Yan Pascal Tortelier on conducting: ‘Art and beauty enlighten, elevate and open unexpected doors’

He returns to the National Symphony Orchestra’s podium for the first time in nearly three decades.

For his return to the National Symphony Orchestra’s podium for the first time in nearly three decades, Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts a highly evocative, impressionistic program this week featuring selections from Suites Nos. 1 and 2 of George Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, an NSO co-commission by Angélica Negrón (En otra noche, en otro mundo) and the full “choreographic symphony” of Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé.

Tortelier spoke with DC Metro Theater Arts about his long-standing friendship with NSO music director Gianandrea Noseda, the “idyllic” week he spent with the orchestra, how he transmits music, his musical lineage—and not just his celebrated cellist father, the late Paul Tortelier—and his gratitude for his life as an artist.

This interview, originally conducted in French, has been edited for length and clarity.

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Olivia Hampton: Over the course of the past several decades, you have led orchestras all over the world. What sort of dialogue do you maintain with the orchestra and with soloists? What is unique about your own musical language?

Yan Pascal Tortelier: Each conductor has a mix of different skills and attributes. We act in accordance with our distinct temperaments. What’s important is to have an osmosis between the conductor and the orchestra. Otherwise, I promise you, it’s no fun when it doesn’t stick.

This is your third time leading the NSO. How has the orchestra evolved over the years, especially since Gianandrea Noseda took over as music director?

That question gives me great pleasure because Gianandrea Noseda was my successor at the BBC Philharmonic (2002–2011), which I led for 12 years (1992–2003). So we met at the time and since then we’ve been a bit like two conductor brothers. We spoke about conductors having distinct personalities. But sometimes, conductors can have personalities that are rather close, in the same vein, especially if they both have Latin origins, as is the case for Gianandrea and myself. I think we are rather similar in our way of making and feeling music. He came here and has done beautiful work with the orchestra. At 75 years old, I hope I’ve made progress since the first time I came (to the NSO, in 1991) and that in 30 years I’ve matured and conduct better. But it has to be said, the orchestra has made considerable progress and the result is that I am spending an absolutely idyllic, wonderful week with the orchestra. That’s perhaps because Gianandrea and I share a bit of the same character, so the orchestra isn’t disoriented and finds itself. I pay tribute to Gianandrea, who is a great friend and who plays a very significant role here in Washington.

Would you say the sound has changed considerably?

It’s not really a question of sound. Yes, by definition, music is the art of sounds, but sound—the notes—is just a means of expression; it’s the medium. What’s beautiful is what the sounds express, which is to say, feelings and emotions. Music creates sound. Sound doesn’t create music.

It’s an orchestra that communicates emotions differently than 30 years ago.

I don’t solicit a sound or a tone for the sake of it. I seek a sound that emanates from the music.

You’re bringing an impressionistic program that conjures up all sorts of mostly bucolic images. In L’Arlésienne, there’s the farm. There’s the love story of the goat herder and shepherdess in Daphnis et Chloé, and even Angélica Negrón’s piece is based on a poem that talks about the desire for escape. What’s behind your choice of pieces to play with the NSO?

After all these years, I wanted to return with a masterpiece, so there was of course nothing better than Daphnis et Chloé, which I consider to be the greatest score of French music. In addition, Daphnis et Chloé as a whole, the full piece, is a bit ignored because orchestras tend to only play the second suite, which is very famous and is the most beautiful part of the piece. That said, the entire ballet is incredibly beautiful. I’ve lightened it a bit because there are no sets, dancers, or other spiel. In musical terms, I’m more after a condensed symphonic work, but one that still lasts 45 minutes. That’s still substantial. Then, of course, the Bizet is what in English they call the “bread and butter.” It’s our music by nature. Poor Bizet who died at 36 years old and who never knew he had composed the world’s most famous opera (Carmen).

How has your interpretation evolved over time with works like Daphnis et Chloé, which you’ve recorded?

I’ll be very frank. It’s a work I have played and known for 50 years. What changes is how I put it together. It’s more concrete; it’s in how I make the orchestra work, how I resolve problems. It’s much better today, especially with as receptive an orchestra as this one. It’s wonderful. They have terrific capabilities. Of course, I made small adjustments, such as in my way of working on certain passages by slowing or speeding up a given tempo in certain passages. Some changes take place over the years. I wouldn’t say it’s the definitive recording, but I made a very nice recording about 30 years ago (with the Ulster Orchestra). It took me an hour for Daphnis et Chloé in full, with choirs and all the effects. But I think that today I am closer to 50 minutes than 60 minutes. It’s really incredible. It shows you how tempos change. I think that at first, 30 years ago, I would get bogged down a bit perhaps in decomposition. For a conductor, the danger in decomposition, meaning separating all the notes, is that it affects the pace, which gets weighed down.

