Meeting the bassoonist and conductor Pascal Gallois

Born in 1960, Pascal Gallois is an international figure of his instrument, the bassoon. He has been a member of Ensemble Intercontemporain and has been conducting now for ten years. He id the Director of the Mozart Conservatory of the 1st district of Paris, inaugurated in 2016 (1,800 students, 120 teachers of music, theater and dance). He also hosts the Festival The Musicales of Quiberon which is is held at the end of September, a festival combining classical repertoire and contemporary music.

After having visited this beautiful and recent conservatory, he received me in his office, with the score of the Marteau sans maître, one of his favorite works – which was not far. .. (Pascal Gallois website).

TV: Introducing myself, I tell him about my next book on “50 contemporary operas”.

PG: Your list of operas created since 1945 is impressive; opera is a subject that interests me very much; I also have a project to create a chamber opera – I will be able to give you the details in a while. The evolution of the opera is interesting: when we see the creations of a Dusapin or a Fujikura for example, while the case was not won if we consider the composers of the 1925 generation! The problem of the opera, it is obviously its cost, but I always tend to relativize it by putting it in view those of the cinema. I believe a lot in the future of the chamber opera, but the issue of the booklet is essential: we can not anymore write booklets with wagnerian legends for example.

TV: How and why did you become a conductor?

PG: It came naturally; I created many solo pieces in collaboration with the composers; systematically they worked on another larger projects, for large groups, and I invariably discussed with them the project whose sketches were on their desk. On the other hand, I had the chance to integrate the Ensemble Intercontemporain at 22 and to work with Pierre Boulez of course, but also many other personalities like Olivier Messiaen for example. I realized that finally few bassoonists had proselytized their instruments to living composers and I was very touched to see these great men like Boulez, Stockhausen, Messiaen or Berio asking me questions about my instrument: at 25, I felt important, even essential! I spent many years presenting, explaining my instrument; I also wrote a treatise on bassoon technique, prefaced by Pierre Boulez.
Conducting, I also share with musicians, young people such as those of the Contemporary Orchestral Ensemble, Tempus Konnex or the ICE ensemble of New York. They are often in their thirties and have not had the chance that I had to mwork with these great composers: a Ligeti for example, who found that the solo of Le Sacre  was not high enough …

So, conducting is already sharing with fellow musicians; finally, during my career, I met very few composers who conducted their own music or conductors who knew how to share with the musicians. Medias always talk about the arm of a conductor, but you will never hear a musician say ‘did you see that conductor’s arm?’ The key is to know how to work a set – very few conductors know how to do it, like a Boulez for example and it must be chamber music: managing time, communicating. It has become participatory democracy, not like in the time of the Toscanini; It must be said that the musicians of that time did not have the technical level of those of today: myself, leaving the Conservatoire, I was less well prepared than young people today. And then how to interpret a work that I adore, Le Marteau sans maître, where there is no bassoon, if not conducting it myself?

I fluttered from flower to flower in some manner with the different composers; I loved to play them pieces of other composers without giving their name; I played Berio to Stockhausen; to Sciarrino too: I played him works by Hersant, Hosokawa and the last piece, when I told him it was by Berio (Sequenza XII): “Ah, it’s his best piece!” …

The bassoon is a complex instrument, which has not benefited from the craze for other wind instruments in the wake of jazz; I understood that I had to go quickly to create creations, as Heinz Holliger had done before for the oboe.

We always quote the solo of Le Sacre (written for a French bassoon), but I think that if Stravinsky had known a bassoonist of the stature of clarinetist Benny Goodman, he would have written for this instrument. It’s interesting to see the evolution of his writing: I directed both versions of his Symphonies of wind instruments; in the 1921 version, there is a flute on the ground playing in the medium of the instrument; it was replaced in the 1940 version by a bassoon playing in the treble, probably inspired by the game of American bassoonists of the time that can be heard in film or cartoon music.

TV: Let’s go back to conducting, how did you do to learn the beat for example?

