Alain Altinoglu, Musical Director of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, conducts a trio of Russian works on Thursday 10 October. Ahead of his appearance at the Barbican, we chatted about his time in Brussels, performing as a pianist and how he got into conducting.
Last time you conducted the LSO, in March 2017, it was described as ‘a concert of extraordinary sophistication, dynamic daring, brilliant transparency and supple phrasing from the London Symphony Orchestra and the French conductor Alain Altinoglu’ (The Times). What was it like working with the LSO then?
It was a real joy to make music with the LSO! You never know how it’s going to be when you conduct any orchestra for the first time. I remember the rehearsals were fun and efficient and The Times obviously enjoyed the performance very much!
Back then, you were enjoying your first season conducting the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. You're now in your fourth season. Have there been any particular stand-out moments so far?
Yes, a lot! I would say musical highlights have been some Wagner like Tristan and Isolde or Lohengrin, Russian repertoire like Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan, our Beethoven cycle, the list goes on…
I have to say I am very happy as Musical Director of the MM (that's how we write Théàtre de la Monnaie/de Munt). The orchestra have made impressive improvements and we know each other so well that we are able to create amazing performances on increasingly fewer rehearsals.
You were trained as a pianist before becoming a conductor – what prompted the change?
I always loved listening to orchestral music. When I was 12 years old, I transcribed full orchestral scores to piano reductions. At 18 I started to work as a vocal coach in many different theatres and I became an assistant. One day, the conductor (Denis Russell Davis) couldn't make a rehearsal because his wife had gone into labour! I jumped into the pit and conducted the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris. The musicians told me that it was great and that I should continue, and I followed their advice!
When did you first become interested in orchestral music?
When I was 7, I think, my grandfather gave me some very very old scores of some Beethoven symphonies. They were so old that I had to turn the pages very carefully if I didn’t want to destroy them! I listened to the symphonies while following the scores and was totally fascinated by the combination of sounds and colours.
You are conducting an all-Russian concert with the LSO this season, with some well-known repertoire on the programme. How did you put together this programme?
I always try to create programmes that have links between the pieces. When I learnt Simon wanted to play Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, I thought 'we need an opener that's not too long and with a relationship to Mussorgsky's Pictures'. So I thought about Sorochintsy, a piece which is not performed so often.
How does conducting a programme like this compare to conducting opera productions in Brussels?
An opera production is a very long process and the conductor is a cog in a very big machine. The rehearsal schedule can last for as long as six weeks in Brussels and I often conduct between 8 and 10 shows of each production. Here in London I have three rehearsals before one concert!
'Mussorgsky takes your hand at the beginning of [Pictures at an Exhibition] and leads you along a beautiful path…'
In your eyes, what makes pieces like Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition so enduringly popular?
It’s difficult to say why some pieces are so popular. I think with Rachmaninov, it’s about the Romanticism in the music, how the piano can sing like a human voice surrounded by a sensual orchestral sound.
Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition has a very subtle mix between old Russian music and refined French orchestration. It is full of marvellous colours and you can imagine very well the pictures, even if you haven’t seen them. It’s as if Mussorgsky takes your hand at the beginning of the piece and leads you along a beautiful path until the explosion of the last chord.
As a pianist yourself, what excites you about working with Simon Trpčeski for this concert?
I've already worked with Simon once before in Brussels. He is not only a fantastic pianist and musician, but also a very nice and fun human being. He even said a few words in Armenian to me!
When you get the chance to perform as a pianist yourself, what do you most enjoy playing?
It depends on my mood. It can be Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, not forgetting of course Debussy and Ravel. I really enjoyed playing a recital of German and Spanish songs with my wife Nora Gubisch last week. Next month I will be playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and I can’t wait!
Aside from music, what keeps you busy?
My family! Playing chess online, football (I support Paris Saint-Germain), hiking, reading, cooking (though not often enough), maths and black holes. All sorts!
Alain Altinoglu conducts a programme of all-Russian music, featuring Mussorgky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2 with soloist Simon Trpčeski, on Thursday 10 October. Click here to find out more and book tickets.