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The Magic Flautist & Conductor – Patrick Gallois Talks to Jeremy Siepmann

February 21, 2011

Patrick Gallois

Patrick Gallois. Flautist extraordinaire, chamber musician par excellence, conductor from the age of 10, chamber partner with the likes of Yuri Bashmet, Natalia Gutman, Peter Schreier, Jean-Pierre Rampal (his teacher), Jörg Demus and the Lindsay Quartet, he was appointed 1st flute of the Orchestre National de France at the age of 21, later working under the direction of such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez, Karl Böhm, Eugen Jochum, Sergiu Celibidache; he has conducted orchestras, his own and others, around the world, and is a veteran of the recording studio. A well-known champion of contemporary composers, music has been the air he breathed for as long as he can remember.

‘Yes, it was always there. My father was a musician, and we always listened to music, and made music together. The whole family was musical; my brother is a well-known bassoonist. Making music was so natural that I was really surprised when someone first offered to pay me for playing. It had never occurred to me that you could get money from music. At that time I was in my very early teens. Performing had always been utterly natural to me; you know, playing at church weddings and things like that. I’d never seen it as anything but pure pleasure.’

The flute was his first instrument, and very much more. ‘In the north of France there’s a great tradition of band playing, and I found playing in the band a wonderful way of being together with other people. The rich and the poor, the first of the city and the last, all making music together. We had a great time. It was particularly good for me, because I was very shy and found it difficult to express myself in words. Only through music could I express myself. When my father died, I couldn’t even cry. I could communicate my deepest feelings through music alone. Originally, however, I wanted to be a painter. But one paints in isolation. With music, on the other hand, you’re always in contact with other people. But it wasn’t just contact. It was the exchange with other people, the mutual communication. Music made that possible for me. Before I was 16, I was already playing in a professional orchestra, the radio orchestra in Lille, but I’d actually begun conducting six years earlier than that, with our local band.’

And who were the musicians—performers and composers—who most influenced his development as a musician? ‘Among my teachers, it was Rampal who really awakened me, who released the real musician in me. It was through performers more than composers that I really discovered myself, that I acquired my own true voice as a musician. Today, by contrast, I’m in constant contact with composers, which I find enormously stimulating. I believe very much in giving a voice to the music of today. Indeed I include at least one piece of new music in every concert. It’s not enough just to play Mozart and Beethoven. But equally, it’s vitally important that we don’t disconnect the present from the past. That we understand music as a process of continuous development. When we play only the classics it’s like going to a museum. We may get a lot out of it, but we don’t contribute to society, the society in which we live, the society of today. I love the music of the past. I love the Baroque—and I even recognise qualities of modernity in it. But at the same time I feel the need of new blood—the blood that’s given to us by the composer. Contemporary music requires the same time and care and attention as Beethoven and Mozart. We must understand that this music, while not more important, is definitely as important as the music of the past.’

When programming new music, does Gallois have any guiding principles of presentation? Does he strive to put it in particular contexts? ‘The first thing to say is that I don’t like to think in categories—‘Baroque’, ‘Classical’, ‘Romantic’—I like to think only of music in its widest reference. I like to touch on every kind of music. I like to do crossover. And not only within music itself but between music and the other arts—relating dance and music, painting and music, literature and music etc. I’m also very fond of playing jazz, by the way.’

Turning from present to past, and from the orchestral to the instrumental, I wondered whether the famous French school of flute playing continued to flourish, or whether it had fallen victim, like so much else, to the effects of globalisation? ‘Oh no fear of that! There’s a very distinct line from Taffanel to Gaubert to Rampal to me, to Pahud. In the French tradition no-one actually plays the flute, they just breathe! I don’t know why it should be, but the French seem to play more brilliantly, more easily, more naturally than others. And the French tradition itself has been widely exported, so you now find many French and French-trained flautists in orchestras all over the world. I have to say, though, that there are certain things which I’ve tried to change in my 25 years or so of teaching in Paris—especially the fact that French flautists have tended to play first and think afterwards. And I think I’ve had some success—not just through my work in Paris but through my recordings for Naxos. I was supposed to record the Mozart concertos for Deutsche Grammophon but they insisted on my doing it with the Vienna Philharmonic, whose approach was very different from my own (mine being based very significantly on my close study of Leopold Mozart’s famous treatise). We couldn’t come to any agreement so I left the company, very happily, for Naxos, where I could have the right orchestra, to do the job with me as I wanted. It was a dream come true.

For Naxos he has recorded the complete flute concertos of CPE Bach (8.555715–16), Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 1–5 (8.557571) and Gounod’s Symphonies (8.557463), among other works. His recording for Naxos of the instrumental music from Kraus’s Aeneas in Carthage (8.570585) was awarded a Choc by Musica in April 2010.

