An Interview with Conductor Laurence Equilbey 

Is there such a thing as unhealthy addiction to a piece of music? If yes, I have it. For months now, I cannot stop watching the recording of Laurence Equilbey conducting Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, which found its way to the internet after it was first broadcast by the German-French TV channel Arte. The work is a stunner, spanning the emotional gamut from agony to ecstasy, but I’ve heard it many times before so it’s not only Mozart and good musicians that make it so appealing: it’s the fact of having a woman conduct it with such intensity and seriousness. It feels like some ancient pain in my soul is being cured – at least for the duration of the recording. The meaning of the conductor, the maleness of the figure, are undermined. New images fight the old, ingrained images. I can’t help returning to this: half of the views in the view count under that video must be mine.  

Equilbey’s discography is equally intriguing. After finishing her studies in Vienna and returning to Paris, she founded the chamber choir Accentus and proceeded to explore the Romantic macabre of the nineteenth century as well as the twentieth century modernism, neither among the most crowd-pleasing musical traditions. How often do you think during the day, Right at this moment, I really need to be in the abstract hypnotic loop of the a cappella Strauss, or ponder the end of life to Dvořák’s Stabat Mater? Well, you will after spending some time with Equilbey and Accentus on Rdio. I do now, and I used to be the worst Baroque glutton imaginable, gorging on the pleasure, effortless beauty and dance beats of the music of the pre-Classical at every opportunity. Now I actually play Requiems to myself, and Poulenc’s bleak song cycles about the Second World War, and the explosion of Czech consonants that is Philippe Manoury’s “Slova”.

There is a lot of death and grieving in the choral repertoire of the nineteenth century, and a lot of musical madness in the twentieth, but Equilbey approaches both with remarkable cool. “Nothing to worry about. I can help you figure this stuff out,” seems to be the unspoken attitude. So here is this petite figure, in her flawless suits and pressed dress shirts, treading the most patriarchal rings of the western musical canon with her light step, removing pathos here, opulence there, sentimentality over there, old connotations further there, melodrama over in that corner, reviving little known works, bringing to light women composers like Louise Farrenc and championing new creations.

After many years of the guest conducting gigs with a whole lot of European orchestras – Concerto Köln, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie, Brussels Philharmonic, Camerata Salzburg are just some of them – Equilbey created her own period ensemble last year. Insula Orchestra’s mandate is Classical and pre-Romantic, the late eighteenth and very early nineteenth. As this includes Mozart and Beethoven, one thing is clear: there will be joy. The awe-inducing, sombre a cappella chamber choir repertoire will give way to – OK, OK, make ample room for – the denizens of the Classical era, the masters and the lesser performed composers both. Insula’s first season opened, auspiciously, with the mentioned Mozart Mass in C. 

We are meeting in Laurence Equilbey’s Montmartre apartment. As I get close to the door, I hear her telling her little dog to quiet down. Suddenly I’m anxious. What good can ever come out of the encounter between a human and a god from her musical pantheon? There is still time to turn around and run away. I could be home right now, watching her conduct Schumann on Vimeo.  But the door opens and it’s done. Threshold crossed. 

And so we talk: she in French and I in English.

– Lydia Perović 


THE BELIEVER: Is the conductor something of a shaman? I can’t stop watching the recording of your Mass in C minor. Commanding a huge crowd of instrumentalists and singers always looks a bit like a pagan ritual, something to do with magic… There’s this figure at the centre, directing all the different forces – but it’s a woman for a change.

LAURENCE EQUILBEY: The most important thing for the conductor is that he or she listens. Her listening will make things sound a certain way. If the conductor listens well, the musicians listen each other better. The conductor can in effect impose a certain kind of listening for everybody. And yes, she is also a vector, the music passes through her, but it’s a permanent exchange: the musician gives me, I request, we exchange… If all I do is demand without really seeing what the musician gives, it won’t work. There needs to be a fusion of gestures. That’s very important. And then it can expand to include the audience too.

Of course, the conductor is also essential for controlling the balances, the tempos. And she has to inspire people.

BLVR: But I’ve also read somewhere that you argue that the conductor should try to be diaphanous and neutral? 

LE: They should give an impression of neutrality, but this is not quite the case because they need to embody at the same time. But ultimately, yes, I don’t like the showmen conductors. And it depends on the work. There are works that simply demand that the conductor embody distinctly, and others that don’t. In general, I prefer my conductors to be on the sincere side. They are engrossed by the work, but with a kind of modesty, without being too demonstrative.

BLVR: All the while, the orchestras and concerts and recordings are ‘sold’ via the conductor. And the conductor’s photo is usually on the cover of the program and the web page.

