Fabien Gabel is one of France’s leading conductors of the younger generation, with an international career. He has been music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec since 2012, and this year was also named music director of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes, succeeding David Zinman. In addition, he guest-conducts regularly in the United States and major European countries.
Moreover, Maestro Gabel is one of just a few conductors on the international circuit who have made it their mission to perform works by the French composer Florent Schmitt. In the current orchestra season and the upcoming 2017-18 season, Maestro Gabel is presenting four separate compositions by Schmitt in Germany, France, Canada and the United States.
Importantly, none of the four compositions could be classified as among Schmitt’s better-known pieces. In fact, one of Maestro Gabel’s featured works by Schmitt qualifies as a “first.” On May 24, 2017, his presentation of Schmitt’s Ronde burlesque, Opus 78 with the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec was the North American premiere performance of this orchestral tour de force, 90 years following the work’s creation in 1927.
I was fortunate to be able to attend that performance, which turned out to be a stunning interpretation – far superior to the only two commercial recordings ever made of this music. One of those, conducted by Gaston Poulet, dates all the way back to the 78-rpm era while the newer one – a production of German Radio – was recorded in 1987 and has been long out-of-print as well.
[More information about Schmitt’s Ronde burlesque, a fascinating showpiece for orchestra that the composer described intriguingly as “an underwater airplane dogfight”(!), is provided in this article.]
While in Québec City to attend the OSQ’s performance, I had the opportunity to visit with Maestro Gabel and ask him about his perspectives on Florent Schmitt’s music in general and the Ronde burlesque in particular. The hour-long interview touched on a variety of topics. Highlights from the discussion are presented below.
PLN: Tell us how you came to know Florent Schmitt and his music. Is he a composer you knew from a young age?
FG: I knew the name of Florent Schmitt from the time I was quite young. At home we had a recording of La Tragédie de Salomé with [Paul] Paray, and I also had a recording featuring a brass ensemble playing French fanfares from Lully to Jolivet. On there was “Le Camp de Pompée” from Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre.
Later on, when I was a student of the trumpet at the Conservatoire in Paris, I played Schmitt’s Suite for Trumpet which is an extremely difficult composition.
And then the next step was my teacher of harmony and counterpoint at the Conservatoire, Alain Margoni, who had been one of Schmitt’s protégés. Through him I came to know more about Florent Schmitt’s music.
Until pretty recently I didn’t know that much about his output, actually. But I’m always looking for new French pieces to program. I love Debussy and Ravel, of course, but they have the chance to be played more or less everywhere. And sometimes I’m asked to do something French when I guest-conduct – but not Debussy and Ravel – since often the music directors are reserving those pieces for themselves because it is the only French music they know.
One day, thanks to YouTube, I had the chance to hear for the first time Schmitt’s piece Rêves. When I listened to that piece, I had a shock. I couldn’t imagine that a composer from that era in France could be completely independent of the Debussy stream or the Ravel stream.
What I suddenly realized is that Schmitt has his own personality as a composer. His music sounds French, with the rich harmonies and such, but it doesn’t sound like Ravel or like Debussy. This is what surprised and attracted me.
What’s more, I could sense my own potential in that music. After all, when you like something a great deal, you have a better chance to be successful when performing it. So that’s basically what my path was in coming to Florent Schmitt’s music.
PLN: At the Paris Conservatoire, were there other teachers of yours besides Alain Margoni who focused on Florent Schmitt and his music?
FG: No. Even in my trumpet studies, Schmitt’s Trumpet Suite wasn’t that popular. That piece is so difficult, our teacher asked us to work on it. I had the score at home because my father is also a trumpet player; he’d never played the piece but he owned the music.
Unfortunately, that piece is not as popular as the trumpet concertos by [André] Jolivet and [Henri] Tomasi. But I think that Schmitt’s Suite is far better than the Tomasi.
PLN: In the past few years, you have become one of three or four conductors in the world who endeavor to program a variety of Florent Schmitt’s pieces in the concert hall. Instead of focusing on Schmitt’s most famous compositions such as La Tragédie de Salomé and Psaume XLVII, you’ve devoted your efforts to some of Schmitt’s lesser-known orchestral works. Is there a particular strategy behind this approach?
FG: Many of Schmitt’s pieces are rather short, so it is easier to include them in concert programs of French music – or even in a program of non-French works. If I’m planning to do a Stravinsky or Bartók piece, it’s possible to insert one of Schmitt’s works into those programs because the instrumental forces are similar.
When I’m planning a guest conducting appearance, the strategy is to suggest the name of Florent Schmitt. That’s what happened with The Cleveland Orchestra for a concert that is coming up in August. I sent them the YouTube link to Manuel Rosenthal’s broadcast performance of Schmitt’s Le Palais hanté, and immediately they were keen to perform it.
I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like the music of Schmitt – once they come to know it. But many people don’t even know the name. Or if they know the name, they don’t know the music at all.
But when they listen to music by Schmitt, they say, “My God, this is extraordinary! Let’s play that!”
PLN: What are your impressions of Schmitt’s music compared to the musical style of his contemporaries?
