French Conductor Strives for Balance and Authenticity


What do a legendary Spanish rogue, Mozart’s pet bird, the Trojan War, and the sea have in common? Each is the inspiration for one of the masterpieces of orchestral writing to be heard this month at Juilliard on a diverse and interesting program under the direction of Emmanuel Villaume.

The French conductor Emmanuel Villaume makes his Juilliard debut conducting the Juilliard Orchestra in a program of works by R. Strauss, Rolf Wallin, Berlioz, and Debussy, on Monday, Feb. 18, at Avery Fisher Hall.

(Photo by Akos Photograph)

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This is the 44-year-old French conductor’s first guest appearance at The Juilliard School, but it is one of many distinguished performances in a season that includes engagements with the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Oper, and Teatro La Fenice. In addition, this marks Mr. Villaume’s eighth year as music director for opera and orchestra at Spoleto Festival USA.

For Villaume, whose career has centered primarily on opera, the Juilliard program is an opportunity to balance his repertoire. However, as he stated in a recent interview, the musical selections for this concert do not represent “traditional academic programming.”

The program opens with Strauss’s Don Juan, which has “very brilliant orchestration and is full of vitality, and is a piece which usually suits very well the energy of young musicians,” according to Villaume. The tone poem is “one of the first orchestra pieces that Strauss wrote, and he was himself very young when he wrote [it].”

The concert also includes the Berlioz “Royal Hunt and Storm” from Les Troyens—which Villaume calls “one of the greatest masterpieces of the operatic repertoire and certainly of the French repertoire.”

“It’s a piece that is very dear to me,” the conductor says, explaining that it exhibits “of course, the obvious qualities of Berlioz, which are brilliant orchestration, incredible energy, and sometimes even hubris. But you have also something that is rare in Berlioz, which is an immense freedom, tenderness, and poetical evocation. This is a piece that used to be performed a little more than it is nowadays, so I’m very glad to do it.

“Then we have La Mer, which is, of course, in the same way, a total breakthrough and something absolutely unique in orchestral writing. If there is one link among all these pieces, it’s the craftsmanship in the orchestration.”

The concert features a percussion concerto by Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin (b. 1957) titled Das War Schön! The five-movement work, premiered last year as part of Mozart’s 250th birthday celebration, contemplates several different aspects of Mozart’s life, including his status as a Freemason and his relationship with his father, and derives some of its material from Mozart’s works.

Other material in the work is drawn directly from bird calls. Although the relationship between Mozart and birds seems at first somewhat curious, it turns out to be quite logical. As Wallin writes in the program notes to his concerto: “It has repeatedly been suggested that Mozart ‘composed like a bird sings.’ Mozart was also very attached to his pet bird, a starling named Herr Stahr. Mister Starling could sing the main theme of the final movement of his master’s 17th Piano Concerto [K. 453], although with two small mistakes. Mozart included these mistakes in the entry of this theme in his catalogue of finished pieces, and he added the comment ‘Das war schön!’ (that was nice!).”

However, as Villaume points out, the work is far from pastiche, mockery, or imitation. “[Wallin] has imported from Mozart some dissonant chords, but then turns them into chords that are going to sound to us quite harmonious. … The use of glass harmonica, for instance, or the glockenspiel, which are instruments that Mozart himself … used very rarely all of a sudden become the center of the piece. There is a use of classical material which is subverted to serve a contemporary approach.” He said that the piece itself has a unique identity. “It doesn’t sound like anything else and it’s structured in a way that is totally specific to the piece. For me, that’s usually a sign of quality in contemporary music.”

For Villaume, the connections between the operatic and orchestral repertoires are clear. “I think that the opera is a great school for any conductor because you learn the repertoire in a way that is extremely structured,” he says. “You spend a lot of time rehearsing and it requires a certain flexibility and attention to all the complements of the music-making, which is going to be very important to have when you are working in the symphonic field where things are done much faster. Besides, [there are] dramatic qualities that are very important to opera that can be valuable when you do a Mahler symphony. Mahler himself was, of course, conducting all this operatic repertoire. You can’t understand a Mahler symphony if you don’t know your Mozart or your Strauss and even your Massenet, because it’s there in his music, in his symphonies.” Not surprisingly for a conductor, Villaume advocates balance. “If you have dealt a lot with the symphonic repertoire, you are probably going to be very quick to solve orchestral problems that you might not have totally analyzed properly if you were doing only opera.”

Aside from his residency at the Spoleto Festival USA, Villaume does not generally work with student orchestras. However, he says he is looking forward to the experience. “Frankly, usually young professional orchestras are very flexible. If they have an idea of the piece, they are usually open to suggestion and guidance,” he says. “It’s more difficult to get a very important professional orchestra to change its mind than it is with younger players. There is an eagerness and openness with young musicians, especially in the States, that I find extremely rewarding and exciting for a conductor.”

As an artist in the midst of a prominent career, Villaume discussed some of the challenges that face professional musicians. “What the career is going to give to you is very different from what you anticipated,” he warns. “The very reason for which you are doing music—which would be, in the best of cases, a real passion for music in itself and some kind of quest for truth in life … through your dedication to your art—this going to be tested and sometimes crushed by the necessary paths you have to take. … The career is very brutal and sometimes can disillusion you and hurt you ... [and] those musical qualities, that genuine love of the music that you have at the beginning. You can lose it. If I wish only one thing, it is to never lose that real love and desire; to somehow get deeper in my connection to music, to get deeper and more authentic in my quest for a certain artistic truth.”

These words are a wonderful reminder that the simplest goals offer the greatest rewards.

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