LE: The conductor always has the final cut, musically. But there’s no need to belabour the point while on the podium. Then marketing is separate, it will do its own thing.

BLVR: Isn’t that such a womanly thing to say, I don’t want to stand out?

LE: These days I’m more authoritarian with the orchestras than I used to be. You need to hold your ground, I’ve noticed, or you’ll be swept aside. When you work with your own ensemble, it’s like making chamber music, but when you’re the invited conductor, you need to know how to obtain what you need.

BLVR: I suspect that women more than men have a problem asserting authority before fellow musicians – and that that’s why some decide not to pursue the conducting career. Standing on the podium means: I own this work as much as the men, I have something to say. Listen.

LE: When I have to negotiate that, I do it in more roundabout ways. The difficulty is sometimes in working with the soloists. With a group of people, it’s easer to say, I want this, this and this. It’s different with the soloists, because they are the ones who will be in the spotlight. You can’t force an interpretation on them. With soloists, it’s all about diplomacy, especially in our age – the time of the authoritarian conductor is behind us, we don’t work the way Karajan or Toscanini did…

BLVR: Is it important that the conductor has a clear idea of the work in her mind ahead of rehearsals?

LE: Yes. About eighty percent of the work is before you even start. At the rehearsals there will be things you’ll notice when you hear the actual, material sound, but normally you need to start with a very precise vision. Especially because today the production time is fairly short and it runs out quickly. There is no time to go, Okay, now let me ponder this… You have to know from the beginning.

BLVR: Do you ever watch your recordings?

LE: Yes, especially the Master Classes, and I often ask the opera houses to share their internal video. I review myself and I don’t really like much of what I see. Maybe about twenty percent of everything. So I try to work out why I liked what I liked, and why I disliked the rest.

BLVR: Your technique is always evolving, it seems.

LE: And I still have a coach in England. I don’t go very often, but when the questions pile up, I go and ask them.

BLVR: There must be a big difference between conducting an a cappella choir and a large orchestra. The baton, for example, is not always there.

LE: I use the baton for Mozart and later works. For Bach, for instance, I don’t bring it out. It also depends on the size of the orchestra – the baton elongates your arm, makes the gesture a bit more academic, and the orchestra needs clarity in gestures. Baton is also a stand-in for the bow. Where strings are heavily involved, the baton helps. Then there are accents within beats, and bare hands are not very apt at pointing them out. With the baton, they’re more drawn out. Conducting is more elegant with the baton.

BLVR: I understand your approach to music is often inspired by visual arts? They’re seemingly two distant disciplines.

LE: Like many musicians, I can hear the weight in the sound. Sound is matter. We speak of the colour of an instrument, of transparency… We can demand more sombre or lighter colours, deeper playing and singing, heavier or lighter sound. And manipulating those means is like creating a painting. There’s a spectrum of possibilities. You can underline the bass, or not at all. You can create something that is well-anchored or that is floating and never arriving. You can make a melodic line dominant or barely visible. The conducting gesture is akin to painting or sculpture.

It’s in the visual arts that I most clearly see our society. It’s a very inventive discipline, and it resonates with our life in the present. It’s in fact part of the job of the visual artist to say something to her contemporaries. I also find that it’s a milieu that’s much more open to women than classical music. There is, in general, a better circulation in visual art, the greatest degree of freedom. All this inspires me.

BLVR: Any particular artists?

LE: There are works that inspire me in their abstraction – for example by people like John McCracken, Ellsworth Kelly, or even Anish Kapoor, people who make art that is at the same time very material and very abstract. I am always impressed by that. I also go to the theatre a lot; I like Heiner Goebbels, also Christoph Marthaler, Robert Lepage…

BLVR: What kind of things do you read?

LE: Mostly non-fiction: ancient treatises, biographies, books of rhetoric.


BLVR: I wanted to ask you about the Romantics and the musical nineteenth century that you’re so much at home with. I find it alien. They were patriarchal, religious, loved killing off women in operas, and had this humourless all-or-nothing view of love. Compared with gender in Mozart or the Baroque, they seem to me narrower, tighter – a regression.

LE: I am not so much interested in the love stories of the nineteenth… it’s their intellectual, poetic side that attracts me, not the melodrama. Also their fascination with machines and automatons, the idea of progress, the awakening of the deeper will of the peoples… I’ve conducted Schumann’s Last Ballades, for instance, and that work is profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment. Under the guise of medieval love stories set in castles etc., Schumann actually encourages social revolt and struggle for liberty.

BLVR: What about the rise of nationalism in culture?

