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He is one of the most sought after exponents of Mozart of our time. His amazing talent first burst on the scene when he conducted the Monnaie Symphony Orchestra in the Marriage of Figaro in 2009 and Idomeneo in 2010. However Jérémie Rhorer wants to escape being pigeon-holed and dreams of new experiences in the classical repertoire, even venturing into the verismo style of Puccini. To celebrate his much awaited return to Brussels, this young conductor will tackle, for the first time, Felix Mendelssohn’s superb Midsummer Night’s Dream with the much acclaimed recitalist Dame Harriet Walter. He has decided to perform this work alongside Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, which was a kind of homage by the composer to his illustrious predecessors, Haydn and Mozart.
Mendelssohn and Beethoven – what are the links between the two composers you have chosen for this concert?
There is certainly a link in the established canons of, on the one hand, classicism and the Beethovian development which is completely integrated within it. But what I particularly like about Mendelssohn, and which is sadly not often noticed, is that he was one of the first orchestral colourists. He used the orchestra to create musical imagery which had no equivalent at the time, with perhaps the exception of Weber, and which was carried on quite clearly in the work of Wagner. I think that, contrary to the label he has got stuck with, Mendelssohn was, in reality, absolutely essential to the birth of German romanticism, certainly as much as Weber. With this programme we are in the presence of two great thinkers linked one to the other and who complement each other. They were both very influential in the symphonic and operatic music of the 19th century. What’s more, Mendelssohn helped to forge the German fairytale imagery. This aspect is perhaps not very present in Beethoven, but it is essential in Mendelssohn’s work and we don’t give him enough credit for it.
You seem to be a big fan of Mendelssohn …
I think that Mendelssohn is unique in the history of musical composition. He was one of the first, along with Weber, to create a musical imagery linked to atmosphere, scenery, light and nature. He managed to find figures which became almost canons themselves in a musical sense. This is a fundamental aspect that is not emphasised enough to my liking. There is a particular spirit in all his work. I am thinking, for example, of this movement of whirling, intoxicating strings which is really characteristic of a type of orchestral writing that will give encourage the development of the orchestra and will influence the French composers. Mendelssohn is the meeting place of several aesthetics. He belongs to the Mozartian culture, was trained in the Beethovian style and is almost part of the French aesthetic. I think a lot of composers will recognise themselves in his work, particularly Ravel. This kind of astonishing clarity, the overlapping of voices both elegant and refined, which is not at all flat as many critics imply, but is thought-out, clear and controlled and I think that the poetry is born out of this control. Like Ravel, the orchestration itself is poetry. Mendelssohn never chooses a timbre or an instrument by chance. The arrangement of the harmonies is never left to chance, either. He is someone who probably had the best ear that ever existed on this earth.
How would you characterise Beethoven’s 8th Symphony?
The 8th Symphony is truly the essence of classical music. It is virtually the most classical of all the composer’s symphonies. It is however also very hard to classify as it falls between two monuments. It makes a strong reference to Haydn, particularly in the second movement. It is effectively homage to what Beethoven owes to his ancestors in the classical canon. This symphony also pays homage to a certain precision that one can particularly observe, for example, in the second movement, and which produces a particular atmosphere, inspired by the clock and quite unique in his creations. As much as the first movement seems to be an echo of the Pastoral there is also, at the same time, something in the order of a memory of something he has worked at so hard, distorted and shaped. A kind of original mould which is especially moving.
Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a very well-known work but rarely played in its entirety.
For me, Midsummer’s Night Dream is a bit like the Nutcracker, it is a succession of masterpieces! It is a model of musical construction. All the pieces are melodically inspired; they carry a certain atmosphere and a very special world. In this work there are qualities of transparency, energy and rhythm. By playing this work in its entirety it is the best way of paying homage to him. What is interesting is the musical purity of Mendelssohn which comes from an unusual, and finally unfathomable, work by Shakespeare.
You are used to conducting ‘period/authentic’ orchestras but here at the Monnaie you will be conducting a modern orchestra.
It’s true I do tend to think that, particularly for Mendelssohn, the nature of the instruments is directly linked to the transparency. A wooden flute for example is very airy, diaphanous. As to the string instruments of the period, the bows allowed for very fast and light articulations which one can reproduce with modern instruments but it is, of course, less idiomatic and it demands greater dexterity. I have always thought that there was a link between the text and the texture. I fully understand that we cannot achieve total authenticity but I truly believe, like Ravel, that it is important to stretch towards perfection, in order to rediscover undreamt of aspects of certain music that has been condemned by history as heavy, awkward or pompous. Finally you realise that dusted down, revived, reborn, they can absolutely find the public’s wavelength and be of interest. This is true for newly discovered works, but it is also true for works that have been known for ever that can be rediscovered in this way.
You are a real specialist in the classical repertoire but with this programme you are touching on the music of the 19th century…
As a matter of fact I am touching on it more and more! I think my training has been that of a musician who understood the importance and what is at stake in this revival of baroque music and who wishes to take it further into the repertoire which stretches into the late 19th century – music to which I am naturally drawn. Apart from with the Vienna Philharmonic, I no longer play Mozart other than with instruments of the period. All the engagements I have elsewhere are linked to the Romantic repertoire. I have conducted Brahms’ A German Requiem and several of his symphonies, a lot of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and in the future I hope to conduct a lot more of Mahler and Strauss. There are lots of works I would like to revisit, and there are many in particular that seem to be monopolised by German culture. This is an idea that we need to rise above for in this repertoire there is so much and so many poetic aspects to be explored, in Brahms, in Wagner, in Mahler… And in opera, Puccini! In Puccini there is something fiery, tragedy in its uncompromising sense that I find really interesting. I am fascinated by the strength of what is at stake psychologically in this music…
interview by Marie Goffette