuelle Haïm on her Wiener Philharmoniker debut, repertoire choices, sailing and more

This September, Emmanuelle Haïm will make her debut with the Wiener Philharmoniker. She spoke to Charlotte Gardner about the upcoming debut, becoming only the third woman ever to conduct the orchestra, repertoire choices and sailing.

We’re speaking right now because you will be making your conducting debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in September, as part of the Lucerne Festival’s “Prima Donna” theme. How does that feel?
It’s a huge honour, that’s for sure. I’m really looking forward to it.

What do you think the specific challenges will be in conducting them?
The fact that I’m a baroque conductor is a challenge. However, it’s also a very brave move for the Vienna Philharmonic, because the repertoire we will be playing is perhaps not their usual sort of music, and when you’ve reached such a level of excellency as they have, to do something unusual for you is a challenge. So, I think the project is super-brave for them as much as it is for me.

You’re playing a programme of Handel: the first of the opus six concerto grossos, in G major, then the first and third Water Music suites, and Il delirio amoroso HWV 99 with Sandrine Piau as the soloist. What governed your choice of this repertoire?
With any orchestra what I really want is just to let the musicians take the music and make it theirs, and the thing with Handel is that he’s such a great, universal composer and genius that anybody can grasp his music. The orchestral writing is also quite soloistic for the various sections, therefore, very interesting for the players; so you have to just play. I think also that by bringing a singer into the mix, and one used to the repertoire as Sandrine Piau is, the music begins to speak.

So Handel is a good composer in general to take to a symphony orchestra who aren’t necessarily used to period performance?
Yes, and also Italian music I would say. French music has more codes somehow; more things not really written on the page, so it takes a little bit more time to get into the style. I also think more eighteenth century repertoire than seventeenth century. The latter is technically speaking less difficult, but the further back you go in time, the more familiarity with that music you somehow need to have. For instance, if we talk about early Italian music such as Monteverdi, there is a lot of improvising which would rule out doing it with a modern orchestra, and the instrumentation and pitch also makes it tricky because there are specific ancient instruments that you need. However, there is still a huge amount of repertoire that you can definitely share and give enjoyment with, and in general I think it’s interesting for a symphony orchestra to not cut themselves off totally from ancient music if they like it. I think it brings pleasure and variety to your music making.

You’ve conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker three times, you’ve conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic twice, and the invitations to conduct symphony orchestras just keep coming. What have you enjoyed so far about these conducting experiences?
I find it very striking and interesting the way in which the personalities of different orchestras come across. You feel the heart of an orchestra, the engagement, the passion, the involvement, which each orchestra expresses in very different ways, somehow. It’s very powerful. Besides, if you can construct a long-term relationship with an orchestra, you can develop and explore more specialized repertoire such as French baroque and share it with the players, which makes me very happy.

What governs your decision making as to which orchestras you accept and decline?
The excellency of an orchestra, of course, the beauty of the playing, the flexibility of approach, the open mindedness of the players, and their spirit.

Has it been a conscious decision to work more with symphony orchestras?
Yes, but only up to a certain number. I’m a spoilt child, having had extraordinary experiences with extraordinary orchestras, and I mean to go on with that. However, a bit like the number of children you can have, there is probably a limited number of orchestras that you can work with. I have to take care of my own ensemble, Le Concert d’Astrée, and lots of the projects I do with them are entirely dependent on me, as to whether they happen or not, and also take up a lot of time.

For instance, for the anniversary of the death of Louis XIV, I was asked by the Centre de Music Baroque de Versailles to conduct Cavalli’s opera, Xerse, in the version that had been performed at Louis XIV’s wedding, with the inclusion of the Lully’s ballets which had not been performed ever since. Coming to it, there was only the very badly written manuscript, with the words absolutely unreadable, mistakes by the copyist and much of the music lost. So it takes you time, going back and finding the different sources. I had to reconstruct some of the instrumental lines, including a big part of the string writing. I had to find out what instruments were there, how many, and there were all sorts of weird ones too. For instance there were five sizes of oboe which we reconstructed. So, it was very, very demanding. It took three years. And we’re always doing projects that require writing from me. Then, I also have recital programmess, and I still have to practice the harpsichord too, which should take me a few hours a day. However, all this does mean that when I go to a symphony orchestra it’s holidays, because it’s only music and I don’t have to do anything else. It’s great!

Do you work much on period technique with symphony orchestras, such as how much vibrato to employ, or bowing style?
Yes we do work on that, and also on the specifics of ornamentation. However, you cannot do very much within the few days of rehearsal time you might have. So, rather than necessarily pointing things out I prefer to try to encourage more listening, because people can work out quite a lot by themselves. For instance, it’s kind of obvious that if you vibrate on a dissonance then you undissonance it! Sometimes I sing to illustrate a point, and directing from the harpsichord also helps, because you naturally encourage others to play in a certain way. So, overall I don’t do it so much with words, I think.

