Showing posts with label Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel. Show all posts

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.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Exclusive: JD meets Augustin Dumay #1

Meet Augustin Dumay? May do in August...and here we are.

Back in the mid 1980s, when I first fell in love with Fauré, I bought a boxed-set recording of the composer’s complete chamber music played by a group of exciting young French musicians. They performed these revelatory works with more colour than ineffability, and with more spirit, passion and sheer imagination than the British at that time tended to permit the composer. Wearing out the LPs day after day, I absorbed not only the language of Fauré, but also the style of this aesthetic – the colour, the flair, the variety of tone. The violinist was Augustin Dumay.

Since then there’s been a lot of water under the bridge – and a tunnel under the English Channel. You can get from central London to central Brussels, where Dumay now lives, in about two hours. I've loved his playing for nearly 30 years, so it seemed high time that I had a good violinish talk with him. So I've just been to meet him at his family home, a graceful Art Nouveau-style townhouse on a hill with a view right across the Belgian capital, where he is now in charge of the violin class at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, the city’s answer to the Curtis Institute of Music in the US.

There was a good excuse, admittedly – a new recording on which he conducts and performs some all-too-rare masterpieces by Saint-Saëns. Still, Dumay – gangly gait and blazing gaze as strong as ever, and his trademark long hair somewhat, though not excessively, tamed – may have been a little startled by the long list of questions I wanted to throw at him. At 62, he’s a busy man, sought after not just as a violinist, but as a conductor, top-level teacher and competition juror; there’s even a film about him by the distinguished director Gérard Corbiau, Augustin Dumay – Laisser un trace dans la coeur, due out soon on DVD. So we’re splitting this interview in two: today, we look at the violin, his training and his partnership with Maria Joao Pires; in the next instalment, conducting, teaching, competitions and a few thoughts about life, the universe and globalisation.

First things first: the formative influences that have helped to make him the violinist he is. The ‘Ysaÿe School’ is very different from the full-on, huge-sound-first impression created by the Russian and American traditions; and here lies much of the appeal of Dumay’s playing, those qualities that make him so distinctive. It’s about imagination, colour, subtlety and a way of making a note ring with shaded significance, the way a Lieder singer might inflect a syllable according to its meaning and the timbre of its vowel.

But Dumay has an intriguing combination of traditions to offer. While he was growing up in Paris (where his father was a lawyer, his mother a cellist and painter), his original mentor was none other than Nathan Milstein, as Russian-school as Russian can be.

“My education was really mixed from the beginning,” he explains. “My first teacher was working a lot with the Russian technique for violin and just after that I met Nathan Milstein, who was a main influence from the Russian school. After I had worked with him for five or six years, when he was living between Paris and London, he was moving to America and he told me, ‘You know, I am leaving, I will be always very happy to see you and we continue to have contact – but because you are very young, you need someone who is able to work with you day after day. My friend Arthur Grumiaux is in Brussels and he is able to do that.’ This is how I was able to come from the Russian technique to the Franco-Belgian tradition. I think this is a very interesting mix.

“Grumiaux [pictured left] was coming straight from the tradition of Ysaÿe. But he was someone who would not speak a lot – you had always to ask him a lot of things. He was timid, very sensitive, and very often I had to ask him, ‘But what do you think about this?’ – like a child, always asking...”

The different approaches of Milstein and Grumiaux proved complementary, healthily so for the hungry young Dumay. “It was the obsession of Milstein to be free, physically so. Nothing must be blocked, everything must be absolutely flexible and released in terms of muscles, in terms of attitude with the violin. Grumiaux was more classical, and very strict in terms of musical conception: he was focused on the classical style. For him this was very, very important. I was young, I was a little crazy and I was very passionate – I wanted to be very expressive. Grumiaux would always say: ‘Quiet, quiet...we have to put things in the right place.’ After, when the things can be in the right place, this is the classical spirit. Then we can be as crazy as we want!”

A further, more unlikely mentor awaited, through whom Dumay hit the headlines in earnest. The violinist, by then in his mid twenties, was building a career steadily and had attracted the attention of EMI France. While recording the Brahms sonatas for them, he headed for the engineer’s room to listen back to some takes – only to discover Herbert von Karajan there, listening too. “He was in the studio by chance, doing the post-production for an opera he was recording. And it was very good because if I’d known before that he would be there, I would have been nervous, but I was not.”

