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Once again, conductor Ludovic Morlot has gone off the beaten track and is presenting a concert programme full of contrasts. The parallel between Olivier Messiaen’s transcendental world of sound and the eccentricity of Richard Strauss shows some daring. In addition to the performances in Brussels, this concert – which places great emphasis on La Choraline, La Monnaie children’s choir – will also be given at the Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival.
The programme for this concert is surprising in terms of its contrasts, in particular between words such as ‘Liturgies’ and ‘Burleske’. What motivated this choice?
The starting point was our collaboration with Renaud Capuçon, artistic director of the Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival. Richard Strauss is one of the main themes of the Festival’s programme. One therefore expects to hear A Hero’s Life or Zarathustra. I tried to present this composer in a somewhat unusual light. His Knight of the Rose and Burleske are interesting, as these works are not often performed. With La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, I wish to create a different programme and explore contrasts: bringing together Richard Strauss and Messiaen in the same concert is in keeping with this idea.
What role do these two composers play in your work?
I love these two composers because of their special style. This is exactly what I am looking for: the exploration of an original approach. Although I sometimes find Strauss’ music to be a little ‘superficial’ – with an overabundance, an exuberant style, a lightness which we find in The Knight of the Rose – it is what makes it so attractive and interesting. I really like Messiaen’s works such as Quartet for the End of Time, Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus, etc. Each work by this composer is an experience: one cannot listen to it without being transformed.
Messiaen’s music is singular in more than one way. He used terms such as ‘sound-colour’ and ‘stained glass window’ effect. Furthermore, faith plays a dominant role in his work. Can you tell us about these two fundamental aspects?
Faith is essential, indeed. But it is crucial to be able to translate it into realistic emotions. This sacred element is found in Jenůfa, which I am conducting for the moment. Fundamental values are evoked, such as truth and beauty, as well as jealousy, which is highlighted in order to condemn it better. The religious dimension in this work transcends these values somewhat. I am convinced that one may appreciate Messiaen’s music and identify with it, without necessarily having faith. Nature is also very present in it: the singing birds, the colours associated with sounds, etc. We think of bright orange, the sunset and the light going through stained glass windows.
Music with a mystical inspiration, yet with an earthly rooting... I am thinking of the composer’s research on bird songs. What would you like to say to people who will hear this work for the first time?
The size of the orchestra and the orchestration may be surprising. It was the middle of the 20th century, with a string ensemble, a piano, ondes Martenot and a women’s chorus. The work is divided into three movements: God’s presence in us, God’s presence in light and God’s presence in everything. This may be interpreted in several ways; we may also interpret ‘God’ as being that which is most dear to us. It brings to mind an excerpt from the text written by Messiaen himself: ‘The yes which sings like an echo of light’. The words go together so well with the music.
Music between heaven and earth.
A work composed during World War II. Music of liberation?
That is how I interpret it. The composer takes great musical freedom in a religious subject. It is a true message of hope.
With Strauss, the atmosphere changes. First of all, you are presenting Burleske, an early work, and The Knight of the Rose, which is from the same period as Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence. The two works by Strauss are separated by more than half a century. Why this choice?
Above all, as I have mentioned, it is because I feel that these works should be played more often, especially Burleske. I love Strauss’ early works; he was only twenty years old when he composed this work. The Knight of the Rose is somewhat different, but we are more interested in the Suite here. I enjoy creating a programme with contrasts, presenting works whose subtle thematic link is perhaps not detectable when one reads the programme, but rather when one hears the music. It is true that presenting Burleske after the Liturgies is almost like thumbing one’s nose at it. And with The Knight of the Rose Suite, we end the concert in a more entertaining atmosphere.
For the pianist, Burleske is a very complex work from a technical point of view. How is your collaboration with Bertrand Chamayou?
It is wonderful. I have already played Messiaen with him: Exotic Birds, in a concert in Frankfurt. We also presented a Stravinsky concerto there. Chamayou is a true virtuoso in this repertoire. Burleske requires this skill. Initially, this work was intended for pianist Hans von Bülow, who had refused to work on it, considering it to be too complex and impossible to play. This shows us how much the piano technique has evolved over a century: today, it is not unusual to meet thirty-year-old pianists who are able to excel in this type of work.
You are getting to know La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra. How is your collaboration with the musicians progressing?
I have only been working with the orchestra for one year; this relationship is still very new. One may only claim to have a true influence on an orchestra of this quality after four or five years of working together. But after one year, I have a better idea of the repertoire I wish to explore with the orchestra. For the human and artistic cohesion of the group, it is equally as fundamental for us to perform away from home; this will be the case at the Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival. This is an extraordinary opportunity.
How have you approached the vocal work in Three Small Liturgies?
At first, I had imagined a collaboration between La Monnaie Women’s Choir and La Choraline, the children’s choir. But I began to feel that the mix of voices was perhaps not appropriate. I wanted a very pure and uniform sound; I was looking for a sort of naivety in the voices. Chorus master Martino Faggiani, La Choraline conductor Benoît Giaux and I agreed on the idea that the result would be more beautiful if we could obtain this vocal specificity. This is why we have decided to work only with La Choraline.
Is this a challenge?
Yes it is. When performing these liturgies with the voices of young girls, one of the major difficulties is the range. Messiaen’s style is very demanding and requires endurance. He composed for a high range: the singers must often reach a high A note, which is very tiring for young girls. This is also why I had initially thought of reinforcing the chorus with women’s voices.
Is it also important to be able to give this concert more than once?
Yes, of course. We are lucky to be able to perform twice in Brussels before going to Aix. It is always more satisfying to make a performance grow after several concerts. In this sense, the Knight of the Rose Suite is also a good choice: not only is this work appealing in itself, but the orchestra has already performed the opera. The musicians have an understanding of the work as a whole.
Interview by Fabienne Flamand