Rhinegold

Alexandra Coghlan

An American in Paris

10:40, 19th February 2016

There’s an air of the university professor about William Christie. While his recordings with Les Arts Florissants are joyous, exuberant affairs – all drama, colour and sometimes even humour – in person the conductor is quietly precise, meticulous in speech and manner, with an authority that brooks no argument.

It’s an impression only aided by the desk he sits behind for our interview (in the offices at Kings Place, where Christie is rehearsing with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), and when at one point I unwisely interrupt him, he fixes me with his coldest stare. ‘I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, don’t you?’ Chastened, I withdraw my question and submit to a tutorial with one of early music’s greats. Our topic? The state of baroque music in general, and Les Arts Florissants in particular, on the eve of Christie’s 70th birthday.

But like any good lesson, in order to understand the present we must first start at the beginning, and the young William Christie’s escape from an America in thrall to the Vietnam war. ‘I arrived in Paris in 1970,’ explains Christie, ‘and it was a city just waking up. The ardour and the freshness of May 1968 were still there. This revolution was disruptive and difficult, but it did cause the French to open up their doors and take their blinkers off. There was far more goodwill towards getting to know and find out about things than there had been before. I felt that quite strongly.’

After just a few years spent teaching and performing as a harpsichordist in various ensembles,it was time for Christie to establish his own. ‘The first goal was simple: we wanted to dust off 17th-century masterpieces that were sitting on library shelves, to take them out of the hands of butchers who simply didn’t know what they were doing. It’s a terrible thing to say but it’s true. Instrumentalists coming out of conservatoires were told that with one technique you could play everything, from Boulez to the beginnings of music in the 17th century. There was almost no specialisation.’

The repertoire in question was the music – especially the vocal music – of Lully, Charpentier and Rameau, works unarguably established in the canon now, but which without this intervention might yet be as unfamiliar as their contemporaries Mouret, Sainte-Colombe and Clérambault. It’s a repertoire Christie has continued to explore and extend for almost 40 years with ferocious attention to historical and musicological detail, but any mention of the word ‘authenticity’ is anathema to him: ‘It’s such a silly word. Authenticity for some means playing down any sort of personal involvement and giving a rather dry rendition of what is on the page. I think that one of the nicest things about baroque music is that there are many different – and equally valid – opinions about how to play the music; your colleagues in Barcelona or London might sing the same piece incredibly differently. Whereas nowadays you hear a Bruckner symphony in Toyko one week, the US the next, and it sounds surprisingly the same. When you have 70 or 80 indications of tempo or nuance and articulation on one page of Boulez, and not one on a page of Lully, you suddenly understand the freedom you have in this music. That is a considerable joy for me.’

With so much freedom comes the opportunity to forge a very distinctive sound. But how would Christie characterise that of Les Arts Florissants itself? ‘Our sound is very heavily based on linguistic considerations – language is very important for me. I’ve always said, and still do, that language influences music immensely. French instrumental music of the early 18th century obviously has a vocal model. It’s not trying to imitate the Italian instrumental school of the time. It’s terribly important to understand that the syntax and the colour of the language itself has an inherent musicality.’

But what about in repertoire of other nations – Purcell, Monteverdi, Handel?
‘Then you get that very complex problem: how far our style is my own personal influence. Perhaps what has changed over the past 30 years or so is that I’m more willing to say yes, this is Christie’s Monteverdi, or Christie’s Rameau. To an extent that’s inevitable, I think. This music needs more intervention in many ways because the scores are often deliberately left incomplete. The work only becomes complete at the moment of interpretation, and that allows for an enormous amount of personal input.’

As much of Christie’s direction and input takes place off the podium as on it these days. Education is an ever-expanding focus for the conductor, both in his role as artist in residence at New York’s Juilliard School (‘There we have achieved something quite remarkable, revolutionising an institution which was for many years very iffy about early music’) and with his own project for young singers, Le Jardin des Voix, now in its 12th year.

In a new venture, Christie now combines the finest young talent from both groups each year at his own home in France’s Vendeé region. Having spent decades creating a garden so spectacular the French government have listed it as a historical monument, he now opens it to the public annually for a festival that brings together his professional ensemble with these exceptional students.

Encountering so many young artists eager for a career in what was once a niche repertoire allows Christie to feel particularly positive about the ongoing legacy of groups like Les Arts Florissants, as he explains. ‘Early music is a big business; it’s here to stay. The movement that for some was going to be an ephemeral, flash-in-the-pan sort of thing has proved to be very much the contrary. Opera houses that don’t do Handel, Rameau and Monteverdi are pretty rare these days. I feel now that I’m part now of a universally recognised movement that not only has a large repertory, but caused immense upheavals in terms of how people look, listen and play.

‘You’ve got to be pretty set in your ways to avoid having contact with early music these days. I heard Barenboim conduct the Dresdner Staatskapelle in some Mozart a couple of years ago. It was like a time warp, a museum piece. There was no attempt whatsoever to use any of the intelligence, the knowledge or the newness of what we’ve been working on. It comes as quite a shock nowadays because it is so unusual.’

With so many of the barriers to early music’s success broken down, so much repertoire reclaimed, what’s left to achieve for a conductor who just a few years ago declared, ‘I haven’t yet had my say’?

‘First of all, there’s a lot to say in terms of new repertory. We have a very strong card to play there – there are still masterworks in the French and Italian traditions that are completely unknown, not just by the public, but also by musicians. Then there’s the fact that I’m still evolving: we all are. The way that I look at a piece of Rameau today is not the way that I looked at it 35 years ago. If you’ve known a gesture or style for that many years it becomes that much more instinctive, more spontaneous.’

But with 2015 marking Christie’s 70th birthday, he admits that this evolution can’t continue forever – at least not with him in charge. Christie hopes to ensure that Les Arts Florissants continues beyond him, and 2015 will see several big steps in that direction, with the ensemble’s move to a permanent base in Jean Nouvel’s spectacular new Philharmonie de Paris and the inauguration of a new foundation – something, he cheerfully admits, which will need ‘masses of money’, but will hopefully ensure the group’s survival in an increasingly fragile international economy.

‘I feel, rather smugly, that we’ve got an awful lot to offer,’ he admits. ‘We’ve accomplished a great deal, and I want to see our archives, our recordings, and also what we can do in terms of transmission, handed on to the next generation.’ Chief among that generation are Paul Agnew and Jonathan Cohen, Christie’s ‘brilliant’ colleagues who already take a significant role in the conducting and artistic direction of the ensemble, and whose roles will only increase as time goes on.

But what of Christie himself? With musicians ready and willing to take over the ensemble he has worked so long to promote and protect, will he ever retire? I’ve barely asked the question before the conductor is responding emphatically: ‘I couldn’t imagine it. Primarily, because I have nothing to replace music with; I get fidgety without it. I was on a boat once for seven days and after about five days of only hearing music in my head I was getting very uncomfortable. The garden is marvellous, but it could simply never become a replacement for music.’

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