Last month, I caught up with music directors JoAnn Falletta and Jorge Mester while observing the fine students at the Conductor Training Workshop in Virginia Beach, VA. Maestra Falletta and Maestro Mester are among the eminent conducting faculty who mentor members of the Conductors Guild in workshops held in various cities in North America and overseas.
Both conductors are great proponents of French music of the late-Romantic and early Twentieth Century periods. Maestra Falletta has championed the music of Florent Schmitt in the concert hall, conducting the North American premiere performances of the Antoine et Cléopâtre Suite No. 1 in 2010. Maestro Mester has made noteworthy premiere recordings of compositions by Charles Koechlin, Jacques Ibert and Ernest Guiraud as part of the Louisville Orchestra’s “First Edition” recording series.
I had the opportunity to ask both conductors to talk about the music of Florent Schmitt and its significance in the orchestral repertoire.
PLN: What is your impression of the music of Florent Schmitt, and how would you rate its importance?
JAF: Florent Schmitt is rooted in the French tradition, but he has more of a modern edge than other composers of the time. His was an individual voice. Florent Schmitt’s music is less impressionistic and more progressive than other composers of his generation.
To me, Schmitt seems to be of a more modern sensibility, and truly individual in his approach to rhythm and phrasing. He’s very dramatic in places, and more theatrical. Of course, the Antony & Cleopatra music was originally composed for the theatre as was La Tragédie de Salomé. And both works are beautifully scored.
PLN: Florent Schmitt’s music has been described as being quite difficult to perform. Is this characterization accurate?
JAF: The Antony & Cleopatra score was a fantastic discovery for me and for the players of the Virginia Symphony and Buffalo Philharmonic, both of which performed it. It’s very subtle, very nuanced. It’s very difficult music rhythmically – hard to play but extremely rewarding.
JM: I remember playing La Tragédie de Salomé as a violist in the Juilliard Orchestra back in the 1950s. I enjoyed it very much. But I also remember that it was difficult for the orchestra to grasp the music. There’s this one theme in the piece that was particularly challenging because it sounded so much like a passage from the Brahms Violin Concerto – I believe it was in 12/8 time. There were a lot of syncopations in the music that were extremely difficult to nail.
JAF: As you can see, Jorge knew Florent Schmitt’s music long before I discovered him!
JM: Yes, that’s true! And I was playing this music under my teacher, Jean Morel. He was a French conductor who was famous for his work with the opera, but he also conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in works such as the Salomé that he knew well. This was at a time when few other conductors were paying much attention to this music.
JAF: And you know, Schmitt’s music is undergoing a renaissance now. La Tragédie de Salomé in particular has become quite popular.
PLN: Did Maestro Morel explain to the orchestra why he chose Schmitt’s music to perform …?
JM: I wish that he would have explained his rationale, but that wasn’t his style. He never talked to the orchestra about anything! To him, conducting was a silent art.
[Following this interview, I discovered that the New York Public Library holds more than 50 boxes of archival documents and papers pertaining to Jean Morel’s career at the Juilliard School and the Metropolitan Opera. These include many study scores and full conducting scores with Morel’s own handwritten annotations. Among them are Florent Schmitt’s scores to Psaume XLVII and La Tragédie de Salomé, inscribed to Maestro Morel by the composer himself. Clearly, the two Frenchmen were well-acquainted … and hence Morel’s interpretations of Schmitt’s music were likely quite “authentic.”]
PLN: What other observations can you share about Jean Morel and his artistry?
JM: Morel was a percussionist, a pianist and a conductor. He was a person who exacted the utmost precision in thinking and analyzing problems having to do with conducting. He instilled in us the notion that whenever you look at a score, you should think, “What is the first thing I need to do in order to make the orchestra understand this piece?”
Morel was a tremendous technician, and he did not suffer fools. He was also a most elegant man; when he walked out on stage, he never allowed his tails to touch any of the chairs!
I remember the very first time I met Morel. I had a score with me that included the piano reduction and also an analysis by some obscure musicologist. I asked him, “What do you think of this, Maestro?”
His tart reply: “Ah, a rich boy.”
But later on, he used to call me and ask, “What are you doing?”
“I’m studying,” I’d reply.
“Ah, you study too much. Forget that. Let’s have dinner.” I saw him that way for years and years. Believe me, those were very memorable, very rewarding times.
And today, we are indeed fortunate to have great artistic directors like JoAnn Falletta and Jorge Mester who champion the music of Florent Schmitt and other French composers of the era. Along with Leon Botstein, these conductors have done more than their share to introduce this worthwhile music to North American audiences via concert performances and recordings. We owe them a debt of gratitude.