PG: The beat is only one way, the main thing is sharing. But I have been standing a few meters from Pierre Boulez for thirty-five years, I think that’s where I learned everything – I also attended his master classes in Lucerne in the last years of his life. But I also played under the direction of Leonard Bernstein for his last concert in Paris; I also saw conductors evolve around Pierre Boulez: Peter Eötvös, David Robertson, Jonathan Nott. Located between strings and winds, my place was ideal, even if at the time I did not imagine being a conductor. But why would it be better to become a conductor at 25 instead of 50? Toscanini especially began to conduct late. The star system emphasizes the gesture, but as Pierre Boulez told me, it’s a bit like a sports car, you have to be there for the delicate moments, like the turns. But apart from these delicate moments, we are close to chamber music, playing with the qualities and possibilities of each. The conductor is at the best place to regulate the dynamics, the acoustic weight of the instruments. The bassoon is ideal for that, it has a delicate sound density – the Germans say it plays too loud or too soft – but it has a great harmonic density; that is why it has been used since Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert; it’s a bit like a great supporting role in the cinema. In all musical literature, there is almost no composer who used the instrument as another composer. For example the  staccato in Dukas is not at all the one wanted by Bartók. or by Shostakovich. I was very interested in this issue of sound projection in the orchestra, whether in my classes in Paris, Zurich, Vienna or Darmstadt or in my conversations with composers; very few conductors are really interested in it, maybe for lack of time, but it’s fundamental.

TV: I heard you last week with Marie-Christine Barrault and the EOC. Why this project?

PG: Like her uncle Jean-Louis, for whom she has deep admiration, Marie-Christine Barrault is an actress very close to contemporary music. With the Direction of the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, we decided to organize a poetry and music evening: René Char / Boulez ; Paul Célan  / Birtwistle. This cross meeting was for me a very beautiful experience where we could also reveal a young and brilliant talent with a promising future, the soprano Alexandrine Monnot.

TV: Without sycophancy, I had compared different versions of Boulez’s of Le Marteau and for me it was your recent one that sounded the best …

PG: Thank you, but you touch an important point: Pierre Boulez scared the instrumentalists who played in front of him. For example, when I recorded with him Dialogue de l’ombre double, he would lead in front of me and say, “but why is it so stiff?” “But because you’re in front of me; listen Pierre, I’d rather know you in the cabin.” In fact he was inspired for this piece of the song of African women, an incantation of rain that had made him hear Jean Rouch. I told him I was going to play it like jazz and I was able to approach his music in a more visceral way. When we gave Le Marteau last week the instrumentalists worked each part. Then we could talk music. Talk about this partition in an almost animal way, like insects maracas in the n ° 9. We talked a lot with Marie-Christine Barrault of Pierre Boulez on this occasion. He had a humanity, the Ensemble Intercontemporain was his family, like Chicago or Vienna orchestras. He knew everything about the life of the members of the orchestra, he was a thousand miles away from the cold image that had been stuck to him. When I got married he sent me a gift, later when I had a car accident, he sent me a gift, called me. He was very fond of the instrumentalists; the tuba of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra had ways to warm up his instrument that Boulez took up in Repons. When I play or conduct Boulez, I always think about the ritual: all his life he talks about ritual and death (Rituel, Memoriale), he was extremely sensitive but also very modest. When I saw him with Messiaen, the grand Boulez had eyes of admiration when Messiaen entered the room.
I went several times to visit Stockhausen: you had to hold the shock! He played a character and I had the opportunity to talk about him with Pierre Boulez especially after the September 11th case. He told an American journalist in response to a question like “contemporary art you does not interest many people” and he said that ‘if you have to interest a lot of people to make an art then what did bin Laden demonstrate that he was a great artist’ – and only this sentence was taken out of context. The Tabachnik Affair: Pierre was a generous and faithful man, a man of justice who wanted to understand things. But it exasperated him that a musician could play a sort of high priest role. Boulez and Berio were very close friends: Boulez admiring the facility of Berio to compose and Berio admiring the intellectuality of Boulez. Berio was very instinctive; I had played him, returning from Japan, Japanese pieces, including Monodrama II by Yoshihisa Taïra: he took the last bar and made it the beginning of the Sequenza.

