Friday, August 24, 2012

Exclusive: JD meets Augustin Dumay #2

Last Monday we talked to Augustin Dumay about his violin playing and especially his megaduo with Maria João Pires. But that’s only one side of his musical life. Having taken up the baton some while ago – not least, thanks to the encouragement of Karajan – he’s now music director of both the Royal Chamber Orchestra of Wallonie and the Kansai Philharmonic in Osaka, Japan. 

It’s easy to be cynical about fine soloists taking to the podium, but Dumay’s latest CD with his Japanese orchestra (for Onyx) of little-known works by Saint-Saëns banished any such thoughts within minutes of landing on my desk. 

It’s a delight from start to finish. It includes an exquisite double concerto for violin and cello entitled La muse et le poète, in which Dumay is the violinist and Pavel Gomziakov the cellist; but the most substantial work is the Symphony No.1, written when the composer, aged about 20, was less wet behind the ears than his tender years might suggest. He was an exceptional prodigy, a polymath and acquainted with all manner of the musical great and good – “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience,” commented Berlioz – and the symphony shows that he certainly lacked nothing by way of ambition.

“It’s a fantastic piece,” Dumay enthuses. “I don’t understand why it is never played! Until now there were only two recordings of it – one conducted by Georges Prêtre and another, many years ago, with Jean Martinon. But only these.” With luck, his own recording will help win the symphony new friends, for this music is packed with inventiveness and charm, drawn together with fabulous lightness of touch: “There’s some spirit in this piece very close to Mendelssohn,” Dumay agrees. “And the orchestration is masterful, including a saxophone. The last movement is enormous, requiring 125 musicians.”

Here is the second movement...

 French Romanticism is stuffed full of gems that are lucky to be aired once a decade. Yet my complaint that we don’t hear enough of them in Britain draws a knowing glint from Dumay’s eye. He suggests that English conductors have done more for French music in recent times than the French themselves. “John Eliot Gardiner, for instance, has have done a lot of work in this field, and because he loves French music he was for a long time the boss of Lyon Opera. He has done fantastic work in Vienna with French music, too, including Chabrier. Or think of Colin Davis and Berlioz. French music is very lucky – if Gardiner and Davis weren’t there, French music wouldn’t have these fabulous recordings. Merci, l’Angleterre!” 

Dumay’s Brussels home is close to the exceptional music school in which he is in charge of the violin department: the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel. If Europe has an answer to the Curtis Institute, this small and extremely “elite” school is it. “I have seven violinists working in this school,” says Dumay, “and some of them have won first prize in the Sibelius Competition, first prize in the Yehudi Menuhin Competition, and a second prize of the Tchaikovsky Competition.” The intake is extremely international, with students hailing from South Korea, Australia, Russia and more. 

The school has existed for a long time, he adds: “Queen Elisabeth of Belgium founded it with David Oistrakh in the Soviet model,” he explains, “because they saw together in the Queen Elisabeth Competition, when Oistrakh won first prize, that there were so many Russian players, but very few French or English, and they thought something had to be done.” After the queen and the violinist had both passed away, however, the school rather vanished from view, “until five years ago we came back to its original project. They invited José van Dam to head the singers, they invited the Artemis Quartet to do the chamber music, and me, and the new model is now getting there. 

“It’s not only a school with music education to a very high level; it’s also a place where people’s careers can be helped, because the Queen Elisabeth Chapel organises each year at least 250 concerts. We have some collaboration with organisations like the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Radio France, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and for the singers the Opéra de la Monnaie, Opéra de Paris, and now Covent Garden. And they do some recordings. We look at the integration of very, very talented young people with building a career. 

“What can be terrible for young musicians now is that when they have a prize in a competition or they are starting their careers, they have no help and they feel absolutely lost. We try to make for them a good bridge between their education, a competition prize and their future life. This is not so easy today, but I think it’s very interesting. It is possible because the school is very small and it’s privately funded. The sponsors are giving money because they’re going to see some successes in competitions – but in a sense this is good because it means everybody has to be productive.”

Dumay says he is no fan of competitions and regards them, like so many musicians, as a type of necessary evil. Nevertheless, he does take part in juries: “The president of the Queen Elisabeth Competition once came to see me after a concert and asked me to be on the jury. I told him that I think competitions are anti-music. But he convinced me, saying first that Radu Lupu had told him exactly the same thing; and secondly, that we need on competition juries some people who hate competitions, because maybe like that we can change the nature of competitions!”

Such contests are often accused of conspiring against individuality in performance – and this is in itself a more extensive problem that bothers Dumay. Really, he suggests, it’s a by-product of globalisation. “My idea was always that what is important for a musician is individuality. I still think that. But now with globalisation, my view is a little different, because now if we don’t have ‘schools’, if we don’t have individuality in education, the world will be like a big minestrone. 

“A few years ago, if I was listening to a violinist, I was able to tell within five or six seconds whether it was Heifetz, Szigeti, Menuhin. Now it’s more difficult. This is because of globalisation. Globalisation has brought a lot of good things. But for individuality in art, it could create a problem in the future. Already today it’s begun: now it’s very difficult to make an immediate identification of a sound, of phrasing, of a school, of a cultural environment. All this is really mixed. And this is dangerous for music. 

“Why? Because, as the great conductor Sergiu Celibidache used to say, in the future we will get a Coca-Cola sound: very nice, lots of sugar, but no character. Or just one character – because one character is no character. If we continue in this direction, in future the Vienna Philharmonic will sound the same as the Philadelphia Orchestra. We do not go to a concert in Philadelphia to listen to a mix of orchestral sounds; we want to listen to the Philadelphia sound.  And we want to listen to the Vienna Philharmonic sound and their phrasing and articulations in Mozart.”

Sometimes, though, I have the impression that the musical scenes of France and England scarcely mingle at all. Why is it that so many fine French musicians scarcely ever play in the UK? The French stars who are well-known in Britain are often virtually ignored at home, while those who have made the big time in Paris rarely do so to the same degree in London. Dumay is not an exception. 

“I think it’s sometimes circumstances,” he says with a shrug. “And also it’s very close, but it’s another world! I think there are three ways to play in London. Either you are a superstar; or you are very young and people want something that is new for the marketing; or you live in London. It’s very simple: I am not in any of these three situations.” He is recording in London with Pires in the autumn, but has no plans for concerts here until next season. Meanwhile, of course, he is in the US a great deal, and will soon record with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Germany, Japan, China and France itself are equally welcoming. “But under the circumstances, maybe I will spend the last part of my life in London,” he muses. 

I suggest he’d be homesick – the grass is always greener – and besides, these cultural clashes are a great deal older than the Channel Tunnel. Still, who knows? Dumay’s attitude is old-school in many ways; his playing, too, is traditional in the best sense, in terms of style and taste, motivation and rigour. One of the up-sides of globalisation is that today it is easier for us all to connect with such musicianship – wherever it happens to be.