Interview: French-Canadian conductor Jean-Michael Lavoie on new music, established repertoire and future plans

'I am fascinated by the fluidity, the timbre, colour and clarity of composers of French composers going back to Berlioz.'

3 May 2011


Born in Quebec in 1982, Jean-Michael Lavoie has begun to establish himself on the international circuit as a young conductor to watch and, say some on the inside track, to tip for great things.   After two years as assistant conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, under the close and watchful eye of Pierre Boulez, Lavoie was then selected as one of the four Dudamel conducting fellows in the 2010/11 season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.   We caught up with him at La Scala, Milan, where Lavoie is about to make his debut as co-conductor (with Susanna Mälkki, with whom he has worked before) of a new opera by Luca Francesconi, Quartett.

I started by asking Lavoie, who had just emerged from a lengthy rehearsal, to tell me about Quartett?  What sort of new work is it?   "Gosh, that's a huge question.   It is a very demanding, very intense piece, full of colourful music  and with a complex text.   The origin of the opera is of course Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos but in fact Francesconi has devised his own libretto, in English, from the play written after the French original by German playwright Heiner Mueller!   So we have an English language world premiere opera at La Scala, adapted from a German play and based on a French original.   And it is directed by Alex Olié of La Fura dels Baus – you can hardly get more cosmopolitan, or more cutting edge, than that".

Quartett is quite short for an opera – a series of linked scenes running for under an hour and a half – and it has two main characters plus a quartet of actors.   Lavoie adds: "Both the singing roles are incredibly demanding: the Marquise de Merteuil is a very dramatic singing actress role and Valmont calls for – and has in this production – a big male presence.   What is the music like?   Well, it is very contemporary, but not serial music: I would say that Francesconi writes what he hears, in a highly refined, individual style.   Susanna is the conductor in the pit and I am in charge of the second, big orchestra, in a room in the theatre that is linked and synchronized with the stage action.   The second orchestra is a character in itself: it illustrates and comments on the inner thinking of the stage singers.   I have a huge array of instruments including percussion in my room but it is all treated lightly so that the singers can be heard.   The problem of getting perfect synchronization bothered us to start with – and it is a very hi-tech production – but having done all the rehearsals so far, it is actually working incredibly well.   And I am very excited by the work: I now know every note of it and I think it is going to be quite something when it premieres on 26 April.  I can't wait!"

Francesconi, himself a pupil both of Stockhausen and of Berio, writes in a modern idiom in which Lavoie has started to make a name for himself.   But Lavoie is keen not to be categorized as a modern music specialist only.   "I am starting to study more and more Beethoven, exploring the French symphonic repertoire of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I am fascinated by the fluidity, the timbre, colour and clarity of composers of French composers going back to Berlioz".   In this Lavoie is helped by his regular concert engagements in France with orchestras such as the Orchestre de Bretagne.   And he has conducted the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.   How did this come about?

"The LA Phil have very good radar coverage of what is going on all round the world, including Europe, and they heard of some of my work in Europe.   First they invited me to be a cover conductor for some of their concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.   And that then led directly to an invitation to become a Dudamel fellow for the 2010/11 season.   It has been a wonderful experience – the orchestra has such energy, and is very good to young conductors such as myself.   I felt a very good connection with them.   And it was the whole experience of living and working with the musicians, getting to know the orchestra from the inside, that was so amazing.   I learned a lot from the experience".

One of the composers whose work Lavoie conducted during his time with the LA Phil (in this case the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group) was the 81 year old American George Crumb, who is being much performed in the USA in a ‘Celebrating George Crumb' series this year.   The pieces chosen were the now classic Ancient Voices of Children and the much more recent The River of Life, a work for soprano, amplified piano and a quartet of percussionists.   Lavoie clearly loves this music.   "It has all the elements of American hymns, spirituals and revival tunes but blended in a very subtle way, harmonies and sonorities that are pianissimo threads contrasting with the huge array of sounds that four percussionists can make.   It reminds me in a way of the Berio folksongs.   And I had as my soloist Tony Arnold, who knows this music from the inside – it was a marvellous experience".   The critics evidently thought so too, commending Lavoie's ‘precision, conviction and tactile electricity' in a performance that was described as ‘stunning'.

What about Lavoie's early musical background – did he come from a family of musicians?   "Not at all – I was an only child and the only musician in our home.   I started as a pianist, went to a local teacher in Quebec province, began the round of recitals and competitions.   But quite early on, at 14, I started to conduct as well, beginning with my school choir, and I found the process more and more fascinating.   By the time I was 17 I had become the rehearsal pianist for the Montreal Orchestra and the work then being done by Yannick Nézet-Séguin began to inspire me, particularly when I was invited to join the ranks of the chorus for a Missa Solemnis and I became absolutely fascinated by the interreactions between conductor, orchestra, soloists and chorus.   I suppose it was at this time that I began to feel a calling as a conductor, and I became determined to find out exactly how to become one.   The process is still continuing" - and he laughs.

Lavoie studied for his degree in music at McGill University, majoring initially in music theory and piano but moving on to do a Masters in orchestral conducting.   Above all, during his time at McGill, he acquired hands-on experience of the conductor's craft.   "I was lucky to be given lots of concerts and in my time at McGill I think I conducted more than twenty world premieres!"  This experience must have stood Lavoie in good stead when he competed with 46 other young conductors for the assistant conductor post at the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris: one of the five grand finalists, he was awarded the position, by a jury that included Pierre Boulez, in 2008.   He completed his two year stint with the Ensemble last year.   And now, he continues to work with them on a regular basis.

Which conductors have influenced him?   "Obviously Boulez, hugely, but I should also mention Charles Dutoit, among others.   What I find fascinating in Boulez as a conductor is the structural clarity that he can see in his composer's mind.   Whenever I see him conduct I think I can now understand just what it is he is hearing and thinking – it is remarkable, how very clear he is in his mind and how he can express this so precisely".   Lavoie's admiration for Boulez, both as conductor and composer, is infectious: and Boulez returned the compliment in a way by inviting Lavoie to become First Assistant conductor at the Lucerne Festival Academy last year.   The process of learning from the master continues.

What about new projects?   "I have an interesting evening planned with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris on 18 May, when we shall play the newly-completed score to a screening of the fully restored Fritz Lang film Metropolis.   The Argentine composer Martin Matalon has added around twenty-five minutes of new music to the score he had already written for the film, before the new scenes were found.   In the new, complete version, we shall have about three hours of music!"   The summer of 2011 then sees Lavoie returning for a series of concerts in his native Canada, in Quebec and in Ottawa, and then in September 2011 he will make his UK debut, conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Hoddinott Hall, as part of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival.   His programme will include City Life by Steve Reich, a work he already knows well, having conducted it twice before.

In conversation Lavoie is bright, engaging, unstuffy and with a keen sense of humour.   But there is no mistaking the glint of steel in his eye when he talks of his passion for music making and of the trajectory he wants to take.   I for one shall watch his further development with interest.   Meanwhile he has to control the forces unleashed by Francesconi's take on a couple of noted libertines in eighteenth century France.   It is clearly an experience he is relishing so far.

By Mike Reynolds




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