Karajan promptly invited Dumay to play with him the following week in a big Paris concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. “This was making a horrible disorganisation of the concert programme and all the organisers were furious,” Dumay adds, with some glee. But Karajan was Karajan: what he said went. Dumay played. The rest we know.

Karajan is long gone now, but there’s one especially vital ongoing presence in Dumay’s musical life: his long-time duo partner, the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires. Before heading to Brussels I caught up with some of the articles that have been written about the violinist in the past few years. In one, he and Pires describe the supposedly stormy process of recording Beethoven sonatas together. They are so different, they have such terrible fights, there are threats, the sparks fly... I put this to Dumay. He confides, twinkling across the coffee pot: “It’s not true!”

Gosh – as a journalist you have to be really careful with musicians. Sometimes they like to beat you at your own game. “I don’t understand why, but after this recording some people, I don’t know who, wanted to present things in a very original way about the difference between us,” says Dumay. “They want to focus on this difference. Sure, when we work we have a different view of the music – but this is always true for everybody. And this is what is interesting in chamber music, or in the rapport of conductors with soloists: with each person it’s different. If we are a photocopy of each others’ ideas, it is not interesting at all. It is no more the case with Maria João than anyone else, indeed maybe less so. But some people want to present it like this. I told them: it’s not true, this. And Maria João told me, ‘Well, if that’s what they want, then OK, we can give this to them! It’s not important. What’s important is what’s on the tape.’”

He and Pires inevitably invite the phrase ‘the odd couple’: Dumay towering, fair, all long limbs and locks, Pires tiny and dark, hair shorn gamine-style, a sparrow-like Piaf of the piano. They first met at a festival, Dumay relates, where he was scheduled to perform two concerts with her. “Beforehand, I thought: Maria João, you are a great artist, but we are so different, physically different as well – it’s a shock! – and I am not sure it’s possible. And after ten minutes of rehearsal we stopped and we said to each other: ‘We will play together all our life.’ Because immediately it was something extraordinary.” Over the years, the pair have recorded not only the complete Beethoven sonatas but also works by Brahms, Mozart, Franck, Debussy and many more, plus larger-scale chamber music including the Schumann Piano Quintet (with violinist Renaud Capuçon, violist Gerard Caussé and cellist Jian Wang). Later in 2012 they will be returning to the studio with a selection of six more Mozart sonatas.

Their time has had its ups and downs. They were an off-stage couple too, for a short while; and later Pires made an attempt to scale down her quantity of concerts and move to Brazil to start a music school for underprivileged children. Now, though, Dumay says that she is soon moving to Brussels to join the teaching staff of the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel alongside him. At one point in her thirties, he adds, she tried to give up the piano altogether – to the point that she sold her instrument. Eventually, though, the philanthropist Paul Sacher (to whom composers from Bartok to Boulez have paid lavish musical tribute) heard that she was missing her music, but could no longer afford to buy another instrument. “Her doorbell rang and there was a piano mover with a Steinway, asking where the space was to put it, saying it was a delivery from Mr Sacher...”

Their performances and recordings display first of all a dialogue between two deep-thinking artists at the height of their powers - yet they are more besides. Dumay and Pires together form a musical entity in and of itself, one with magnetism, magic and musical insight that never ceases. Their Franck Sonata (right) had me in a state of total surrender within minutes. It is good to hear that there is plenty more to look forward to from this most dynamic of duos.

But what about Fauré? I tell Dumay I love that complete chamber music set – but it turns out that he doesn’t. “I want to do it again,” he declares, “because I was very young then. In Fauré, you have pieces that are so different, in opposition – for instance, if you compare the first violin sonata to the second, it’s not the same world. When you are young you have more attraction to the light part, and less to the sombre. Now I am more interested by this darker part of Fauré, which you can see in the Trio, the Violin Sonata No.2, the Piano Quintet No.2, these fabulous late pieces. In the first recording, I played the first and second violin sonatas too much in the same light.”

He’s serious about this re-recording: “I was supposed to do it last year, but it was not possible because it was so full of concerts, and when I record I need a lot of time. I need to play the piece a lot of times just before, and for organisation it’s very complicated. Recording something is very serious for me – after all, I will not do three recordings of Fauré pieces, this will be the last one, and the last one has to be specific. It’s a lot of work...”

Stand by for the second part of the JDCMB Augustin Dumay interview, coming up soon. Meanwhile, enjoy listening to him and Maria Joao Pires playing the Beethoven 'Kreutzer' Sonata: