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Little Prince, Huge Imagination: Laurent Petitgirard talks to Jeremy Siepmann

August 1, 2013

Laurent Petitgirard

Like many but by no means all of his colleagues, Petitgirard was virtually born to music. Many, as scores of teachers can attest, have had music thrust upon them, and fewer (though still many) have achieved musicianship, in spite of their parents. Petitgirard was one of the lucky ones. He took to music as naturally as he breathed. Conducting and playing the piano were to follow, but he’s been composing, quite literally, for as long as he can remember. ‘That’s absolutely true, yes. But I had a perfect background. My father was a wonderful pianist and my older brother Alain (10 years my senior) was “the” student of the Paris Conservatory, receiving all prizes including composition and conducting. The first “proper” piece I composed was called “Three Relations for flute and piano”. That was in 1958, when I was 7 or 8 years old. Some time afterwards, when I was 11—and I’ll never forget this, of course—Alain brought me with him to his composition class, and I presented my first works to Darius Milhaud—who called me “Dear Colleague!”’

Petitgirard was not only gifted; he was enterprising. Early on he realised that a composer’s first duty, after composing itself, is to be performed. Nor did he have any intention of following the example of Schubert, who died at 31 never having heard a single one of his nine symphonies in a professional performance (and who never heard the last two, and greatest, at all). So what he do? ‘When I was 12–13 years old I founded an orchestra in my high school. It didn’t include all the instruments of course, but I composed quite a few works for it, which we played every year in the ’63–’65 period. When it comes to real, serious works and performances, however, the point of departure was when my brother conducted the Nice Radio Orchestra in 1969 in a piece called “Monument for a C sharp”. As it happened, I was starting off at the same time on another path, as a composer of film scores, which apart from anything else was a very good way to study orchestration and conducting. But I scandalised my family by developing an interest in pop music and jazz. And jazz, in particular, became important in my life. I even made a few records, and enjoyed a brief career, recording in the 1968–1971 period a few LP’s mixing classical, jazz and pop music.’

However comprehensive and detailed a composer’s aural imagination, there are almost always certain aspects of their music that become clear only when they hear it played. Has performance—by himself or others—always been instructive for Petitgirard? ‘It’s essential, as you start to compose, to hear the result of what you’ve written, especially where symphonic works are concerned. After years of experience, of course, you know perfectly well how it’ll sound, including your orchestration—but still, you need to hear it—and new ideas can spring from that. With opera, on the other hand, such chances are relatively rare. You can wait four or five years before completion and the first production. But you never go beyond the point when every hearing is an opportunity to learn.’

Moving from the composer as audience, how conscious of an external audience is Petitgirard when he’s composing? ‘I am my own audience. As a composer for the concert hall I never do anything as a concession to audiences; my thoughts are never concerned with their response. I’m guided entirely by my artistic instinct, by my own artistic judgement. When I’m writing an opera, on the other hand, this is a different situation. I will bring back a certain theme in a certain place so the audience will have a better understanding of what’s going on. Or that in this place I’ll have to have a very special instrumentation because it will remind people of something I did before. I’ll always try to do things that will help the audience to really understand what I’m doing. I always strive for clarity. But I never write specifically to please; I never court my audience.’

Composing one can do—one must do—by oneself. But to conduct, of course, you need an orchestra. How, I wondered, did Petitgirard’s early career on the rostrum develop? ‘Well my first orchestra, as I said, was when I was in High School. Then, starting around 1969, when I was 19, there was another, also largely devoted to playing all my orchestral scores. It wasn’t till 1975, though, that I conducted my first proper public concert. Another important opportunity came in 1977, when I orchestrated and conducted various Offenbach’s works for a big TV series “Les folies Offenbach”, featuring Michel Serrault as the famous composer. Two years later I conducted the whole opera La vie parisienne for the re-opening of the Châtelet Theater in Paris—and that stretched to forty performances. I learned a lot from this experience, not least by collaborating with the conductor Pierre Dervaux and observing closely how he worked. And it was this experience, really, that determined me to become, equally, a composer and a conductor. Prior to that, my conducting had been almost exclusively of my own music.’

As a conductor, as a performer, does Petitgirard’s composing self play a significant role? Does he consciously feel himself to be very much a composer-conductor? ‘I’ve always been intensely annoyed by that line one hears all too often: “He doesn’t conduct too badly for a composer”. And not just on my own account. The catalogue of outstanding and great conductors is crammed with composers. Think of Mozart, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Weber, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Wagner, Bernstein, Boulez. Of course there are many exceptions. Stravinsky, for instance, has been widely criticised for his bad conducting. Even the most gifted composer—with an insider’s understanding of how pieces are put together—has to master the technique of conducting. My best teachers there were good friends in the orchestras, who always criticized me, at my specific request, telling me “You slowed down. You’re not clear, we don’t understand, where is your first beat? Why? Why? Why?”. And this, of course, was enormously helpful. These people were my best teachers. But if being a composer has given me certain insights as a conductor, being a conductor has also influenced me as a composer—leading me, in my writing, to facilitate the task of the musicians. I wouldn’t say this changed the basis of my music, but it definitely affected its shape.’

In 1989, following the model of his high school days, Petitgirard founded another orchestra, the Orchestre Symphonique Français. What was the spur this time? ‘I was the director, at that time, of the Flaine Academy and Music Festival. There I conducted an orchestra made up of first-rate students, many of whom wanted to continue the experience during the year. So we did two sessions of two weeks, in the winter, again in Flaine, which is a famous winter sport centre. On the basis of these, which went very well, we started to complete the orchestra and to build our first proper season with the help of a wonderful couple, Eric and Sylvie Boissonnas, who supported us for eight years.’

