On May 24, 2017, the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec and its music director, Fabien Gabel, presented the North American premiere performance of Florent Schmitt’s Ronde burlesque, Opus 78, a work composed 90 years before (in 1927).
Not only was it the first performance of this piece on the continent, it was also the first time most members of the orchestra had ever played any music by Florent Schmitt at all.
It turned out to be a blockbuster performance of a sonic showpiece that is chockfull of interesting and inventive musical ideas – all encapsulated within a short 6+ minutes.
I had the good fortune to attend the premiere, which was part of a concert of orchestral showpieces including Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie as well as shorter works by Arthur Honegger, Bechara El-Khouri and Frank Zappa.
Having known Ronde burlesque only from two fairly ancient commercial recordings – one of them dating all the way back to the 78-rpm era – I was bowled over by the stunning OSQ interpretation, which was clearly head-and-shoulders above the recordings.
While in town for the concert, I had a special opportunity to interview several musicians of the OSQ, asking them what it was like to prepare Florent Schmitt’s piece for performance – the challenges as well as the rewards. The four musicians interviewed included:
- Catherine Dallaire (violinist and concertmaster)
- Stéphane Fontaine (principal clarinetist)
- Mélanie Forget (bassoonist)
- Blair Lofgren (principal cellist)
It was a lively 45-minute roundtable discussion that touched on numerous points, including how Florent Schmitt’s music requires a special kind of approach in order to prepare it properly for performance. Highlights of the discussion are presented below.
PLN: Florent Schmitt’s Ronde burlesque is clearly not part of the core orchestral repertoire. What practice, rehearsal and performance strategies do you use when approaching obscure music like this?
Stéphane Fontaine: For me, the first thing is to listen to a recording of the music before practicing it. Often I start by practicing it slowly, and that was particularly the case in this Schmitt piece. I noticed right away in the score that there’s nothing “obvious” in the lines or the scales, so I had to begin very slowly, taking things faster only after a while. My main objective was to get every note correct!
Mélanie Forget: For me, I listen to the music first, and I try to hear several recorded versions while following along with the score. I’m listening for tempo, I’m looking for things like accent marks, and I’m also trying to decide what kind of interpretation I should present.
With this piece by Schmitt, I immediately sensed a French sound, which is a bright one. That affected my reed selection – how I will be tonguing the part and the brilliance I want to achieve. For this piece I wanted to achieve a brilliant sound, which is not the German sound that we had in the Strauss Alpine Symphony on the same concert.
What I discovered was that in the only recording that’s available of the Ronde burlesque, the performance was not nearly as brilliant as it turned out to be for us in our rehearsals and performance.
Blair Lofgren: Yes, the tempo was different – being much faster on that one recording. To me, it made so much more sense to play it at the slower tempo that we did.
Catherine Dallaire: True – because there’s so much information to hear in this work. Those details can really come out in a slower interpretation, and the music breathes much better. There’s so much information in such a short six-minute piece that you shouldn’t rush it.
Blair Lofgren: When I first listened to the recording while following along with my part, it sounded almost like a cacophony to me. The music goes by so fast, you don’t even have time to process what’s happening.
I remember my very first thought, which was: “OK, I guess we’ll give this a try …”
But then when we came to rehearsal, there was so much more “room” in the tempo that Fabien [Gabel] used. I think all of us realized that there were so many great things going on in the piece that were worth discovering.
My usual approach to learning music that’s new to me is similar to Mélanie’s. The first thing I do is sit down with a cup of coffee and the part – just listening while reading through the part. In this particular case, at first I felt that the writing wasn’t particularly elegant; it’s actually quite disjointed. It jumps around and seemed a little bit awkward as I first read it.
There are a lot of complicated, intricate notes jumbled up, and with these little glissando jumps – lots of little notes and you ask yourself, “How many of these notes do I actually need to get into that split second to have it sound OK”? Even the positions and the jumps – they aren’t comfortable. For things like bowings and trying to figure out what’s going to be the easiest and the most comfortable for people to be able to play the music the same way — it was all a bit of a stretch.
Not easy at all — but I found that the more I played it, the more it made sense.
Catherine Dallaire: When I encounter a piece that I’ve never heard about or that I don’t know already, I look at the part before doing anything else. I’m trying to figure out the tempi, how I’m going to play this or that, and I also think about fingerings and bowings as part of my section responsibilities.
Once I have a sense of these things, then I listen to the music along with the part, which can give me a good idea as to what instruments are exposed in different places, and where the violins are paired with other instruments.
Of course, things like tempo aren’t completely settled at that early point, because when we arrive at the first rehearsal the conductor may have different ideas. For a piece that we’ve never played before, it’s difficult to know what the conductor will want; we simply can’t know for sure.
