Does a conductor’s talent lie wholly in their use of gesture?
The conductor is the only musician on stage who isn’t producing sound. Who has no instrument. Or rather, his instrumenthis living instrumentis the orchestra. It’s fascinating to see how a certain gesture can bring about a particular sound. And how the gesture’s physical impact can alter an orchestra’s frame of mind. Each conductor has their own “repertoire of gestures.” Some are simple, even stereotypical. If you want something to be very loud, you open your arms wide and beckon; if you’re looking for a softer sound, you put a finger on your lips. It’s like playing pianocaressing the keys produces a softer tone. If you want a more powerful sound, you push harder. Other more surprising gestures spring from each conductor’s own imagination. You “visualize” the sound within yourself, then invent the gesture that goes with it. The one that guides, inspires or brings out a certain sound.
Which gestures would you say are your signature movements?
My hands play a major role. While the right hand holds the baton and keeps the beat, the left tries to alleviate the music’s verticality with its various harmonies, to obtain horizontal lines that are more sensual and lyrical, more legato. Sometimes I use only my hands. No baton. Like Karajan in Verdi’s Requiem. This creates a freer, more supple effect. And more intimate. Like kneading the sound with both hands. Like sculpting it with your fingers.
A DVD boxed set was released this fall with you conducting the Paris Opera orchestra performing all of Beethoven’s symphonies. Why this new cycle? Is it so that you can “sculpt” a new sound?
These nine symphonies are played less and less frequently today. It’s almost as if Mahler’s symphonies were replacing Beethoven’s. I divide my time between Paris and Vienna, so I can interweave two different cultural approaches to music. Two different ways of experiencing it. It is Beethoven “between two worlds” that emerges from this recording. A more modern Beethoven. With a certain freshness and excitement, a bite that comes from the fact that it’s being performed by an opera orchestra.
You’ll be conducting Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Opéra-Bastille. He’s a very important composer for you. You said that Wagner altered your approach to conducting. How so?
Coming back to the idea of gestures, he was the one who taught me to use the baton sparingly. Through Wagner, I realized that conducting for six hours in a flamboyant way exhausted the orchestra, the audience and myself. I learned how to save the grand theatrical gestures for particularly intense moments, and to conduct in a subtler way, which in turn leads to greater precision. Lohengrin is also a truly unique Wagnerian work. It’s not the Ring nor Tannhäuser. They call it a “romantic” opera because it’s the most melodious, the one that speaks most directly to the listener’s heart. At Bastille, the world’s best Wagnerian singers will be performingJonas Kaufmann (Lohengrin), Martina Serafin (Elsa von Brabant) and Wolfgang Koch (Friedrich von Telramund). So this Lohengrin should be one of the season’s finest productions.
You “visualize” the sound in your mind, then invent the gesture that goes with it.