François-Xavier Roth continues his series After Romanticism on Sunday 23 April. We caught up with the newly-announced LSO Principal Guest Conductor to talk about the series, his new appointment, the Panufnik Composers Scheme, and why he thinks the LSO is the best French symphony orchestra at the moment.
To start with, you were recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO. Could to tell us about how it feels to be offered this position after such a long relationship with the LSO?
Ah, it’s a great honour to be welcomed into this London Symphony Orchestra family, and to have the opportunity to build, with this orchestra, great projects here in the UK and on tour. We’ll be able to achieve even more and work together intensely. That’s what I love to do as a conductor with an orchestra.
'I think the London Symphony Orchestra is really one of the very few examples of what orchestras are able to do at their best.'
This orchestra is one of the best in the world. The LSO has always been a source of inspiration for me, in the sense that they play all the symphonic music absolutely beautifully. But not only that, this orchestra is unique in the world. The way they consider themselves in the city, close as a people, to the communities, and always asking, ‘what is a role of the orchestra in our time?’ I think the London Symphony Orchestra is really one of the very few examples of what orchestras are able to do at their best. I think that regarding the composers, regarding the repertoire. They promote the young players, they promote amateur activities, I mean it’s really impressive. For this reason, I feel so lucky to be part of this family. It’s a great pleasure and a privilege to make music with them.
Going back to when you won the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, how has your relationship with the orchestra has grown over that time? How does it feel to compare you experiences from then to now?
I first worked with them 17 years ago, although I knew the Orchestra before. It was the first orchestra I conducted here in the UK and it was for a special occasion; the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition. In 2000, I won the competition with the great conductor Pablo Gonzalez and it was a revolution in my life. What is very moving, when I look at these years, is the way that they took care of me. They looked at me in a very special way during those years. You know an orchestra can be an amazing human being machine. But sometimes it can be terrifying or destructive, sometimes a bad example for you, that can happen. But with the London Symphony Orchestra, they take a long-term look at people. I was a baby conductor 17 years ago. Now I am 45 years old and not a baby anymore, so it is very moving to look back and to see how generous they were with me. And not only with me, also with many other young conductors. This is a very generous orchestra.
Your After Romanticism concert series that you are doing this season with the LSO, how did that idea come about?
This cycle, After Romanticism, interests me very much at the moment, because there is this crucial time in music history, at the end of the 19th century in Europe, that just is so rich. This was a time of such difference. In that one moment, we have Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, almost Bartók. So I thought I would like to present a series of concerts in which we can experiment with the music that was composed almost at the same time, but with such a diversity. I think for the Orchestra, it’s very challenging and demanding in terms of repertoire. There are several difficult pieces in the same concert. But that makes it very exciting for the audience to have a concert with all the different aesthetics of the time, and to experience, once again, how music in Europe was so rich and diverse.
In this particular concert on Sunday 23 April, you’ll be playing Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. How does that piece of music fit into Debussy’s outlook and career as a musician? And how does it fit with the music of this particular time which, as you say, is so rich?
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is Debussy’s first major work really. Very often, people say it is the first piece of the modern era. It’s like the Op 1 of modernity. In this work, you can hear that music will never be the same as before. It’s something to do with the form, the language, with the way that he uses a special orchestra. More than that maybe, this aspect of how the sensation of time, perception, and also of space, is suddenly completely different. Often, when we play this piece, I can feel that people in the audience do not feel the same. It’s almost hypnotic as a piece, but with the London Symphony Orchestra, I think the air has another weight. It’s a great piece.
It is also fascinating to see Debussy repeatedly corrected the piece. He was a kind of maniac, well in his whole life, but particularly with this special piece. He wanted to improve and improve and improve. Sometimes it is difficult because as a performer you have to ask, ‘What do you play? The the last version or the initial gesture?’