At the first rehearsal, the conductor runs through the piece at a slower tempo so everyone can become acquainted with it a little bit. For this particular piece, we actually had our first rehearsal with our assistant conductor, Nicolas Ellis.
Blair Lofgren: Everyone knew that this week would be a particularly heavy one with the magnitude of the Strauss Alpine Symphony plus the other four pieces on the program. So it was a wise decision to go with an early run-through of several of the smaller pieces like the Zappa and the Schmitt a couple of weeks earlier with the assistant conductor – which is something that isn’t done as a habit. But this helped us understand what was coming up with music that is rarely heard and that we’d never played before.
PLN: Thinking about the Ronde burlesque, is there anything unusual or noteworthy in the way Schmitt writes for your particular section of the orchestra?
Mélanie Forget: This is a really well-written piece for the bassoon. It makes me think of some pieces of Eugène Bozza, but he was later on. The music is very French, and it’s also very idiomatic writing for the bassoon.
I also sense the same with the clarinet and oboe writing, although I cannot speak for sure about the flutes.
Stéphane Fontaine: I would agree that the music is very well-written for the clarinet, and for woodwinds in general. When you look at the parts, you recognize immediately that Schmitt knew woodwind instruments very well.
I’d also say that Schmitt is very original; I immediately trusted him, and I respect the text exactly how it is written. I paid attention to every little detail in the part, because as soon as I read it, it was clear.
Also, I feel that the music makes sense within the period it was written, like with Ravel and Debussy in the way they were writing for woodwinds — but with some differences of course.
Blair Lofgren: As I practiced this music, the feeling I had while preparing alone was not at all the feeling that I had later when I played it in the orchestra. The indications that are in the part actually reminded me of something heavier than it ended up being.
As it turned out, I was actually practicing it in a way that was quite Straussian – but instead it turned out to be more Stravinsky-style. It was like very dense popcorn and you’re just trying to get your hands around it! So I was actually quite relieved when we came to the first rehearsal and I realized that the music was actually easier than I’d thought it would be.
But overall, I’d characterize Florent Schmitt’s music as quite stressful to play. The Ronde burlesque is sort of like “panic counting” for six minutes. Your eyes are continually moving as fast as they can.
Mélanie Forget: So true! The trombones might be doing triplets while I’m doing quarters – and then the composer switches it up on us!
Blair Lofgren: Right. It’s feeling like you’re sight-reading every time you play the piece. You might have played it ten times but you’re still worried about it.
Catherine Dallaire: Schmitt definitely keeps his players on edge! Ronde burlesque is also the type of piece where there are so many indications that he has put in – and you’ve got to respect every single one of them – to be super-precise with all of them.
I’d also say that you need to have a crisp sound at almost all times. There are also a lot of grace notes – really fast and not necessarily predictable.
Blair Lofgren: Schmitt is so typically French in that way: Everything is written. You really don’t need to invent a single thing.
PLN: From a technical standpoint, Schmitt’s music can be quite difficult. What aspects of the composer’s scores do you find to be the most challenging in this regard?
Catherine Dallaire: Schmitt is the kind of composer where you have to take a small section and tackle it a little at a time. And then take the next little section. You need to do that everywhere in the score. Then eventually you can bring it all together and it makes sense.
It isn’t music you can merely read through like you would the Strauss Alpine Symphony. You need to treat this music with a magnifying glass instead.
Mélanie Forget: For me at home when practicing, I would concentrate on five lines at a time – just learning those lines. Then I’m closing my score and returning a half-hour later and doing another section. In a sense, it’s the kind of music you almost have to learn by heart.
Blair Lofgren: It’s a process of digesting – not only for each musician but also for the orchestra as a whole. Each time it settles in a bit more – even between our dress rehearsal and the concert.
Catherine Dallaire: With a composer like Richard Strauss and the Alpine Symphony, it’s so completely different. There, you have time to see the notes coming. There are challenges in that music of course, but nothing like what we have in the Schmitt.
Stéphane Fontaine: There are three specific bars of music in the Ronde burlesque that were particularly tricky for me – the fingering was not obvious. Also, seeing flats and sharps on notes in the very same measures and bars was surprising to say the least; you really have to work at it just to make your brain be able to process it all!
I also found some legato lines that turned out to be difficult passages with notes moving within and between vastly different registers.
Blair Lofgren: For me as a cellist, the notes don’t sit comfortably. It’s sort of like gymnastics to get all of the notes.
Also, there are small note changes everywhere. There are repeated patterns, but each time they’re just slightly different – maybe one note off. So it isn’t possible to rely on something to be repeated as before. The changes aren’t “evolving” so much as “altering,” because the music doesn’t seem to be going to some special place because of the evolution.