My experience of the everyday life of contemporary composers makes me better understand the classics. When Mozart wrote his bassoon concerto at eighteen, he wrote it for Baron von Dürnitz, a Bavarian aristocrat who played bassoon and Mozart’s figures are quite like an aristocrat. . Instinctively, as I have seen with those I have known, composers are inspired by the personality of the instrumentalist for whom the work is intended. It was the same with the composers that I attended: they were inspired by my personality, that I made them value what for me was a strong element of the interpretation. Often when we work on pieces from the older repertoire, we forget this notion. Bach was angry with his bassoonist, had pulled out his sword, which had earned him a night’s imprisonment. In 2002, I did a show for Arte with Berio and Giorgio Strehler on music / staging / comedians and that’s where it became clear to me how much the composer was inspired by the instrumentalist, such as a director by a comedian. Cathy Berberian said it: when Luciano composes me a piece, it suits me like a dress, as for me the Sequenza: it’s like hand-made.

To return to my desire to move towards conducting is that sometimes a conductor will speak with speed or bows for the strings, but he never talks about air speed for winds for example; many conductors are pianists or string players, very few are wind instrumentalists. By this knowledge, we can change the color of a set a lot.
For le Marteau, I thought about the physical layout of the set: from the garden side to the yard side; garden side, the flute and the singer, and the more you go to the court, to the right, you have in the middle the viola, then the guitar; for the drums behind, we have the vibraphone behind the guitar with hard chopsticks and to the left the xylorimba with more rounded wood blades, like the flute in the ground, so that the instrumentalists hear the others well. At number 2, the flutist told me that no conductor had asked him to play held; I showed him the score where Boulez said “give the values ​​all their continuity, at the limit of the legato”. From the first repetition I look for the color, the installation comes from elsewhere at the same time. The Marteau was written at 29, Pierre has indicated the battues on the score. I had the chance to know the instrumentalists of the time: Guy Deplus, Serge Collot, they were the young people of Pierre Boulez in the 50s and I was the young in the 80s, and for me it is a pleasure to share with young people now. He went to the Museum of Man to listen to non-Western music and he said for example for the harp which here is an elegant instrument whereas in Asia, it is a violent instrument, or like the koto: the guitar has some violent accents in the Marteau. He had said hard things against jazz, but in; Explosante-fixe he asked the brass pianist for jazz attacks …

We need to know from the first minutes of rehearsing in which direction we will go on the day of the concert. I really like to direct this piece precisely because it is complex to direct; with Boulez we have this intense pleasure of maximum concentration; in his music, we insist too little on this aspect: the importance of punctuation: there are many stopping points, more or less long, He said there is nothing worse than to always hear the same moments of silence: we spend a lot of time working on breakpoints. It is necessary to work the nuances, the sound balances and to ensure the instrumentalists remember it. It is a ritual a little like a great Mass, everything is written, conceived, freedom remaining in the sound balance and breathing; I try to make Boulez sound like Debussy. Boulez was a pedagogue, not demonstrative, but sharing his passions.

I really like Czech musicians; in Central Europe they found themselves between Germany and Russia, they adore the French music the staccato of the winds in Prague is wonderful; they are very great musicians who do not take themselves seriously. Boulez liked Leoš Janáček a lot, he went to Brno. In addition to the ensemble Prague Modern, I play with the ensemble Tempus Konnex in Leipzig – a city which, if it is Bach’s, is developing a lot towards contemporary arts. There are a lot of Asians in this group and we Europeans do not care enough about the interest of Asians in European music. In Germany, there is a great lineage in music, from Bach to Rihm, while in France, great figures like Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Boulez appeared in some way without filiation.
In Germany the “Komponist” is a recognized and important profession. When one is an instrumentalist and one speaks German, one feels the importance of contemporary music in Germany; when the mayor of Darmstadt makes a speech about Hitler and his fight against “degenerate” music, one feels a deep silence. I was part of a jury in Darmstadt: the Germans as soon as it was a little sung or melodic, they said no. There is the question of Nazism but also the place of contemporary music even now: the musicians who practice contemporary music are a little alternative characters, Thirty years ago when I went to play in Frankfurt with Ensemble Modern: I immediately thought of sausage and beer, while the musicians were vegetarians. In France, it was different because we had the chance to have Pierre Boulez: we could make contemporary music and be recognized. I had this chance to get on the job market when Boulez returned from New York and it also brings me to play and play his music. For Philippe Manoury’s future piece, commissioned by Barenboim, Das Wohlpreparierte Klavier for piano & electronics with Daniel Barenboim at the piano, which will be premiered at Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin in this Mozart Conservatory. Real-time computing will recognize not only the pitch of the sounds but also the sensitivity of the pianist’s game.

