Laurence Equilbey, a prolific French conductor whose accomplishments span from founding the Accentus chamber choir, inventing the e-tuner and even releasing commercial recordings that combine classical and pop music. Rivka Jacobsen asks Equilbey about her recent revival of MAGNIFICAT, which premiered at the Barbican this September.
Your program MAGNIFICAT consists of works by three composers, is there any particular reason for this choice?
At the beginning it was really only Mozart and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach because the MAGNIFICAT, masterpiece by Carl Philipp, it is not very well known. I wanted to show how Mozart expressed MAGNIFICAT and to also show how Carl Philipp did in his more Baroque style. Carl Philipp opened the door for Mozart. Both lead the way for the classical style. It was interesting to compare them and have both works in the same concert.
We added the Zelenka because the Barbican asked us to do the programme a bit longer. And I liked this piece. And in the MAGNIFICAT you also have period and accordion so its almost the same text and really Zelenka is a genius. He also opens the ways to Mozart. Both of the composers are going in the same direction, but Zelenka in more of a crazy way because he has some fulgurance [dazzling speed] and Carl Phillipp more équilibre; more balanced between Baroque and the new style. It is interesting.
What are the great challenges you have as a conductor?
You have to inspire the musicians or the singers in front of you. It is very important to inspire them but also to be in control of what they are playing or singing. It is a duality in your attitude. A double. So that is a great challenge, to be involved and to keep a distance. You have to be very concentrated. If you are too much involved, though, you miss a lot of things, but you cannot be too cold.
It depends also of the repertoire. Some are much more human, and others are more abstract and conceptual. It’s easier when, for example, some works are very conceptual so it’s more relaxed. But with Mahler you have to give yourself to the music otherwise the music doesn’t exist. It’s more complicated with romantic music because you have to go inside with your own emotions.
I like conducting Orchestras but they are more complicated because of the pit. You can sometimes have décollage between the pit and the stage. But I like it very much because I like the visual arts, and I like challenging things.
You are known for your work in the choral repertoire. Is it inspired by a religious upbringing?
I studied in Vienna and I discovered the choral repertoire there with the big pieces by Strauss etc. It was very simple. I was fascinated by the works and when I came back to Paris I found there was no choir available to perform these pieces, so I formed my one, Accentus Choir.
Insula Orchestra and Accentus Choir – how difficult is it to secure a perfect liaison between the two?
We use period instruments in the Orchestra. I like very much early romantic music, and I like the colours, the balance; it’s Baroque. I am very interested in the problems today in playing in the big halls, you have to always compromise but respect this historical philosophy.
I think with the period instrument orchestras the most difficult with the choir is to get a sound in the same family. The voices today are generous, the voice technique has really changed, we sing with a lot of vibrato and directness. We try to search for a voice we cannot imitate.
One of you teachers, Jorma Panula, a Finnish conductor, composer, and teacher of conducting remarked in a television interview in 2014 “women were suited to conducting music that was “feminine enough”. Can you comment?
He also said that the woman couldn’t conduct at all, perhaps Debussy! It’s a generation problem also. He was a good teacher. He had a simple technique; he was very interesting, just not very diplomatic. I don’t think female conductors interpret their work differently, no.
You had formal music education in Paris, Vienna, London and Scandinavia. Music is a universal language. What about the teaching of it?
I tried to take the several influences. Some are very instinctive; others like Dennis and Metters have the baton technique. And then I studied choir conducting with Eric Alexander. His special gestures are very good for the choir but with an orchestra you need more. Each master has his technics; you take and learn from each. You have to build your own aesthetic.
It’s always very important for a student in Europe to get real influences and culture. Germany, British, French, Scandinavian, Italian. In my temperament I’m much more early romantic; more German than I am French. I like when the conductors can be involved in the body of the music but not too much of a showman. I like more humility.
You invented the “e-tuner”, an electronic means of tuning quarter tones and 1/3 tones. Can you explain this to lay readers?
This electronic tuner is a very small piano that you can have in front of you on the music stand. It gives a full scale. If you need an A you get it: it’s more accurate than a tuning fork. It’s helpful for contemporary music and I felt the need for it. I like the choir concerts when they are in the same philosophy as the lively orchestra: big pieces, cycles, no stop. You need this then. It was a dream to have this machine, and I’m very grateful I developed it. I put all of my money into it, but it’s worth it.
You are also collaborating with the Private Domain project. Can you tell us something about it?
I have a pseudonym: iko. It’s like iconoclast. I like sometimes to have little detours and I wanted to do something with electronic artists from the pop music. So a few years ago with my label we decided to propose to a DJ to work with me. I can see the notes that come from classical music in the pop music. This recording is interesting; you have some Bach, Shubert etc. We record all the parts together with period instruments then the DJ takes it in the machine and together we make a new arrangement.
In 2008 you were made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Had this award open new doors?
No. I think it perhaps it maybe helped my reputation to be more respected. It doesn’t get me invited to more orchestras. I don’t see a change in my career. But I was proud because it’s always great when your country says ‘you can do something important for France’.
Her CD, ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’, combines recordings from both Paris and Vienna, is now on sale.
My thanks to Sophia Chetin-Leuner who kindly transcribed and edited the interview.