With Naxos, I was no longer, so to speak, stuck in the system. My last project for DG was a jazz record, which they then decided they didn’t want after all. And I was very upset about this, because I felt this was an important part of myself. I enjoy very much working for Naxos, because they leave me free to explore, to continue to find my own way—and in the specific case of the Mozart concertos, to put the fruits of my musicological research into practice. Another of the early texts I steeped myself in was the famous book by C.P.E. Bach. Among other things, these studies sharpened my awareness of the limitations of our musical notation—the fact that it needs verbal elucidation to educate the performer in all manner of subtleties and details which lie beyond the scope of notes written on a page. Interestingly, my reading of these early texts not only illuminated for me the music of those times, it helped me enormously to understand today’s music. And it has very little to do, as I said, with the standard approach of the French flute school, which has tended to confuse excellence of performance with the art of interpretation, the delving beneath the surface to discover the true essence of a composition, and the circumstances and contexts which gave rise to it. One of the reasons I love so much to work with contemporary composers is because I understand them better as a direct result of what I’ve learned from C.P.E. Bach, Leopold Mozart, Quantz and others.’

The little-known or unknown composers Gallois champions, however, are by no means all contemporary. His latest release for Naxos is a case in point. Reinagle? Hewitt? Carr? ‘It’s not just the composers who are unfamiliar! Almost no-one has any idea that music like this was being written in America at this time (we’re talking about the period between 1796 and 1810). And one of these composers, by the way, received a knife in his back while he was conducting one of his pieces (this is not a fair comment on the composition!). Apparently the reason was that there weren’t enough Irish songs or French songs quoted in the music! One of the things that appealed to me about this repertoire is that I’m always attracted by music that provides a window on the time in which it was written. When conducting it I tried to imagine that I myself was living in that time and in that place. It’s a fascinating example of the kinds of ideas and styles and influences that were crossing the Atlantic back then. Sometimes it’s completely Baroque, sometimes quite academic, sometimes like Mozart, sometimes like military music—sometimes there’s actually some beautiful music too! Just about every influence that was abroad in the world is reflected in here somewhere. It’s extraordinary how full the world is of composers that we don’t know.’

And how did he discover these? ‘Typically, it was Naxos who came up with the idea for this record. And I jumped at it, because I love encountering new music—whenever it was written. That said, there were times when I had my doubts now and again. There are moments where it’s very repetitious, like one instance where you get Yankee Doodle not one or two but 10 times!’

Given his catalogue of more than 100 CDs, I was unsurprised to learn that Gallois enjoys recording. ‘Recording for me is something altogether different from making music in the hall. I love to be in the hall. I’d love to do live recordings there. But in recordings you can try to find something else. I try to work on a different level in recording. I try to increase the level of conversation, of variety, of the unexpected. I try to invest the recording with enough diversity so that listeners may find something new each time they hear it. If that doesn’t happen, it’s just boring. You listen to the CD once and throw it in the garbage. For me, making a CD is not to make something perfect; it’s to make something you can hear many times, and every time you will discover another voice emerging, or something like that. It’s like the image of a diamond. If you see a diamonds during the day, it will have one colour, or a particular range of colours, if you see it at night it will have others.’

Having played and conducted all over the world, has Gallois, I wondered, noticed distinct differences between audiences in different places, different cultures? ‘Oh absolutely. Yes. Even the public in Paris is very different from the public in Germany, let alone in Korea, Tokyo, Bulgaria, Poland etc, all of whom differ from each other. Almost everywhere you go, you find this diversity. In Germany for instance, they like to have something they know, and they appreciate subtle differences in the way things are done; in France we like to go out and show how beautiful we are (!); in Korea they go completely crazy; they shout with enthusiasm, it’s fantastic; in China it’s very similar, whereas in Japan, by comparison, they can seem very cold, very quiet; it can seem harder to awaken their responses—to get them standing up is quite something. Interestingly, it’s with new music that I can most reliably get them standing up. And of course people in different countries appreciate different music, different composers. Japan was the most difficult country for me, for a long time. Yet this is where I built my career actually. And the fact is, of course, that they are not cold. They’re concentrating, they’re fantastically focused listeners.’

One reads and hears that the audience for classical music is declining. In his travels around the world does Gallois see any evidence of this? ‘I hear this too. But I don’t believe it. It varies of course. Some countries are going down in that respect, others are coming up. I think one problem is that so many concert organisers today have so little imagination, so little vision. They have a big responsibility and in many cases they’re not living up to it. And the public who pay money to go to concerts aren’t getting enough to stimulate their curiosity, so it’s a kind of vicious circle. I’m convinced there’s a large audience for music which is interesting and fresh, but they get tired of going to concerts and always hearing the same Beethoven symphonies, often played by the same orchestras and conductors. You find a similar situation at many international festivals. And the answer, I’m convinced, does not lie with those groups and organisations who specialise in one kind of music (be it new music or whatever) and play nothing else. I don’t know why people want to separate one kind of music from another. I really find that very concerning. I think it’s the responsibility of concert organisers, the managers of the great venues, to celebrate the variety and diversity of the many kinds of music which are happening now—which are being heard all over the world.

‘This is one of the things I think is so marvellous about Naxos. With their huge catalogue they offer a remarkable window on the world of music, a fantastic range of music to explore and discover and connect. On balance, I have to say that I’m not pessimistic about the future of classical music. I feel strongly that there will be more and more public for that. Maybe we’ll lose a part of it—maybe—but we’ll gain something else. Music will go on.’ With musicians of Gallois’s dedication, curiosity, energy and passion, that, happily, would seem to be a given. We are all of us in their debt.

Patrick Gallois Biography & Discography


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