Over the years, with experience and by returning to the same piece or pieces over and over, how has your perspective evolved?

The music per se speaks to me exactly the same way today as it did 30 or 40 years ago. There’s no way around it. There are just some changes that are very technical and only concern the musicians, especially in terms of how tempos have evolved. But the nature and the essence of the music, I sense it in the same way today as I did 50 years ago.

Let’s change gears a bit and talk about interpretation in a very literal way. You gave up the baton. It’s a rather physical way of conducting.

I stopped using the baton about 15 years ago. I did that because I’m fairly tall and have rather long arms. In the first part of my career, I was so passionate about what I had to do. Being a conductor is obviously a fascinating job. It’s very difficult on many levels, and not for the reasons you’d imagine, but when it works, a symphonic orchestra is the most beautiful thing in the world. We spoke about sounds earlier. Do you know of a more beautiful sound than a symphonic orchestra, honestly?

No, besides nature.

There you go, you have the correct answer. I was going to say apart from birds. So earlier in my career, I would let myself give in a little too much to my impassioned temperament. Sometimes, it boiled over a bit and I felt that I was taking up too much space physically. The baton amplified my gestures, so I decided to tighten my posture and to conduct more concisely. Without the baton, I could avoid flowery gestures, things that could be bothersome. In any case, it helped me become more concise in the way I lead an orchestra. At the same time, I can be expressive with my arms. Fundamentally, a conductor can’t just be a metronome. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need a conductor. We would just stick a metronome on stage and the orchestra would play with a metronome. We need to transmit something, and we transmit with our soul, our heart, and our body. To put it simply, we transmit with our entire being. Since the body is part of the being, there are moments where music needs arms to be expressed. I no longer need a baton. Otherwise, I end up with a limb that’s more than a meter (yard) long.

In other words, your way of conducting is the opposite of austerity.

Exactly. I’ll make a confession: I’ve always received more compliments from experts, from orchestras, and from people who know the job well when I tried to reduce my behavioral excesses, my histrionics, as they say in English.

You come from a family of great musicians. With as strong a paternal figure as Paul Tortelier, what kind of demands and pressure marked you? Was it inevitable for you to become a musician?

Exactly. It was fatality, or destiny. My father was lucky I didn’t oppose it. He was lucky to have a son who followed the path he had traced, but I was lucky to follow that path, to simply be the musician that I am and to benefit from this life of an artist that opens so many horizons, so many doors onto the world, on emotions, on feelings that few people get to enjoy. Art and beauty enlighten, elevate, and open unexpected doors.

You have spoken about conducting as a sort of emancipation. How is this linked to the challenges you faced as a violinist?

I didn’t get started as a conductor without musical assets. I was a full-time concert violinist. I studied music theory, harmony, and composition at the Paris Conservatory with Nadia Boulanger, all of which instilled in me a very consequential understanding of music. I was lucky to have been rocked first by my mother, who was a cellist and thus carried me for nine months against her cello. And then I was lucky to have been tested by a professor of harmony to train my musical ear. This professor of harmony was Jules Massenet’s collaborator. Nadia Boulanger was a student of Gabriel Fauré. So this is not to boast, but just to explain my French musical roots. They certainly are French; there’s no doubt about that.

How did becoming a conductor emancipate you?

It opened new horizons for me. I was much more narrowly focused as a musician with the violin. I was focused on an extremely demanding instrument with which I obtained excellent results but with which I really felt restrained. I felt the need to breathe more and to be able to express myself on a greater scale, so that’s really why I went into conducting. And my father—who had performed with (Arturo) Toscanini, Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter, and Serge Koussevitzky—would always talk to me about conducting an orchestra as a kind of end goal. So I took the punch. And it takes time to reach relative serenity. I am 75 years old and I hope I’ll keep in good health to enjoy that.

The National Symphony Orchestra performed under the baton of Yan Pascal Tortelier October 28, 29 and 30, 2021, at the Kennedy Center. View the digital program here.

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