LE: The artists of the time wanted to rediscover the melos, the inner music of the people. They argued that this uncovered melody would bring to light previously unspoken truths. So it had more to do with democratization than with nationalism as we understand it today.

BLVR: I know you’re interested in staging Schubert’s unfinished Lazarus… There’s another peculiar work of the era.

LE: It can be a surprising piece for today’s audience, as it probably was in its own time, so I’d say it needs to be staged and the ending composed. If performed in concert, it may come across as too austere. The form consists of a series of arias, which doesn’t sound too exciting, but the text is beautiful.

BLVR: I have the impression that somehow there are fewest women conductors precisely in this repertoire, the nineteenth century Romantic. I can think of maybe one woman who’s allowed to conduct Wagner: Simone Young.

LE: There is more than one, though. Marin Alsop, Xian Zhang… She is fantastic. Chinese of origin, with a permanent post with a Milan orchestra. There are women, but they are not invited by the orchestras. It’s a conservative world, classical music. Numbers are bad even for women soloists. In France, women make up fifteen percent of all the soloists in concerts. The numbers for conductors and soloists are horrible. It’s completely closed. But women have started voicing their discontent and the French Ministry of Culture has started noticing, so maybe something will change.


BLVR: You yourself commissioned a report two years ago – a simple count of women in positions of artistic responsibility in performing arts, conductors, directors, things of that sort… and the numbers were depressing. 

LE: Yes. But at least the results were noted and the report made some waves. Now we’re finally talking about the issue.

BLVR: At the same time, nobody wants to introduce quotas.

LE: No, but there is the bare minimum which we should aspire to – one third at least of women. We cannot accept current numbers. At the Paris Opera, ninety-five percent of conductors and directors are men this year.

BLVR: Oh yes, I watched that video of La Barbe interrupting the season announcement at the Garnier. That was neat.

LE: The audience was terrible, though.

BLVR: I couldn’t believe they booed and hissed.

LE: La Barbe also did an intervention once at the Salle Pleyel and somebody from the audience – a woman – yelled at them, But men are better musicians than women!

BLVR: !!! 

LE: I’d really like to see some evolution here. This question is becoming very hard for me, the question of music in France – in Europe in general. Musicians ought to reclaim some of the power in the houses of production. The opera houses are run either by managers or by stage directors, never by musicians. And then, there is the question of women. Musical milieu needs to stop being single-gendered. There’s no air, you can’t breathe. It’s always the same people… It’s a problem. 

BLVR: Most women in your position don’t want to raise this issue. They can’t afford to rock the boat.

LE: I know. But I’ll be fine. I want to see other women around me. I know a lot of women who are incredibly talented but who don’t work, and this bothers me. And we’re talking about institutions that are funded with public money, for which all the citizens are paying through their taxes. It’s a question of equality, and things will start moving once people realize that. We don’t need to raise it as a question of ethics etc. Equality is the vernacular in France and it may be the only value that will instigate some change here. But the men aren’t very cooperative. If you ask any man about this disparity, they’ll respond cynically.


BLVR: What do you think accounts for the relative unpopularity of the classical music in our time?

LE: I think the classical music is on a dangerous downward slope, because it’s not seeking strong enough resonance with its society. Opera is the same. There are a lot of arts organizations – us included – that do all sorts of outreach, pedagogical, cultural, but that’s not enough. People need to feel close to the art form. Music is distant from the people, I find, here in France. Its importance is waning.

BLVR: Is the audience aging here as well? It is in North America.

LE: It is here too.

BLVR: Does this distance that people feel from the music have to do with arts education, maybe?

LE: It does. I think something urgently needs to be done in elementary schools, maybe even kindergarten, about ear training. Not much is being done at the moment. Later in high school, there’s something like an hour a week of music, and it’s treated like a history lesson.

BLVR: What about amateur musicianship? That’s fading away too.

LE: The most musical peoples are those with a strong tradition of musicianship at home. Nordic countries are particularly good at this. When the ear is trained in childhood, there’s often a desire to practice music at home.

BLVR: It’s also perhaps a question of letting the audience be less regimented in classical music concerts. I know you introduced the audience sing-along to the operetta production at Opéra Comique that you recently conducted.

LE: That was great. I’m glad we did it.

BLVR: What else would you allow as a musician? Food and drink? Tweeting? Dancing?

LE: Depends on the project. For Ciboulette, it was really easy to imagine the audience singing. I hope to keep doing projects that have elements of audience participation. But it largely depends on the music. If music is light, fine. If it’s a more complex musical vocabulary that needs to be listened to, then we need to listen. If it’s waltz music, feel free to chat amongst yourselves.

Lydia Perović is a writer in Toronto. Her first novel Incidental Music came out last year.

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