The French connection

Published: Feb 28, 2020, 07:00 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

For his first trip to India, celebrated composer and conducter Laurent Petitgirard will conduct an iconic, but rarely heard symphony in the city this weekend

An organist at churches in Paris, César Franck was motivated to compose music based on biblical texts. His Symphony in D minor, that he composed in the late 19th century was radical in France — so much so, that composer Charles Gounod said it was "the affirmation of impotence pushed to the length of a dogma". Rarely performed at orchestras today, it makes its way into the city this weekend, along with Saint-Saëns' Le Rouet d'Omphale and Piano Concerto No 5 in F major. The performance features noted pianist Jean-Philippe Collard with the Symphony Orchestra of India and conductor Laurent Petitgirard, who's in the country on his first visit.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Petitgirard.

César Franck's Symphony in D minor is rarely included at concerts today. Why is it so?
It is always amazing to try to understand why an important work of a great composer goes through different periods — fluctuating between overplayed and almost forgotten. Franck's symphony is played regularly in France but not as much as Ravel or Debussy's masterpieces, and not so often in many countries. The first explanation is that this is a piece not so typical of 'French music' with regards to orchestration. César Franck was an organist and thus, the sound you hear is really deep, and not in the 'impressionist context' related to French music.

The second reason is that the symphony itself is not a form close to French music. We expect more symphonic poems or shorter forms; even Debussy's La Mer is not long enough for a second part. Paul Dukas' Symphony in C is not his best work, and the beautiful Chausson Symphony is very rarely played, much less that Franck's. For the second movement, Franck's Symphony also needs a great English horn player.

What is most important to you before a performance?
Concentration without stress. If the rehearsals work well, then the concert will be an opportunity to bring the orchestra ahead, to push the musicians to give their best on the emotional front. Technique needs to be displayed at the rehearsal, with spirit of course, but there is an extra emotion that comes through only in the concert.

How do you see French classical music evolving over the years?
I think that the important baroque movement (a musical style that began in the 1600s and extended to 1750), which brings a lot to this important period for composition, goes too far. I cannot stand to hear baroque instruments in late 19th century music. For French music, I believe that a contemporary line after Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc, which passes on to Messiaen, Dutilleux and some wonderful contemporary composers in a tonal mood has been ignored by a so-called "avant-garde" movement that has cut off a large audience from today's music.

For Indian readers who are unfamiliar with Western classical music but seek to understand it better, what according to you serves as a good starting point?
There is no mystery. Start with the great masters: the classical [Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert], the romantics [Schumann, Brahms and Chopin], the Russians [Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky], the opera [Verdi, Puccini and Wagner], French and Spanish music [Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, de Falla, Albeniz and Granados], and then comes contemporary music.

Do you follow the works of any Indian musicians?
I had, 30 years ago, a project to play Ravi Shankar's concerto with my orchestra. We met and it was very nice, but our mutual schedule did not allow it to happen. This is a great regret. In fact, among the artists from India, I know Raghu Rai well — a wonderful photographer and great human being.

Besides the concert, what else you wish to do or see in Mumbai?
Every 18 months, I try to spend a few days with my son Tristan, who is a great author and stage director. So, we will be coming together to discover your incredible country. He will have more time than me, as I will be involved in six hours of rehearsals each day! But the most important thing for me is to discover new people, make new friends and I am sure that this will be the case.

ON March 1, 5 pm
AT Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
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