It makes me wonder if Schmitt might have been something of a practical joker – the way he’s playing with us like that.
Catherine Dallaire: It makes you wonder what instrument he played, too. Because for the violins as well, it isn’t comfortable. Once you get the hang of it, then it’s OK — but it takes some doing.
Blair Lofgren: One thing’s for sure, there are a lot of little extra notations I’ve had to write into my part!
PLN: Considering when Ronde burlesque was composed – the 1920s – was Schmitt doing anything different from his contemporaries in how he wrote for the orchestra?
Stéphane Fontaine: I don’t know Schmitt’s music well, so it’s difficult for me to comment on his style of writing beyond the Ronde burlesque. I recall that when I first started practicing the music, I was reminded of Hindemith.
Blair Lofgren: I think the way Schmitt writes – in a way where seemingly disparate elements somehow come together – was actually ahead of his time. When you think about when that type of writing became common, it was more in the 1960s and 70s – the idea of creating spatial effects that create one larger effect altogether.
Particularly in the last 30 years, that style has been popular with composers like Arvo Pärt and [Henryk] Górecki and John Taverner. They did a lot of writing like that, whereas Schmitt was doing it decades before them, though obviously much less expansively.
Mélanie Forget: For me, the piece fits very well with its title: “Ronde burlesque.” And I certainly would like to hear more from this composer!
PLN: Do you have any anecdotes – perhaps comments you heard from your orchestra colleagues – about preparing Ronde burlesque for performance?
Stéphane Fontaine: For me, I had never had a chance before now to listen to La Tragédie de Salomé or Psaume XLVII – Schmitt’s most famous pieces. So this gave me an incentive to do so, and I am so impressed by what I’m hearing. I can also see how Stravinsky would have been influenced Schmitt’s music. It’s all quite exciting for me to learn about these new aspects.
Mélanie Forget: As for the bassoon players, we prepared more for the six-minute Schmitt piece than for the 50-minute Strauss. You can hear almost everything from the bassoons in the Ronde burlesque, so preparation and getting everything right was so important. For this concert, my colleague, Richard [Gagnon], was always saying to me, “Don’t forget to work on the Schmitt!”
Catherine Dallaire: For sure, the Strauss has some difficult passages, but the Schmitt did require more preparation. I definitely practiced it more – for just six minutes of music.
Blair Lofgren: It’s the same for me. I have a running joke with my stand-partner. She has a way of subtly pointing out my mistakes by asking if an accidental note should have been a sharp or whatever. In the Schmitt piece, we were saying things like that to each other pretty much all the time. It was a constant opportunity to have that little joke between us over and over again!
PLN: A final question: Was this your first opportunity to perform music by Florent Schmitt?
Stéphane Fontaine: This was the first time for me, but I can tell you that I’m looking forward to playing more of Schmitt’s music in the future!
Blair Lofgren: This is the first piece by Florent Schmitt that I’ve played, too. In fact, I’d never even heard of Schmitt, except for Fabien [Gabel] who kept talking about this composer. And now, I’d like to know if Schmitt wrote any music for the cello.
Catherine Dallaire: It’s the same for me, too. When Fabien presented us with the season calendar last year, he said, “Oh and yeah, we’ll do music by this great composer, Florent Schmitt.”
My first reaction was, “Who is that?” But Fabien replied, “Don’t worry – you will love it!”
Now that they’ve been exposed to the artistry of Florent Schmitt, we hope that the members of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec agree with music director Fabien Gabel that the composer’s pieces are well-worth performing.
Clearly, Schmitt’s compositions present their share of challenges in preparation, but the rewards are many. Hopefully there will be more opportunities for the OSQ musicians to present more of Schmitt’s music in the future.
Update (May 29, 2019): The opportunity for the OSQ to perform more of Florent Schmitt’s music did come about — two years later when the orchestra presented a stunning rendition of Psaume XLVII, Schmitt’s spectacular choral work from 1904. The performance, which also featured the OSQ Chorus and the celebrated soprano Karina Gauvin, was an artistic and critical success.
Having attended the concert, I can attest that it was also a big hit with the audience, with cheering and applause that went on longer than at any other non-operatic classical music event I have ever attended. While in town, I had the opportunity to interview Miss Gauvin and Maestro Gabel about the Schmitt Psalm, and their very interesting observations and perspectives about the music can be read here.
Even more Schmitt is in the offing in Québec City in May 2020, when the OSQ will present the rapturous Musique sur l’eau as part of a concert featuring French art songs along with Ravel’s L’Enfant et le sortilèges. More information about that concert is available here.