Passionate advocate: French conductor Lionel Bringuier talks about the music of Florent Schmitt and La Tragédie de Salomé.

Lionel Bringuier

Lionel Bringuier (Photo: Paolo Dutto)

French conductor Lionel Bringuier’s meteoric rise in the classical music field has been noteworthy.  Not yet 30 years old, he has been conducting major orchestras in the United States and Europe since 2006.

Currently, Maestro Bringuier is chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zürich, Switzerland.  Prior to that, he was an associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra during the tenure of Esa-Pekka Salonen and later Gustavo Dudamel.

Florent Schmitt’s ballet score La Tragédie de Salomé (1907/10) has been part of Maestro Bringuier’s repertoire since 2009.  He has conducted the work with numerous orchestras, including ensembles in Frankfurt, Maastricht, Stockholm, Helsinki, London, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

This past week, he conducted the Salomé score with The Cleveland Orchestra at a pair of concerts.  It was the first time the music had been performed by the orchestra in over 70 years.

I had the privilege of attending those Cleveland concerts, and the work was played magnificently.  As music critic Mark Satola wrote in The Plain Dealer, the city’s leading newspaper:

Conventional wisdom holds that concert hall audiences only respond to tried and true warhorses — Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms — and that it’s not in anyone’s best interest to puzzle listeners with something unfamiliar, however brilliant, refreshing or revelatory it might be.

Thursday night’s Cleveland Orchestra concert put the lie to that belief when conductor Lionel Bringuier returned to Severance Hall with a program that had as its centerpiece the astonishing symphonic suite La Tragédie de Salomé, by the largely neglected French composer Florent Schmitt. 

Loie Fuller Salome 1907

The original version of Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé (1907) was danced by Loïe Fuller. The composer’s 1910 rework was half the length but featured a full orchestra instead of a chamber ensemble.

The last time [this work] was played by The Cleveland Orchestra was in the mid-1940s. Schmitt’s music … inhabits its own world of startling sonic brilliance and terrifically difficult execution. 

To say the orchestra fully realized Schmitt’s intent with this score is to understate their impressive achievement. From the colorful “Dance of Pearls” to the exciting “Dance of Terror,” Bringuier crafted a dazzling reading that went beyond a good reading of the score and became something extraordinary. 

Not only did the orchestra rise to the occasion, the sold-out audiences responded enthusiastically to music that most were likely hearing for the first time ever.

While in Cleveland, I was fortunate to be able to speak with Maestro Bringuier about his love for La Tragédie de Salomé and his commitment to programming it in concert.  Here are highlights from that discussion:

PLN:  I’ve read that you studied the Salomé score during your days in the conservatory.  Can you tell me about that experience?

Paris Conservatoire logoLB:  When I was 15 or 16 years old, one of my courses at the Paris Conservatoire was a music analysis class.  The instructor liked to take a half hour during the class and put on some music that we would not know in advance, and then we would discuss it. 

This was music that we students wouldn’t know, and that we would find only rarely or never on a concert program.  But the musical exercise was important and interesting because it could help us develop our ears for music in general. 

One of the pieces the instructor played for us was La Tragédie de Salomé by Schmitt.  In this particular case, all of the students were looking at each other saying, ‘What is this?  Maybe this is some Ravel that we don’t know?  Maybe some Stravinsky?  Maybe some Debussy?’   

But in reality, we had no idea what the music was. 

The teacher had a big smile on his face and said, “No — it’s Florent Schmitt!”   

We were amazed, because although we recognized the composer, we only knew his name.  But most importantly, we were so amazed at the quality of the music.  We had no idea how important Schmitt had been as a composer.

PLN:  Was it “love at first hearing” for you?

LB:  It just so happened that two weeks following that class, the work was performed in a concert, which I attended.  Hearing the entire piece, I thought it was musical genius.  So beautiful — the mastery of orchestral colors, and such great rhythms. 

Then I bought the score.  And I vowed to myself, ‘One day I will conduct this music.’

Florent Schmitt Tragedy of Salome conductor score

The full score to Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, inscribed by conductor Lionel Bringuier.

PLN:  It seems as though you were able to fulfill that dream …

LB:  True!  Later on, when I started to conduct more concerts, I remembered this piece and determined that I would try to program it at some point.  And actually it happened not long after, first in Frankfurt with the radio orchestra there.   

One thing with the radio orchestras in Germany is that they like to program some repertoire that is kind of unknown.  So this allowed me to conduct the music there, but later in Scandinavia and the United States, too.  When I played it with the BBC Symphony, we paired it with “Salome’s Dance” by [Richard] Strauss.

PLN:  How would you characterize the music and its style?

LB:  I really love this piece.  Clearly, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky are part of the patterns of this music. 

In some places, such as at the beginning, it is remindful of La Mer.  Some other places are like The Rite of Spring.  And in fact, this piece inspired Stravinsky for writing The Rite of Spring.   

Florent Schmitt with Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (l.), photographed with Florent Schmitt in about 1910.

Stravinsky himself said to Florent Schmitt, ‘Thank you for this masterpiece.’  And he was in the midst of writing The Rite of Spring at that very moment.  So some of the patterns in the last section of Salomé are exactly what we find in the ‘Danse sacrale,’ the final section of the Rite. 

This shows how much everyone in Paris was influencing each other at that time.  Stravinsky was Russian; DeFalla was Spanish; Ravel, Debussy and Schmitt were French.  But they were working together, and you can sense that in their music.

PLN:  You have conducted this music quite regularly since 2009.  It seems to be a piece that you enjoy performing a good deal.

LB:  You know, the more I conduct this piece, the more amazed I am about the great structure of the music.  It was a Ballets Russes production, and the music is in two parts like The Rite of Spring — and also like the two suites of [Ravel’s] Daphnis in a way.  In these scores, there is this idea of devising the musical program in two distinct parts — and Schmitt was the first to do this in La Tragédie de Salomé. 

I should also mention the orchestral colors.  They’re just amazing — and it’s even more obvious with The Cleveland Orchestra, where the players can work the dynamics so finely.  The pianissimo, for instance:  very soft, but we can still hear absolutely everything.

Cleveland Orchetra Lionel Bringuier Schmitt

The Cleveland Orchestra’s concert program (April 2015).

PLN:  In presenting La Tragédie de Salomé in concert, is it part of a larger performance strategy?

LB:  I have always been interested in performing not only the music of living composers, but also lesser known repertoire from the last century or before.  For instance, I have recorded the music of Vincent d’Indy. 

Florent Schmitt is part of that, too.  Obviously, he is not famous — and probably will never be as famous as Ravel or Debussy.  It’s why I feel that, in a way, it’s my responsibility as a French conductor to perform not only a piece like Boléro, but also lesser known repertoire by composers like Schmitt and Roussel — just as a Czech conductor might choose to program some unknown works by Martinů.

PLN:  Thank you for bringing this great music to American audiences, Maestro.

LB:  You’re welcome!  I am amazed that here in Cleveland, we are doing three sold-out concerts and the Schmitt Salomé is on those programs.  That is so wonderful to see happen.

____________________

We owe a debt of gratitude to Lionel Bringuier for being such a passionate advocate for Florent Schmitt’s music and La Tragédie de Salomé in particular.  Here’s hoping he’ll continue to program it “forever and ever” … and perhaps even make a commercial recording of the music someday.

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