The piece feels new, modern and I couldn’t live without it. And you see Bruckner wrote his Ninth Symphony at around the same time, but you couldn’t think of something so opposite. I’m not saying that one is good and one is not good – they are completely different – but it shows how you can have two really different directions at the same time. One is looking at the 20th century and one looking at the 19th century. It really was a problem for composers, to resolve this question of how music could develop again. Because we have a system, we are talking about a language, a form, and so what do you do? You can consider that there is a limited amount of possibility in music. This is why it is so interesting to combine these pieces in one concert, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, with the Fourth of Bruckner, and the Bartók Viola Concerto.
Let’s talk about the Bartók Concerto for a minute. Of course it was famously unfinished. How do you view it when compared to his other late works like the Concerto for Orchestra?
The viola concerto is not a surprise when we know Bartók’s language. It has a lot to do with the late period of his production. For sure, it is, in a way, a little bit frustrating when you don’t have the whole thing finished by him, but we have enough elements to finish the piece for him. The melodies are great, the way that the treats the viola as a soloistic instrument, which was quite uncommon at the time. It works extremely well. The colour of the instrument fits so well in the music so I think that it’s a great thing to perform this work. Even if it’s not finished completely, we have enough elements that we should dare to do that. I have to say, Antoine Tamestits is such are great soloist. He has such a sound and he really puts his instrument forward, with new pieces as well as works like the Bartók. He recently did a piece by Jörg Widmann, a composer who’s also close to my heart. So he’s a champion of his instrument in our time and it’s a great pleasure to do that with him.
And what about the Bruckner, why Symphony No 4?
Well Bruckner Symphony No 4 is called the Romantic symphony. It’s maybe one of his best-known symphonies, and it’s the definitive example of late romantic Bruckner. So you have a kind of counterpoint in this programme. The modernity of the Bartók is set with the romantic Bruckner, which was written at almost the same time. And Bruckner is so fascinating, sometimes people say he wrote only one symphony but tried nine times to achieve it.
It’s also very interesting to compare it to the Debussy. Bruckner and Debussy are both very interested in the perception of the time and how they can develop that in music. The process affects your perception of the time and for this reason, I love Bruckner, and this symphony especially. The way he took performers and the audience to another place. If people believe in God or their god, he can put us in a situation where it’s a ceremony and where we can think of such deep things. If we don’t believe then that’s okay, but he puts us in a clear atmosphere to consider those thoughts. There’s not so many composers, who you feel respect the people that much. It’s not a very intrusive kind of music or a music that forces you to be in a certain position. You can really think of so many different things listening it and at the same time it’s absolutely committed, and absolutely persuasive, and with such respect. I admire that a lot. Maybe, in part, because he was an organist and my father is an organist. I like this way of writing music from an organ. When you’re at an organ console it’s something very special. You can experiment with the sound and the harmonies in a special way. I had a bit of this experience through my father. I was very often at the organ in Sacré-Cœur, Montmatre or Saint-Sulpice, so it is very close to my heart. And the orchestras love to play this music. It is exhausting, especially for the strings because you play this tremolo all the way through, but it’s like a bath of healthy everything for music.
You’ll also be giving the UK premiere of Debussy’s Première Suite d'Orchestre next season. What can you tell us about the process of going through and finding this lost score?
So Premiere Suite by Claude Debussy is a very interesting and funny story because it’s an orchestral work that he composed when he was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire. We knew the piece existed but we did not have the score. And we originally discovered the music through a version for two pianos. Four movements. So we knew the music through the piano but we didn’t know where the parts were. And then suddenly it was discovered in a library in New York. And then, I had the privilege to premiere it. Can you believe! At the time of Debussy it was never premiered. So we played it for a special occasion. It was for Debussy’s birthday 2012 and the Cité de la Musique, which is now the Paris Philharmonie, asked me to conduct the premiere with my French orchestra Les Siècles. So it was on period instruments. But of the four movements, we had only three completely orchestrated by Debussy. The third movement was not complete. So, I asked a great friend of mine the French composer Philippe Manoury to orchestrate it.