TV: But I know composers who have lived Boulez or Darmsdadt as almost a nightmare?

PG: Of course. But the instrumentalist can go beyond the currents: I gave a program to IRCAM which juxtaposed Boulez, Ligeti and Hersant. I played Hersant to Luciano Berio, who also picked up items in Sequenza XII. As an interpreter, I play both Boulez and Dutilleux, Hersant or Campo. I find it logical that there is this tension between composers; if there were not that, they might be animated with less energy?
With Boulez, his writing was very demanding but did not go to the impossible. When we repeated Xenakis’ Jalons, Boulez conducted and it was quite tense: 40 or 50% of the piece is impossible to play as it was written and Boulez was exasperated. In Ligeti or Berio, there was this demand for concentration of the instrumentalists to do something extreme, which became a means of expression, as with Ligeti: the piccolo in the extreme bass or bassoon, bass and trombone in the extreme acute.

I like to compose programs, it’s also the reason why I created my festival Les Musicales de Quiberon. Boulez knew how to compose programs, to know how to maintain the attention or the tension of an audience. As an instrumentalist or conductor, I am constantly listening to what is happening in the audience. Sometimes, when we have to play a multiphonic, we must do it slower: past the effect of surprise, give the public time to understand and then taste.

TV: We have the impression that in contemporary music, there are fewer degrees of freedom in the performance. An instrumentalist who played with Gergiev told me at the rehearsal: “Gentlemen, you are musicians like me, we know the score, so see you tonight” …

PG: Oh there is always some freedom. Gergiev reminds me a bit of Bernstein. We would all have paid to play with him. Once, he arrived at a morning rehearsal of the  Rite; he was; already a little drunk, and it was finally the timpanist of the Orchestre de Paris who had held the case … When we lead ensembles of this technical quality, fewer rehearsals can bring them to the concert a little less comfortable and then they give their maximum. It is necessary to always associate each musician with the project and of course to respect them. Few conducters do it, but always keep in mind that it’s still harder to blow into an oboe than to conduct! The conductor must be on par with the first violin or the third trombone, that’s how I worked with Pierre Boulez or Péter Eötvös for years. The leader of the project is the composer, much less well paid than many conductors elsewhere. I discovered with the Ensemble intercontemporain an excellent musician, very sensitive: Jonathan Nott, who does a very good job in Geneva. 

TV: Tour projects?

So there is this chamber opera project, projects with Prague Modern, Tempus Konnex, European ‘political’ projects as well; I think we need to highlight European culture. It is unthinkable to make music without thinking of Germany, like gastronomy without France; that’s why I practiced the German bassoon very early and learned the language.
I am invited to lead the Meitar ensemble in Israel. There are many new ensembles of young instrumentalists being created around the world. I publish a recording a year, I have a project with Tempus Konnex but also probably with Prague Modern , a European project: French, German and Czech. I like working with these ensembles like the ICE in New York as well, with young people very committed, despite the economic situation of artists, more difficult in the US; it was through them that I knew the music of an extraordinary composer, the Icelandic Anna Thorvaldsdottir .

While leafing through my book on Régis Campo, Pascal Gallois remarks the photo of Frederick Martin: “he wrote for me a piece for bassoon and accordion I had created in Darmstadt, I had ordered several pieces. Cultivated and very sensitive Luc Brewaeys, Belgian composer also died young of a cancer”.

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