Saturday 26 September 2015

A new orchestra, a new concert hall - an encounter with conductor Laurence Equilbey

Laurence Equilbey
Laurence Equilbey
The French conductor Laurence Equilbey is, perhaps, best known in the UK for her work with the choir Accentus which she founded. However in 2012 she founded the period instrument orchestra Insula. The ensemble recently made their UK debut (21 September 2015) at the Barbican performing with Accentus in a programme of Mozart, Zelenka and CPE Bach, and their second CD has been released this month ( the Archiv label), a recording of Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice with the counter-tenor Franco Fagioli. I was lucky enough to spend time with Laurence on her recent visit to the UK to find out more.

Cité Musicale de L’île Seguin
Artists impression of how the Cité Musicale de L’île Seguin will look when finished
The founding of Insula came about because Laurence was offered the opportunity by the Conseil Départemental des Hauts-de-Seine as the Département was building a new arts centre, the Cité Musicale de L’île Seguin, as part of the regeneration of the Boulogne-Billancourt. The concert hall, in a ship-like building on the River Seine, is designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. There are two halls, the larger for popular music, the smaller (seating 1,100) for classical and Insula will be resident there when it opens in February 2017.

Laurence Equilbey and Insula
Laurence Equilbey and Insula
Asked to found an orchestra, she created a period instrument one because she wanted to concentrated on the classical and early romantic periods and, though she conducts modern orchestras, she feels the music of this perio works better for her on period instruments. The new hall will have a pit so that Laurence's explorations of classical and romantic music will include semi-staged operas and scenic projects with visual artists.

Next year the orchestra's repertoire concentrates on the period 1750 to 1850, Haydn and Mozart to young Berlioz and Mendelssohn which Laurence describes as 'a great period'. She plans to concentrate the orchestra's work on Beethoven, Mozart and the Age of the Enlightenment with a bit of French music too. There are plans to explore new formats for concerts, such as playing for an hour taking a long break and then playing for an hour (like at a jazz concert), attracting not only the wider public but particularly young people.

Of course Paris already has a new concert hall, the Philharmonie de Paris which Laurence describes as 'beautiful' continuing that she feels the two new halls can have a complementary sibling relationship and that it makes no sense for the to halls to be on the same projects.

Laurence has a strong interest in doing projects with contemporary visual artists (Insula is working with Argentine artist Rita Cosentino on Mozart's Lucio Silla in 2016), scenic projects rather than full stagings. There are plans to do a new version of Mozart's Requiem with a dancer, and she admires what Rene Jacobs did at the Ruhr Triennial with Haydn's Creation using film with the Berlin artist Julian Rosefeldt. Though she adds that this would not be suitable for all projects. But she is planning to perform Beethoven's Egmont and feels the story is too complicated to present the music without some explanation and is planning to use video and staging.

A constellation of artistic and pedagogic propositions

Artist's impression of the Escalators at the Cite Musicale de l'Ile de Seguin
Artist's impression of the escalators at
the Cite Musicale de l'IleSeguin
Laurence is planning a strong education programme for the new hall, citing the Phiharmonie's education programme as a model. She is keenly interested in attracting and interacting with young people and the orchestra is already developing a community. For each of Insula's concerts they invite 15 young people to the concert. The young people come to her dressing room and have drinks with her and the artists afterwards. The idea is to make the moment speak to the young people, they are proud to be invited and they like talking to the musicians. Laurence likens this to emotional research as well as education, creating a memorable moment so the young people will come back again.

She feels that for concerts to have an attraction for young people they should not be too long and the music should have a certain energy. It is important to talk and interact with the community. Currently the orchestra releases short videos which are entertaining and aimed at involving young people. For Orfeo they production a three minute video of a moment from the opera designed by a graphic design company which she feels helps communicate. You can see the latest video themed around Orfeo.

So the programming at the new hall will be what Laurence terms a constellation of artistic and pedagogic propositions. with a lot of small events building to a whole.

She could not find a suitable choir with which to perform Schoenberg & R Strauss, so she built her own

Accentus © Axel Coeuret.
Accentus © Axel Coeuret
We return to the subject of Laurence's first ensemble, the choir Accentus which she founded in 2002. I was curious to know how this came about and whether she had always intended to be a choral conductor. She explains that as a student in Vienna she discovered choral works by Schoenberg and by Richard Strauss. When back in Paris she could not find a suitable choir with which to perform them, so she built her own. This involved not only finding the singers, but building techniques and finding the finance to enable the choir to be professional. She feels that the choral scene in France has developed considerably and is vastly different now.

