The Orchestre National de Lille (ONL), with Music Director Alexandre Bloch and pianist Eric Lu, are in the UK this week for a tour which takes them to Birmingham, London, Newcastle, Sheffield and Leeds. A key hope of the tour is to strengthen Franco-British relations by bringing together business decision-makers from the Hauts-de-France region and the UK, its primary foreign trading partner.
Senior Associate Director Rona Eastwood caught up with Alexandre and ONL’s General Director François Bou to discuss intercultural exchange and sustainability.
“I think the role the orchestra plays in its territorial ecosystem is very important,” François told Rona. “We are economic and political ambassadors as well as cultural, so it makes sense for us to tour only if we are useful, helping the development of economic and business links.”
In an initiative precipitated in part by Brexit and subsequent uncertainty, the orchestra will travel with 40 people from the business sector in the Hauts-de-France region, who will meet more than 80 British counterparts.
“The fact is, with an extremely positive and constantly growing trade balance (€2 billion in 2017), the region is particularly dependant on its British neighbour,” the orchestra’s management has noted. “This situation has evolved out of a long, shared history, during which strong business links have been forged. At present, 5,500 businesses in the region trade regularly with the United Kingdom, and 32 have at least one subsidiary in Great Britain … Whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU, the ONL firmly intends to work towards maintaining ties between the two territories.”
In a time where it is essential that we all consider our impact on the environment and strive to cut emissions, it’s interesting to note that orchestra, management, conductor and soloist will all travel exclusively by train during this tour, including from Lille to the UK. As well as being practical, both François and Alexandre acknowledge the importance of sustainability, and how it must play influence in touring decisions.
“Being a conductor means I travel a lot, it is something I do in my daily life,” Alexandre said, “but I know it is not good for the environment. Maybe there is a future in making the ONL known to the world by sharing media online and on social networks?”
“Indeed, our concern about our environment certainly makes us think more carefully about why and where we’re touring,” François added. “We need to have a strategy and should not only tour for the sake of touring. I don’t feel the need to tour very far away. Let’s start with our neighbours!”
There is clearly a desire on both sides of the channel to continue the ties that have developed. Both Thorben Dittes, Director of Royal Northern Sinfonia and Classical Music Programme at Sage Gateshead and Toks Dada of Symphony Hall, Birmingham – two of the five venues on this tour – spoke at a press conference in December at the Institute Français in London of their determination to retain these links, whatever happens in the political and economic climate.
“Given the social and political uncertainty of this time we think it’s really important to continue to strengthen these international connections, invite international artists and orchestras to Birmingham and really surpass the uncertainty that currently exists internationally around the UK and its place in Europe,” Toks said.
“I think as Alexandre has a history performing with us, it shows how the personal connection can create really meaningful European interaction and exchange,” Thorben added. “I’d love for my orchestra to come to Lille at some point. We’re already touring to other parts of France. I think that is what Europe is all about and I am absolutely determined that whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations we stay open and connected to the rest of Europe.”
Alongside the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the repertoire for the tour celebrates the quintessential French flair of Ravel and Debussy. This includes La mer, a particularly significant work in Alexandre’s musical journey, his interpretation having earned him First Prize at the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition and an Assistant Conductor position with the London Symphony Orchestra back in 2012. The final concert of the tour will be something of a homecoming for Chinese-American pianist Eric Lu, returning to the scene of his victory at the 2018 Leeds Piano Competition.
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28 January, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
29 January, Cadogan Hall, London
30 January, Sage Gateshead, Gateshead
31 January, City Hall, Sheffield
1 February, Leeds Town Hall, Leeds
RAVEL Ma mère l’Oye
DEBUSSY La Mer
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major with Eric Lu
RAVEL La Valse