In February 2016, the first orchestral music of Florent Schmitt ever to be performed in Mexico was presented by the conductor Roberto Beltrán-Zavala. He led the Orchestra of the University of Guanajuato in a performance of the composer’s Rêves, Op. 65 (Dreams), a tone picture composed in 1915 — just over a century ago.
It was an interesting choice, considering that Rêves is not one of Schmitt’s better-known works. It was equally interesting in that Maestro Beltrán, who is originally from Mexico but who has also studied and performed in Holland and other European countries, has chosen to devote attention to a composer who is so little known in Mexico and Central America.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Maestro Beltrán, asking him how he came to know the music of Florent Schmitt, and what attracted him to the music and to this piece in particular. Highlights of our discussion are presented below:
PLN: How did you first become familiar with the music of Florent Schmitt? What piece did you encounter first?
RB-Z: The music of Schmitt was brought to my attention by my former composition teacher and musical colleague, Jorge Torres. He had studied at the Paris Conservatoire and I guess it was there that he became acquainted with Schmitt’s music. The first piece I listened to was Rêves. I was immediately drawn to it and fascinated by it.
PLN: What is it that attracted you to that particular piece of music?
RB-Z: I heard Rêves first in the recording by Leif Segerstam and the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic. Later on, I also discovered the recording by David Robertson and the Monte Carlo Philharmonic. They are two completely different approaches to the work.
I felt attracted to the orchestral color, and also to the intangible nature of the work. It is highly polyphonic along with having masterful orchestration. And beyond what seems obvious to the ear, there is a whole other world that we can perceive but not completely define.
In the piece, Schmitt creates a multi-layered universe of sound — and no matter how much you study and work on the piece, when performing it one will always have the feeling of an aspect of the music that is somehow beyond one’s grasp.
PLN: Could you share observations about Florent Schmitt’s musical style in more general terms?
RB-Z: It fascinates me to think that Schmitt likely played a substantial role in history, but that he did it mostly unnoticed. For example, besides the obvious influence of the French school of orchestration, we can also find strong influences of Scriabin in Schmitt’s music (particularly in Rêves).
And if we think of Schmitt as an influence on others, the first composer who comes to my mind is Takemitsu. I feel quite sure that Takemitsu must have heard and studied Schmitt’s music — and if I am right, that makes Schmitt a very important link indeed.
PLN: Was your performance of Rêves with the Orchestra of the University of Guanajuato the first time had you performed the piece in concert?
RB-Z: Yes, my performance of Rêves with OSUG was my first Schmitt. Moreover, it was the first time this orchestra performed Schmitt’s music — and actually, the first time any orchestral piece by Schmitt had been performed in Mexico!
PLN: It is interesting that you selected a lesser-known Schmitt composition for a “first hearing” in Mexico. What was your reason for selecting this piece for performance rather than a more famous work such as La Tragédie de Salomé?
RB-Z: La Tragédie de Salomé is an incredible piece. But I felt I had to start with something a bit more manageable as the composer was unknown to the audience, to the orchestra players, and even to me as a performer. Salomé is more than twice as long, and a considerably more complex work as well.
Furthermore, Salomé is much closer in language to the “French School,” and that did not fit so well with the rest of the program which consisted of music by Javier González-Compeán and Tchaikovsky.
Actually, I consider Rêves itself to be a rather unique work within Schmitt’s own catalogue.
PLN: What was it like to prepare this piece for performance? What challenges, if any, did the orchestra encounter with the music?
RB-Z: As much as you prepare, there is always a sense of “searching in the dark” with a composer you don’t know. With Rêves it’s even more so, considering the nature of the piece!
More fundamentally, intonation is very challenging in such a work, and it is very important to have a clear notion what do you want to do with all of that polyphony. Each line — no matter how small — must to have its own life and purpose. That takes time to work out.
PLN: How would you characterize the style and mood of Rêves? Is there anything in particular that you find unique about it?
RB-Z: I think the name of the piece describes its mood pretty clearly: You perceive something but when you want to focus on it, suddenly it isn’t there anymore!
I consider it like the feeling you have when you are about to do something — to “execute an action” — but right at the moment you expect to “feel” and experience it, you realize you are dreaming and it all vanishes in a split second. I find that aspect of the music quite unique.
PLN: What was the reaction of the audience upon hearing Rêves in concert? What about feedback from members of the orchestra?
RB-Z: The orchestra enjoyed the melodic aspects of the piece very much — and of course, the bass clarinet player loved it!
On the other hand, they faced big intonation challenges; when you have a melodic line that passes through three and sometimes four different instruments, it becomes difficult to have a steady reference.
I believe the audience reaction was positive. We are fortunate that audiences in Guanajuato are very open to new things.
PLN: Have you studied any other scores of Florent Schmitt?
RB-Z: La Tragédie de Salomé, which I am working on in preparation for performing its Mexican premiere in 2017.
PLN: Tell us a little about your background and activities as a performer, teacher and administrator. Where did you study, and with whom? Where else, in addition to Mexico, do you perform?
RB-Z: In brief, I studied composition at Mexico City’s National Center for the Arts as well as conducting with Jorge Mester at Mexico City’s Philharmonic Orchestra.
Later on, I emigrated to The Netherlands to study conducting at the Rotterdam Conservatory with Hans Leenders and Arie van Beek. I was assistant conductor of the Dutch National Youth Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth and had lessons with Valery Gergiev and Jorma Panula.
In Europe I have worked in The Netherlands, Italy, Malta, Poland, Romania, Belgium, France and elsewhere. Upcoming engagements include debuts in San Remo, Westphalia and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
Besides OSUG, I am music director of Rotterdam’s re:orchestra, regarded as one of Europe’s best chamber orchestras made up of young professional performers. We perform regularly in major halls and have a multi–record contract with the BIS label for a series called Essential Music.
Currently, I reside in Rotterdam with my Dutch wife who is a professional viola player. I hold dual Mexican and Dutch citizenship.
PLN: What kind of musical projects are next on your plate?
RB-Z: Upcoming concert highlights include performing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 with USUG in April. In August I will make my Teatro Colon debut, and in October I will direct the Mexican premiere of Mendelssohn’s Die Hochzeit des Camacho at the Cervantino Festival.
PLN: Are there any other comments that you would like to share about Florent Schmitt and his music?
RB-Z: I hope Schmitt’s music attains the stature it deserves on orchestral programs. I plan to do my part — and I hope my music colleagues do so as well!
Maestro Beltrán deserves praise for introducing the music of Florent Schmitt to concert audiences in Mexico. His commitment to presenting the composer’s scores — both familiar and rare — is enriching the concert-going experience for classical audiences there.
We hope that Rêves and Salomé are just the first of numerous Schmitt musical creations that help grow awareness and reputation of the composer in Latin America.