In the early days of Accentus she conducted a lot of a cappella music with them, but tends to take a back seat in this repertoire and now they use invited conductors. She thinks it is important for the singers to experience a different vision and also for works she does not like. Accentus performs with Insula (as in the Barbican concert), and she also likes the idea of doing one or two unaccompanied works in an orchestral concert (and cites the example of John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir).

Accentus is still her favourite choir and she likes the idea that she is the founder, but after 20 years the story has to continue. Accentus is creating a resource centre for material for the works they have performed to help new ensembles perform new pieces.

Old and New - maintaining balance

Gluck's Orfeo - Franco Fagioli, Emmanuelle de Negri, Malin Hartelius, Insula, Accentus, Laurence Equilbey
Gluck's Orfeo - Franco Fagioli, Emmanuelle de Negri,
Malin Hartelius, Insula, Accentus, Laurence Equilbey
As a conductor Laurence balances her work with Accentus and Insula with conducting other period ensembles (the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin) and modern orchestras. Laurence is not the type of conductor who relishes working on early classical music with a modern orchestra and feels that the music of Beethoven can work, whilst that of Schubert onwards is what she is most happy conducting with a modern band.

She has also done a lot of first performances both with Accentus, and with orchestras, around 100 pieces in all. She feels her inclination in contemporary music is more towards the avant garde and likes it when music is new and inventive.

With Insula and Accentus at the Barbican she performed Zelenka'z Miserere in C minor which she describes as a forgotten masterpiece, Mozart's Vespere Solonelle K339 and CPE Bach's Magnificat. Mozart is central to Insula's programme and she thinks it is interesting to hear the rarely performed vespers especially Mozart's settings of the vespers psalms with their madrigalian textures. Laurence sang the work under Harnoncourt when she was a student in Vienna; she, Insula and Accentus will record the work with Mozart's Coronation Mass. She sees a link also with the CPE Bach work as the vespers service always concluded with a Magnificat. CPE Bach's Magnificat was in many ways a tribute to his father but sections of the work look forward to the classical style. Insula are touring their Barbican programme to Aix-en-Provence, Paris and Versailles. They will be performing a Beethoven programme at the Philharmonie de Paris with the Eroica Symphony and pianist Nicholas Angelich in Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto

Laurence and Insula also have their recording of Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice out this month. She finds virtues in the first version of the opera (which was recorded with counter-tenor Franco Fagioli singing the alto castrato title role) and the recording includes the whole of the Vienna version of the opera plus a disc of highlights (without recitative) with parts of the the later Paris version. Whilst she is always committed tot he historical version, she feel the highlights disc is a possibility for the public to discover the music in an easier way.

The performances of Mozart's Lucio Silla are also a collaboration with Franco Fagioli (who sings the castrato role of Cecilio). The work is not well known and she feels it opens up a lot of paths in Mozart's future work, and we should hear it more and the arias are beautiful. They will perform the work in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Versailles and Vienna at the Theater an der Wien in a scenic staging by Rita Cosentino (23 April - 2 May 2016).

Outside Insula and Accentus she has a relationship with the Orchestra de l'Opera de Normandie, and performs with the Paris Chamber Orchestra a lot. In December she will be in Cardiff to conduct Handel's Messiah with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and BBC National Chorus of Wales (8 December 2015) and seems a little curious at the idea of performing the work with a choir of 100 singers. In 2017 she is in Copenhagen to conduct music by Niels Gade for his centenary.


Laurence Equilbey
Laurence Equilbey
I ask who her inspirations are and she talks about Abbado,  Bernstein and Harnoncourt from her period in Vienna. She cites Boulez and has done a lot of collaborations with him, also Maris Yansons and Andris Nelsons from the younger generation..

She always wanted to be a conductor. She studied piano and flute, but the age of 18 decided to develop her career as a conductor. She likes to study and to have a broad view of a work and the historical context; players do this, but not as profoundly. And for her music expresses itself through the body.

When I ask about her favourite works she says it depends on whether she is listening or conducting. As a listener she cites Bach's Mass in B Minor, though as a conductor she cites Schumann's Paradies und das Peri, a beautiful, spiritual tale but feels that her favourite work is 'The one I am working on'.

There is an excellent calendar of Laurence's forthcoming engagements on her website, she conducts Insula and Accentus in their Zelenka, Mozart, CPE Bach programme at the Chapelle Royale, Versailles tonight (26 September 2015) and is conducting the Orchestre de l'Opera de Rouen in Rouen on 13 November 2015 in a programme entitled War and Peace with Beethoven's King Stephen, and Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, and Weber's cantata Battle and Victory.
Elsewhere on this blog:


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