Do you ever feel tempted to dip your toes in the romantic repertoire with these orchestras?
No, not at all. I’m already so busy with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so no, and I don’t think I will ever go there. I do absolutely adore all the nineteenth century repertoire, but as a conductor I’ve gone far away from it now. I’m so immersed in the Marais, Delalande, Lully, Cavalli, that I’ve lost the contact.

If we can return to the Vienna Philharmonic for a moment, it would be so nice to not even have to mention the fact that not only are you a baroque conductor but also a woman, and only the third woman to ever conduct them. Does this feel like a particularly special moment to you, or do you want to just get on with it?
When I started conducting I was amazed that people were always asking me this question, because for me it was not a question. I was annoyed to be asked it, would spend each interview wondering when it would come, and most of the time I would answer that it was not a problem. Actually though, with time, and now with over fifteen years’ experience of conducting, I see that it is a question. The conducting world is not easy for a woman, and certain situations are more difficult than others. Definitely, when I am asked by an orchestra to conduct them, I want to make sure that the request comes from the players of the orchestra, that it’s not imposed on them, and that they want to have this kind of experience. Because if not, then I’m not interested in coming; I’m not interested in fighting when I already have plenty of things to do. You also have to accept, as a conductor, that not everybody is going to like you, and this might not be because you are a woman. I try not to think about it and come as I am: I happen to be a woman.

Also, I think society is changing and progressing. If we think back, when my father died when I was five, women in France were just allowed to have a bank account, sign a contract, or make a cheque on their own. That seems to us extraordinary, no? So, I think the lives of tomorrow’s generations are really going to be quite different. The young people are building a new model and I’m just one of those who are perhaps opening the big doors for the future, which I don’t think men are against.

So, going back to the Vienna Philharmonic, it’s all good. I mean, it’s great music that we’re going to play, and I hope they enjoy themselves. Anyway I will!

Being a female conductor is one thing, but you’re a mother too, as am I. How do you do it? Being a conductor and a director is so immersive and time consuming. Does it feel like an achievement to have got to your stage of career whilst being a mother?
Yes, it is an achievement, but my mother combined children with being a psychiatrist responsible for a big hospital, which was something quite unusual at that time. So I was used to that, and I think she showed me by her example that doing what you like in life is very important. Then, it’s a balance to do it and try to share the best of it with your child. My daughter came along with me a lot when she was small. Now, with school, she travels less, so I protect my holiday time with her, and I balance my schedule as best I can. However, I think that’s surely the same for any working mum, and more and more for working dads.

You mentioned the loving what you do, and watching you conduct that exuberance and love comes across incredibly strongly in your conducting. You’ve got a very unique conducting style. How have you developed that?
I didn’t so much think about it. It came naturally, and I think just through conducting I gradually learned what was efficient and what was not. I’ve also had guidance from my colleagues and friends, such as Louis Langrée, Stéphane Denève, and of course Simon Rattle. Simon is somebody who is very generous with young conductors starting their careers. In fact, there are a considerable number of conductors who would not have been, had he not been there. Both he and Louis were very present for me.

Now a fun question. What do you do to relax, or perhaps what would your perfect holiday include?
Ah, swimming! The sea. Sailing, I love sailing.

Really, what kind of boats?
Small ones. River boats, catamarans…. I love the sea. Looking out on it gives you such a feeling of freedom. I love skiing too, and if I could I would ski more. Also I love cooking; I have a huge collection of cookery books, and I love taking time over it, although now I cook less and less so when I do cook I get stage fright!

Does all this come from your childhood? Did you grow up near the sea?
I didn’t, but my mother is from Brittany and I went a lot on holidays there. Then my stepfather, my mother’s second husband, was a Hungarian adopted by Swiss people, as were a lot of Hungarian refugees. So, we did a lot of skiing in Switzerland when I was a child, and walking there in the summer.

Wonderful! Now, just looking ahead to the future, you’ve got debuts with two other symphony orchestras in forthcoming seasons, with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. What are you looking forward to with both of those?
Those are glorious orchestras, and again I love sharing my repertoire and the music I like, so I hope we will enjoy each other. There’s a sharing process between an orchestra and a conductor. There’s an exchange. So, for my part I come as prepared as I can be to give them good moments.

Emmanuelle will make her conducting debut with the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Lucerne Festival on Thursday 8 September 2016, in an all-Handel programme featuring soprano Sandrine Piau. For more information, please see the Lucerne Festival website.

Emmanuelle will conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker again on Saturday 17 September, at Theater an der Wien. For more information, see the Wiener Philharmoniker website.

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