We’re meeting up in the midst of a busy season for you. I’d love to talk about the new production of Janáček’s Jenůfa that you will be conducting at La Monnaie this month. This is an opera with intensely powerful music, a harrowing story, and your production will be directed by Alvis Hermanis. It all sounds incredibly exciting…
Oh, it’s unbelievable. It’s so enjoyable, not only because of the force of the music and the story, but because of our staging. Alvis wanted to recreate different elements of Moravian folklore, and we’re depicting this through continuous Nijinsky-style human frescoes of dancers, so the set looks like a live, flowering picture. This dance element is then combined with outstanding voices and beautiful costumes. The production is about beauty and is very simple, and Jenůfa itself is about very simple feelings but also very strong ones. I think that’s why people relate to it very easily when they listen to it: because it’s about family, jealousy, and the search for truth. The story is also one that you can decide to relate to in different ways depending on where you’re at in your own life, which I find fascinating.
The craft of storytelling is obviously huge for you.
Oh it is. Well, you know, I’m a performing artist. This is why I do not like to read reviews of my concerts in the arts sections of newspapers. For me, it’s clear that every time we stand on stage as musicians, we start from scratch. We don’t paint a Beethoven symphony, leave it on the wall and come back to it. You might have been playing the oboe for twenty years, but every night you still have to start afresh. This is why I like sporting events so much – because they are not so different from musical performances: you need the discipline, the preparation, and then the adrenalin builds up and there’s no way back. It’s magnificent, and if you paint the wrong colour on the canvas you can’t erase it. You just have to live with it.
You’ve just started making recordings, and the journey involved in that process is rather different because it does give you the possibility of creating something more “perfect”. Your first CD was Bruneau’s Requiem with La Monnaie last year and in a few months your first discs with Seattle Symphony Orchestra will be released. How do these recordings dovetail with your views on performance in general?
Well, with the idea of making a recording you touch on something very interesting, and the reason why I’ve delayed so long in making my first CDs. I don’t listen to many recordings myself. I’m someone who just goes out and listens to live music when I have the opportunity, because that’s what makes me really vibrate. I never particularly wanted to record before I had my own instruments because I felt it didn’t make sense to go into a studio with an orchestra I didn’t know, a soloist I didn’t know, and put a piece on disc that we didn’t even perform together in concert. I wanted to have my own orchestra, and from that relationship create performances that we felt might make people want to return to them again and again. I don’t look for perfection in a recording, with all the notes right, played at the right time, with the right intonation. If it happens it’s great, but I think it’s more important to capture the spirit of a live performance. For me, a recording is more of a souvenir. So that’s why I delayed it a little bit because I wanted to have that opportunity. I think the Bruneau with La Monnaie was the first concert I did with them as Chief Conductor.
So, it’s a souvenir!
Exactly! It’s a kind of record of my debut with La Monnaie orchestra that we can turn back to it in a few years as a little witness of the beginning of our collaboration.
The Bruneau is a rather neglected work. What drew you to it?
I picked Bruneau partly because this orchestra has a French tradition, but also because I really wanted to do something with the chorus. After all, La Monnaie is an opera orchestra – this is their strength. Furthermore, this requiem has some really beautiful pages. Yes, it is uneven, but it’s a piece that deserves to be heard, and there weren’t many recordings available. Likewise, when it comes to future projects with La Monnaie I’m hoping to always try to provide repertoire that is less available on the market, so that we can be creating the sorts of recordings that people will want to refer to, hopefully.
You’ve got two exciting debuts coming up in May, at the Carnegie Hall and at the Barbican. What are you most looking forward to about these? First, the Carnegie Hall…
Bringing the Seattle Symphony back on to the East Coast so early into my tenure with them is exciting. Our concert will be part of the last annual Spring for Music festival. It will be a programme of French and American music, but with a very local flavour as well. We’ve gone for Debussy’s La Mer, Varèse’s Déserts, and in the first half we will repeat a 45-minute one-movement work by John Luther Adams that we commissioned last year. He is based in Mexico, but he lived in Alaska for a long time and writes beautiful frescoes of that landscape. His piece is called Become Ocean, and the premiere last year was quite exciting because it was his first big orchestral work. He has had terrific and successful projects in New York with other pieces of his, so the fact that we can go to New York and present his first big orchestral work is tremendously exciting. We’re hoping to have a recording linked to it as well, which would be wonderful.
Then, the Barbican…
Well, each time I return to London it brings back so many memories of my student days, when I was studying my Masters in conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. I often used to go to the Barbican back then, because Sir Colin Davis was still at the London Symphony Orchestra. I miss him dearly of course, so I can’t go to the Barbican without thinking about him.
How will it feel to be standing on the Barbican stage rather than sitting in the stalls?
Well, I think when you’re onstage you don’t really think about such things. You just try to make the best music you can. However, what will be meaningful for me is the fact that it’s the first collaboration with the BBC Symphony in a performance. It’s also a beautiful programme – we’re doing the Fauré Requiem alongside Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias, and I hope that we’ll give our audience a true perspective on the Poulenc. It’s a raw piece. It’s not a buffa, comic opera, but something more serious. I’ve had a chance to perform it at the Opéra de Lyon, and in Paris at the Comic Opera a few years ago, so to come back to it is going to be very exciting.
Do you think it makes a difference to be a Frenchman conducting it?
I think it does, because with this work it’s so much more about the text than anything else. It’s not a must, but now I’m doing Jenůfa and I wish I spoke Czech. Poulenc is a song composer, so with him it’s ultimately all about understanding the text, although I think it’s even more important to have singers that can deliver it. Still, there’s something about the rhythm of the French language that I think is instinctive. I’m not sure you can explain it, but it’s true for every language, and the more you can get into the bottom of it, the more at ease you are with the piece.
You’re conducting twice in France next season, with the Orchestre National de France, and in Aix-en-Provence. Do conducting gigs in your home country carry a special significance and enjoyment for you?
Yes, performing in France is always going to be a pleasure. Actually, I wish I had more time in my schedule to do more outside of Paris, because every year the only date available seems to be one week there. I’m from Lyon, I love the orchestra there and the opera is terrific. I’ve conducted once in Strasbourg, and once in Toulouse, and those are beautiful places to work, with beautiful people. Aix-en-Provence was an invitation from Renaud Capuçon, who created the Easter festival there. I will be conducting my orchestra of La Monnaie doing some Messiaen and Strauss.
What a season to have to look forward to. Is there anything you’d like to add? What are you anticipating with the most pleasure?
Well I always have two perspectives: the long and the short term. The short term is tomorrow night’s performance, whatever that is, because ultimately the Next Thing is what you really focus on and want to be the best experience of your life. As far as the long term, if I can keep doing what I’m doing now for the rest of my life then I’ll be the luckiest guy on earth. So, the long term is that I can pace myself properly so that I can still be doing it with passion in thirty, forty years from now.