And to what extent did it fulfil his hopes for it? ‘My aim was to build a symphonic orchestra of small size (40 members), with new concepts, including extensive secondary rights for the players, incorporated into their salaries (embracing recording, filming, indeed all the orchestra’s activities). We also pledged ourselves to playing a new piece in almost every concert, and with a very low ticket price to attract a new public. The result was immediate: a much younger public; an exciting musical experience which attracted first class musicians; a haven of freedom for composers at a time totally dominated by an intolerant avant-garde; a full time orchestra working only with private sponsors, at zero cost to the public. The result, of course, was that we became dangerous, perhaps especially for the subsidised orchestras and the unions. Everything was done to stop us, especially after two concerts in New York where Bernard Holland, in the New York Times, acclaimed our orchestra after basically roasting the French national orchestras. Our main sponsor, beside Eric and Sylvie Boissonnas, was the pharmaceutical industry, but a new law forbidding this kind of sponsoring was enough to kill the orchestra after eight years. Behind us, however, we left a legacy of some 30 CDs and 4 DVDs, plus 30 commissions to various composers. I have to say, and I’m very proud of what we did.’

On first acquaintance, Petitgirard seems in many ways quintessentially French. Is he, I wondered, like Debussy, very conscious of himself as a specifically French composer? ‘I am, because of the great heritage we have—and of course I’ve been influenced by the lightness of the orchestration of those incredible composers. But I’m not at all attracted by Debussy’s nationalism (nor, by the way, was Ravel!).’

And in what does his own Frenchness reside? ‘In the eyes of my beloved wife Sonia! In a certain concept of pleasure, including arts and food; and maybe, too, a quest for elegance (though I don’t necessarily reach it!).’

Petitgirard has written not only for the concert hall and the opera house but, prolifically, for television and cinema. Has he found that each of these media makes its own special, even unique demands? ‘The first big difference is that you can compose a film or a TV score in two weeks, while an opera , in my experience, takes a minimum of three years. In an opera, you’re your own master, so you can’t compare it to a film score. But the lessons learned from writing film scores, anticipating, illustrating, meticulously following the drama in all its detail, this is a terrific bonus, of course, when you’re composing an opera. The major difference between a film score and symphonic or opera scores, though, is not the style, as you might imagine, but the size. With the cinema, you get used to composing 30 second snippets; 1 minute, 3 minutes is a dream, a maximum. With such brevity, you almost never develop; you finish with a short breath. When I was doing a film score and then went back to my opera, I always needed two or three days to get my breath back.’

Petitgirard’s latest vocal venture is neither operatic nor soloistic but choral—though choral with a difference. What, apart from Saint-Exupery’s famous book, inspired him to compose Le petit prince? ‘It was actually my wife Sonia’s approach, in her earlier staging, at the Avignon Opera House, that was my principal guide. While I was composing my second opera “Guru”, which ends with a collective suicide, Sonia was working on “The White Crow”, Donald Freed’s play about Eichmann and Hannah Arendt, which she was going to perform in English at the York Theatre. My son, a writer, commented that after all these deaths, we should do something more peaceful. As it happens, adapting Le petit prince had been a dream of Sonia’s for a long time. Her first version was very unusually scored, by another composer, for glass harmonica and flute. My scoring is different, of course, but it too is quite unusual.’

I asked him to reminisce a little about the work’s gestation and birth. Did it come relatively easily? Were there any problems along the way? What were its principle challenges, and how completely does he feel he’s overcome them? ‘As Sonia wanted to do a large version with ballet, she needed new music. But I wasn’t interested in composing a symphonic score. What did occur to me, however—immediately—was that the solution was to use a choir, percussion and just a couple of other instruments. My final choice was three percussion instruments, clarinet and bass clarinet and one harp. It’s the combination and alternation of these three elements that bring about the move from dream to reality, from stillness to movement, and from mystery to the smile of innocence. My main problem was that though I originally composed it for a 48-voice choir, the level of difficulty was better suited to a small ensemble of professional soloists. And though we recorded the first time with the really excellent choir I’d used for “Guru”, I wasn’t satisfied, and we had to re-record two months later, with almost the same group but with quite a different type of preparation. A lot of the writing requires fantastic precision from the singers, and an intensity and acuity of listening which is really beyond the experience of even the best choruses.’ And how did he arrive at this very fascinating choral/instrumental sound world (especially instrumental)? ‘The main thing, I think, was that I wanted to use the voices as instruments and treat the instruments as voices, trying to emulate the particular resonance of human voices. But the most rewarding things of all, for me, were to set only a few significant words of Saint-Exupery in the midst of extended melisma (with one syllable spread over several or many notes—a kind of onomatopoeia) and to sustain the movement and the rhythmic energy within a choral texture.’

And what’s in the pipeline now? ‘Having recently completed a concerto for alto saxophone, which was recorded in July, I’m now starting a symphonic poem for middle size orchestra, after which I hope to start work on my third opera “Houdini”—probably for an American opera theatre rather than a French.’

And thereby hangs a tale—but not for now. Petitgirard’s relations with the French musical establishment may have been less harmonious than he could have wished, but this has done nothing to dampen his infectious vitality, his creative energy, or his passionate dedication to the art which has dominated his busy and vibrantly productive life. At 63, he might be described as a veteran but he lives in the present and embraces the future with enthusiasm, vigour and an apparently unquenchable thirst for knowledge. As the man himself said, ‘You never go beyond the point when every hearing is an opportunity to learn.’

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Laurent Petitgirard Biography & Discography

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