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Philippe Béran’s career has taken him off the beaten track. With a desire to pass on his passion for music to the new generation, the Genevan conductor shares his enthusiasm with the audience. As a connoisseur of the universe of silent films, the maestro will conduct La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra for the first time in a performance of the work which Pietro Mascagni composed for Nino Oxilia’s film Rapsodia satanica (1915). This is certainly a unique event which is nevertheless perfectly suited to an opera house.
Your background in music and science is somewhat atypical. Can you explain the influences which these disciplines may have on each other?
I have a scientific background, having studied physics at the University of Geneva where I began working on a doctoral thesis. At the same time, I studied music and received the clarinet award in Geneva and Paris, and soon became interested in conducting. I was quite young when I met my wife and we started a family early (four children), so I chose to teach physics, mathematics and music. Afterwards, I stopped teaching and devoted myself entirely to conducting. Initially, I had not chosen to be a conductor: my love for it just made it happen. My studies in physics influenced my way of thinking and analysing. There are many similarities between scientific thinking and musical thinking, in particular when it comes to conducting an orchestra, which requires analytical thinking. With a score of 1300 pages and millions of symbols, you must ‘simply’ assimilate them and produce something meaningful. Sound fascinates me. It is extraordinary. And Mascagni’s work is a real treat.
Currently, you devote yourself entirely to your work as a conductor. What are your favourite areas?
I often make use of my ten years of teaching experience in what I do: symphonic music, opera, ballet, concert films, etc. I love ballet and conduct them all over the world. I also give many concerts for children and families, adding commentaries and adapting the programme of course. Similarly, I often conduct operas for children. This is another one of my specialities, in particular at the Grand Théâtre in Geneva. In this case as well, the short format and the search for the right form when dealing with an uninitiated audience really interests me. Finally, I also love conducting concert films. I have a lot of experience synchronising films and music, and I love precision. It must be because I’m Swiss! One needs an internal clock for such a big challenge!
Pietro Mascagni has written about fifteen operas, and is known especially for his famous early opera, Cavalleria Rusticana. In what way does Rapsodia Satanica differ from the rest of his works?
Rapsodia Satanica is a fascinating work because Mascagni is, perhaps, in the whole history of music, the only great opera composer who was asked to write music for film. In 1908, Camille Saint-Saëns wrote the first original music for film for L’ Assassinat du duc de Guise. With Mascagni, in 1915, the genre was still in its early stages. Mascagni’s score was written for a huge orchestra (woodwind times four, brass times four, etc.) This raises the question as to the sort of venue which could accommodate such a big orchestra in front of a screen, apart from an opera. Rapsodia Satanica is a mad undertaking. By accepting such a challenge, Mascagni demonstrated a wonderful spirit of openness.
How does one write music for film? How does Mascagni’s music for opera differ from what he wrote for film?
Nino Oxilia, the director, showed Mascagni all of the scenes from the film as they were being edited. Mascagni timed them and memorised them all – DVDs weren’t around at the time. He began composing based on this information. The film has four great dance interludes: a gavotte in the beginning, a scherzo for the scene in the park, a polonaise for the ball and a minuet. The rest is accompanied recitative, as heard in the great Italian operas from the beginning of the 20th century. Puccini was not far away. It also has many leitmotifs, in particular for the character of Mephistopheles. In fact, this is an instrumental opera. The score is that of a great opera composer: it is detailed and grand. It is also very surprising. Of all of the films I have seen – and I have seen many – as far as I know, this is the only one in which the composer gets the actors to sing, like in a true opera. There is therefore not a true difference between Mascagni’s operas and the music he composed for Rapsodia Satanica, apart from his main concern, which was the timing imposed by the different scenes.
It is unusual for La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra to play the accompanying music for a silent film. Can you describe the orchestra’s role?
It is a great honour for me to conduct this orchestra in these circumstances. In order to understand its role, the two experiences must be considered separately. If you watch a well-made film, it is already brilliant in itself. If you listen to a good performance of live music, it is also brilliant. But when music and images are in sync, an exceptional phenomenon takes place, referred to as ‘resonance’, which is an astronomical emotional overdrive. When you watch the Charlie Chaplin films for which he wrote the music, you go from laughter to tears, because the music acts as an absolute resonator of all of the emotion in the film. And in Rapsodia Satanica, if we respect Mascagni’s wishes, the music is all the more powerful emotionally since it is played by a huge orchestra.
Can you explain how this type of concert is prepared?
In theory, the preparation is simple, yet the realisation is much more complicated. For a conductor, a film score represents three times as much work as a normal symphony concert. First, there is the musical preparation per se, as in any symphonic programme, followed by a meticulous study of the film, scene by scene, shot by shot, and finally there is the process of synchronising the two. All of the tempi and fundamental reference points in the film must therefore be perfectly mastered for the synchronisation with the images. Personal preparation is decisive. In fact, since there is never much time for rehearsals, the first synchronisation with the orchestra must be nearly perfect. There is no room for mistakes. This is not easy, but it is very exciting!
Interview by Sophie Briard