So we rehearsed the piece, we played it in concert, we recorded it, and it was absolutely moving to do a new work by Claude Debussy. We were also able to discover what his influences were at that time. The piece is very much to do with some of the older composers, like Massenet, Gounod, Delibes, who were his mentors in a way. You can hear these influences, but at the same time you can also hear some Wagner as well. He’s such a gifted composer and he already had such mastery of how to write for orchestra. I’m so glad that I’m going to do the UK premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra. Every time I have conducted this work, for sure with Les Siècles, but also with the Berlin Philharmonic for example, the musicians are fascinated by this young Debussy. It is a face of Debussy that we don’t know that well. So I think it’s a great opportunity to experiment with a young composer who was already so very gifted.
What sort of qualities does an orchestra need for this kind of music?
I think that you need an orchestra with a culture of colours and a knowledge of how French music should sound. I think the LSO may be the best orchestra for French music, because they have this culture of colours. I can really feel, even today, the effect of their Pierre Monteux years. It’s something that’s stayed in the orchestra so much. There are so many works they played with Monteux and that’s still there in the parts, there is a tradition of colours in this orchestra. Yes, it’s not a joke, the London Symphony Orchestra may be the best French orchestra at the moment with this culture and colours in their playing.
'Yes, it’s not a joke, the London Symphony Orchestra may be the best French orchestra at the moment'
You’ve been involved with the LSO’s Panufnik Composers Scheme for many years now, how did you come to be involved with the project and what do you enjoy the most about it?
I can’t remember how many years ago we started, but I remember very precisely when I was asked. In the beginning, it was an experiment. It was not planned necessarily to be the project it became. But it was a strong concept. Camila Panufnik came and said, ‘I want to support the young composers’, like her husband wanted to do, ‘and the LSO is the best orchestra to do it with and let’s start.’ So we did. We had a certain amount of young composers selected, we workshop, we rehearse, we play through the lengths of the pieces. The lengths of the pieces are very organised, also the size of the orchestra etc. So the experience at the beginning, was absolutely a total success. It was something fresh. You had an audience attending to these workshops in LSO St Luke’s, seeing the players asking questions of the composers. Colin Matthews was there as a mentor and as the in-between for the young composers and the orchestra, and I was conducting. Ever since then, I think that personally, I couldn’t live without it.
I think what initiated the London Symphony Orchestra with this scheme is the absolutely a necessity of this programme. It is unique. You don’t see orchestras at this level committed to young composers in this way. Brilliant composers – I shouldn’t say young – the brilliant composers that are selected for this scheme, they have different aesthetic ways and you find such variety of music and voices. It’s not in a certain style and now they have created a community of composers around the orchestra. I don’t know how many there are, more than 70 I can imagine. So there’s an amazing richness with these young composers. I think it was successful because the LSO has this vision to be a symphony orchestra that is really committed to new music in an organised, very sustained project like the Panufnik Scheme. To that, I say chapeau, bravo.
'The LSO has this vision to be a symphony orchestra that is really committed to new music... To that, I say chapeau, bravo.'
It is a pleasure and a challenge for me, because every time I have so many pieces to prepare and to work with the orchestra. I’m very used to modern music. I love it. I love to be close to the creation of our time. But I have to say, these workshops are very special because it all happens in one day. In just one day we premiere ten very different works. For my brain, you can’t imagine how healthy is it, because my brain works at 300%. My ears feel like they are going to explode at the end of the day because it’s so stimulating. For me, it’s great to be so close to these new scores and to compare what they orchestra plays with what is written on the score. And ask what could be maybe be better. We may sometimes advise and sometimes we try to ask the composers, ‘what did you want to hear?’ We can help the players, me and of course Colin Matthews, and ask how they would improve the music. We hear their wishes, the musical wishes, of this fascinating and complex instrument, the symphony orchestra.