in: News & Features

January 30, 2010

Divorce, Paris Opera Style: A Conductor Leaves the Podium

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Trobador’s Paris Diary

Rumor has it that they are a hardbitten bunch,  the players in the orchestra pit of the Paris Opera.  And Trobador can vouch,  from his couple of seasons of gigging  around in France with Paris-Conservatory-trained instrumentalists, that the men and women of that milieu are a no-nonsense crowd. They like things on the job to go quickly and efficiently,  and according to Hoyle.

Nonetheless there was an element of surprise in the news, first made public January 18,  that Emmanuelle Haim, a rising star in the French baroque music scene,  had walked away from the Paris Opera’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo,  for which she had been engaged as musical director,  to be replaced for the final rehearsals and the public run by the little-known Philippe Hui.

There is currently, in the Paris press,  a war of dueling communiqués as to how this state of affairs came about. Ms. Haim, who performs  and records with her own ensemble,  Le Concert d’Astrée, put the blame on a recalcitrant, establishmentarian institution: “The attempt to lead the [modern-instruments] orchestra towards another [early-music] aesthetic has failed,” her press release ran. “ The challenge was great, but the orchestra did not wish to  undergo this experience.”

The response/rebuttal from the orchestra committee was made public four days later, on January 22. Their indictment of the conductor on professional grounds was severe: “With Madame Haim, the disappointment was great, before a lack  of precision both in musical concept and [conducting] gesture.”

Disaccord between an orchestra and its leader is nothing new in the annals of modern performance; at home, one is reminded of more than one such conflict in the recent history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as in some smaller local ensembles. Perhaps there is something in the very concept, hierarchical and authoritarian,  of the 19th century orchestra that encourages or tends towards conflict in our time. And then, as baroquenik conductors are invited to direct modern instrument ensembles,  one has to deal with the potential quarrel of the ancients and the moderns,  with those in the early music camp generally defending different notions of line, phrasing,  bowing, articulation, and tone than those taught and practiced in the modern orchestra milieu.  Still, early-instrument conductors like Nicholas Harnoncourt,   Mark Minkowski,  Ton Koopman and others, have managed to put their stamp on modern bands with a reasonable degree of success and little blood shed.

So what’s going on here? Trobador’s last encounter with Ms. Haim’s musicianship dates at least a dozen years back,  when she was the flamboyant continuo player for Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre.  Motivated to learn more about the quarrel,  he has attempted to play catchup with her career,  to a certain degree,  via video clips on Youtube.

What he finds on those videos is evidence of a strong yet eccentric talent. Ms. Haim has  a vision of how she wants her music to sound, and she has succeeded in surrounding herself, with Le Concert d’Astrée, with a young and highly motivated ensemble that willingly follows her intentions. In the parallel-to-mainstream world of nonstandard music ensembles, the leader’s ability to gather a good group of players and/or singers together, around the leader’s personality and ideas,  is key to success.

The very youth of Le Concert d’Astrée is a big plus; the members of the band are visibly interested in the music and the project at hand,  and wish to make an artistic statement.  This was the overall tone of the early music movement a generation ago, but also of other nonstandard enterprises such as Boston’s Emmanuel Music under the late Craig Smith.  The sense of routine that invades many larger institutions, and also the psyches of many individually gifted musicians as they approach middle age, is an obstacle to real distinction.  Genuine, this-is-really-important motivation has a great deal to do,  arguments about “authenticity” aside,  with the success of the early music movement in finding audiences.

Furthermore Ms. Haim, for her opera and oratorio recordings, has been offered by her recording company (Virgin) the luxury of working with highpriced,  mainstream singers such as Nathalie Dessay and Ian Bostridge. Whatever one may think of the result of these collaborations on artistic grounds (and,  frankly, judging from what he hears in the clips, Trobador is not much of a fan), the vocal soloists seem to enjoy their experience,  and respond with intensity and commitment to their director’s coaching.

Now come the “howevers.” The private code that can grow up within these nonstandard ensembles can be a hindrance when one moves to the outside.  Ms. Haim has a very personal way of communicating her wishes. Her body language is passionate, she moves her hands and her torso,  her face exteriorizes the affects she wishes the music to convey.  Thanks to her personal engagement, a  sense of great intensity reigns over the rehearsals and recording takes.  The singers, too, respond with ample gesture and movement,  even excessively so, as I read the comments of some Youtube viewers. These visual elements translate well onto film and digital tape – an important consideration in our day. It is no hindrance, from a marketing perspective,  that Ms. Haim is attractive, that she frequently conducts in sleeveless dresses,  and that she has great hair.

But, marketing and fashion considerations aside,  Ms. Haim is unquestionably a strong leader.  She has succeeded in communicating her wishes to her own circle/community of musicians. Where the rubber hits the road is when this unconventional personality needs to confront the conventions of the symphonic world.  Watching her videos, Trobador attempts to position himself,  in imagination,  as a working stiff within the orchestra,  and he becomes troubled.  She’s not like most conductors he has played under,  and does not seem to follow the usual rules. He has a terrible time responding to Ms. Haim’s beat.  Conductors are supposed to prepare the next musical event. But with Ms. Haim,  almost  everything in her gestural language seems to come a microsecond late, and appears to happen just after the music has already sounded.  WTF is going on?  he asks of his imaginary stand mate. I’m getting a headache. Was that a cadence that just went by? When is the next break?

Along these lines, I hereby translate the comment of a blogger (on operaforum.pro.fr) who, while stating his admiration for Ms. Haim’s talent,  characterizes the orchestra’s rebellion as “healthy”:

“[Her] ambitions go beyond the ability of this very good musician, whose gestural language as a conductor is limited to expressing the pleasure she undergoes while miming a musical phrase, rather than her capacity to do what is necessary to obtain the result.”

Would the Paris Orchestra pit band have been more docile,  and changed its bowings,  more easily with a different baroquenik than Ms. Haim? The question is open. Meanwhile, the scandal has at least partially passed, orchestra manager John Cohen (no relation to other Cohens who may or may not be in the room) has declared that there will be no further comment from that quarter, and the production of  Idomeneo has opened at the Paris Opera, running until February 13, with several cast changes, and minus its previously-announced conductor, to generalized yawns.

1 Comment

  1. It is a truism in the universal musical community that there are great (or at least interesting) musicians who can do good work as conductors with their own homegrown ensembles, but are essentially amateur conductors (some would say non-conductors)whose often excellent musical impulses and ideas are not effectively communicated to other professional ensembles. Not every great musician can be a great (or even good) conductor. This is somnetimes hard for managements, marketers, record labels, and the artists themselves to admit. Good looks, charisma, and force of musical personality can get one pretty far — but there often comes a time when conducting chops and sheer competence are valued ( & even necessary…).

    Comment by Steven Lipsitt — February 18, 2010 at 11:49 am

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