‘I really believe in the sharing of arts’: Chloé van Soeterstède
Artist of the Month: Chloé van Soeterstède9:26, 9th March 2020
Toby Deller meets Chloé van Soeterstède, a young conductor with a vision and an orchestra behind her
‘A conductor without an orchestra is nothing,’ says Chloé van Soeterstède, explaining why she decided to set up her own, ‘and because I needed it. Even a string quartet or a very small ensemble at the start was already a relief for me: to have the sound, to be able to express with my gestures and learn. I did it also to experiment with sound.’
The French conductor, who came to the UK in 2010 to study viola, started her group two years later. She called it the Arch Sinfonia since it encompassed students from other colleges as well as her own. ‘While I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music we really were alone in our bubble there and we didn’t have any communications, any link with the other colleges. I thought this was a bit of a shame.’
She had no particular plans for the orchestra at that stage, however. ‘I basically said to my friends at the Academy that I had taken some conducting classes when I was 16 or 17 in Paris and now I’d like to do more conducting. So shall we do a rehearsal, to start with? We did this, then a concert, then it involved more concerts, then we got sponsorship…’ She has not, however, been tempted to let it drop, despite having no one other than volunteers from the orchestra to run it and despite having got her conducting career elsewhere: she was a double prize-winner at the 2019 Cologne International Conducting Competition, for instance, and has an increasingly busy international diary.
She mentions Aurora and the French period instrument-plus orchestra Les Siècles as inspirations. ‘Those two orchestras are for me really inspiring because they have a message and they are playing at places like the Proms as well. One day, even if it’s in 10 years, I would like to maybe have a bit of recognition for the work I have been doing. It’s not an orchestra that I want to leave on the side: I built it and there is a message behind the Arch.’
She now sees the arch as something spanning other art forms, and the orchestra has already worked with dancers from the London Russian Ballet School and painters from the capital. ‘I really believe in the sharing of arts. Another feature of the orchestra is that we invite people into the orchestra to feel what’s on stage to give a different view. I always remember when I did a symphony by Mozart and the timpanist was suddenly playing fortissimo. I had put two people just in front, and I really remember their reaction: they jumped, and I love that. They waited after the concert to say how they enjoyed it.’
“Even though contemporary music can sometimes be very hard to hear, when you open the page suddenly it makes sense and you think: wow that’s fun!”
Although she came to the UK as an instrumentalist, she ended up being invited to take a Masters in conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2015. She admits that once the taste for conducting had taken hold, her interest in playing the viola diminished. But it was essential training nonetheless. ‘For me playing the viola and violin really well was a must because I couldn’t see myself not knowing very well my instrument. And it’s true, when I’m putting bowings in my scores or when I think of a sound in my mind I really feel it; when I conduct and turn to a section and they have the right bowing but I feel they don’t have the right string resistance or flautando or something, I really feel it.’
Her conducting development has received a further boost with her appointment for 2019-2021 as the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellow, Marin Alsop’s mentorship programme for women in the profession worldwide – van Soeterstède follows in the footsteps of Lina Gonzales-Granados, Valentina Peleggi and Karina Canellakis (profiled in the forerunner of this column in February 2017), the three previous main award-holders under the scheme.
The fellowship provides her with financial support as well as the opportunity to meet and consult with Alsop about the many aspects of a conductor’s work, which can be directly music-related or not. ‘I recently had quite a bad experience in an orchestra and I said to Marin: can I call you, because I need your advice – how do you survive mentally? It’s so draining sometimes. Because we are very similar: we care so much about music, and some orchestras just don’t, and this makes me feel empty. She was very helpful for that.’
She was even available to give advice to van Soeterstède ahead of the Cologne competition, although her fellowship period had not begun at that point. ‘All of the summer I was working on the programme and I had so many questions about Brahms tempos and things, and we were emailing about that a lot.’ Meanwhile, for her initiation into English music this month – she conducts Vaughan Williams and Bridge in Nancy, France – she can turn to Sir Mark Elder, another mentor, and John Wilson, with whom she shares a manager at Intermusica. ‘For me it’s very important to mention that even though you are alone in the profession you also have some people that you can talk to.’
Later in a March that she describes as ‘totally mad for me, every week I have different things’, she makes her debut with Psappha in Manchester, conducting Birtwistle, Gary Carpenter and Mahler. ‘As soon as I saw the repertoire, I was really up for it because at the moment I’m doing some Beethoven, of course, some very Romantic or late Classical music so suddenly to have some contemporary music in the baggage… In Cologne I won the special prize for contemporary rep, so I’m looking to do more. The thing for me, even though contemporary music can sometimes be very hard to hear, when you open the page suddenly it makes sense and you think: wow that’s fun! You can really play with timbre and sounds.’
With the orchestras I have been working with in the UK, what I notice is their sight-reading skills are absolutely amazing – much more than in France and I think that’s a bit of an issue in France. I’m amazed by their ability to really react to what I want. I’m very much into detail and it’s so important to build something together rather than just think: they can play it all. Because I really have a vision of the work when I’m working. What strikes me more and more in my years conducting is that us French people are quite fiery. Our personality is quite individual, let’s say, and the sound in French orchestras is quite individual. Here it’s much more homogenous. It depends on the work, but sometimes you want a little bit more sparkle, you know?
I never hesitate to say, when I hear an oboe theme, for example, that has a different shape from the one I have in my mind but is so beautiful. Also you have to really convince the orchestra, and if you’re not happy you have to say it. Even if you have a rehearsal with a top orchestra and already it’s very good but you’re not quite happy with what they sound like, I think you should insist.
With Arch Sinfonia I started to say: let’s try things, let’s dare things. I often want natural trumpets for Beethoven or really raw sounds, and hard sticks for the timpani. And open strings: I was conducting in Turkey, in Ankara, and I was asking for some open E strings. They looked at me like: what are you doing? And I said: yes, I promise!
On the viola
I was at the Royal Academy of Music, playing on the viola – I did violin and then swapped to viola. Why? Because I feel the harmonies, and the viola is very rich. And I just like the inner parts, in general. I think the viola also led me to conducting – I’m really a conductor who is into details, I really enjoy that.
On Marin Alsop
She’s so open minded; she never says: this is how it’s done. She will say: why don’t you listen to this recording? What I really appreciated in our masterclass in February last year was that she treated me as my own person. She’s shorter than me; I’m quite tall, so my sound will be quite different, but she didn’t try to reproduce the sound she has. Other conductors would have, I think.