FG: Schmitt has a different way of composing and orchestrating. When you look at a Schmitt score, it doesn’t even look like Ravel or Debussy.
It’s less “clear” than Ravel. Ravel is immaculate; you know exactly where you are, and in the orchestrations you know exactly what it is at each point. Schmitt is not at all like that – but it sounds great!
With Ravel, you can read the score vertically, but with Schmitt it’s the opposite. You must read the lines before the harmonies, because the lines are what make the harmonies. You have to dig a little bit more.
But this is so integral to Schmitt’s personality, and his writing has its own language. After working with a few of his pieces, I was then able to recognize some idioms and patterns that are typical of Schmitt – and unique to him.
As for the players, they find it a big challenge. In some cases, they don’t know what’s going on with the music.
PLN: What was the process by which you discovered and then decided to perform Ronde burlesque?
FG: The occasion came about for this Québec concert when we were selecting paintings to pair with the musical numbers being presented. For one of those paintings – Kanaka by Marcelle Ferron – we needed to find a piece that was short and sparkling. I immediately thought about this particular music, with its instrumentation that fit so well with the rest of the program.
Ronde burlesque a short piece, but it’s difficult. Part of the reason for that is its musical language. And just as with a spoken language when you’re learning it, it’s very difficult at first. In music it’s the same.
But the more that orchestras play Schmitt’s music, the easier it will become. Think about other French composers; there have always been some orchestras that know how to play French music better, but today everyone knows Ravel’s Daphnis, which wasn’t the case before.
PLN: This OSQ performance of Ronde burlesque was the North America premiere – nearly a century following its composition in 1927. What is it like to introduce a “new old” piece of this kind, as compared to a contemporary composition by a living composer?
FG: You know, the classical repertoire is so big we could easily play Brahms or Mahler symphonies all the time. But it’s good for orchestras to be curious about unfamiliar music and to play new things.
Of course, it means practicing harder before the first rehearsal.
In the case of this piece, I read through it with the orchestra the first time not too fast – just so the musicians could hear what it was like. And then we rehearsed it from there.
But there isn’t really a “standard” approach to the preparation; each work has its own unique qualities.
As for the music parts, they were in immaculate condition – newly printed for our players – even though the original parts must have been very old.
PLN: Thinking about Ronde burlesque, what are the aspects of the score that you find particularly noteworthy? What is it about this music that makes it special for you?
FG: It’s the whole atmosphere of the piece – the character of the music. It’s very original and inspired, even though the form is very classical. It’s in three-part form. There’s a little fugue in there, and some canons. And of course a big orchestra. There are so many things wrapped up in a six-minute piece.
What is amazing is that Schmitt wrote such a brilliant piece of music, but it’s very complicated also. When you first look at the score you think, “This is so difficult; I don’t know how to understand that.” But when you isolate each bar and each instrument, you start to understand it a little bit more.
It’s the same thing with Rêves. At first you don’t think there’s any form to it at all. But eventually you do realize that it definitely has a form.
PLN: what kind of reaction or comments did you get from the OSQ musicians when preparing this piece for performance?
FG: Everyone’s first comment was the same: “It’s difficult!” But I think they ended up enjoying doing it, and had fun performing it. For winds, the music is super-interesting. For the brass, it’s likewise a very interesting piece.
PLN: Your Schmitt performances represent just some of the French music of the late Romantic and early Modern era that you have presented to audiences all over the world – Dukas, Chausson, Aubert, Roussel and other composers. What kind of reception have they received?
FG: It’s always very good. The Dukas La Péri for instance – it is always breathtaking for an audience. As you know, that music ends softly, and most of the time there’s a big silence after that, before the applause starts.
When I performed Schmitt’s Rêves in Berlin last year, both the orchestra and the audience were so impressed by the quality of the music. Probably many people would have loved to hear it a second time to absorb more of the breathtaking sounds in that piece.
Rêves is special in another way because it is a crazy psychedelic piece; the beginning and ending in particular are completely strange.
PLN: In your view, what responsibility does an orchestra conductor have for programming lesser-known repertoire?
FG: It is a huge responsibility. And this is a problem with some of my colleagues. Maybe that’s saying it too strongly, but the key is to be curious.
Conductors of my generation – in our 40s – we are curious. We want to explore many things, from Baroque all the way to Contemporary music.
But for some of the younger generation here in North America, they want to be doing Brahms, Beethoven, Dvořák … and that’s all good. They should be more curious and willing to explore much more, but instead they want to conduct the “big hits” of classical music.
I have met conducting students and recent graduates who don’t know anything about the repertoire beyond those hits, surprising as that might seem. But they just want to do the big Romantic repertoire, maybe some of the Shostakovich symphonies — and always Mahler.
PLN: You have several concerts in the upcoming orchestral season that will feature the music of Florent Schmitt. Please tell us a little about them.
I will also be performing Rêves with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in January, and then comes an Orchestre de Paris concert in June that will include the second suite from Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre.
PLN: Tell us more about the Orchestre de Paris concert, which I understand will feature colorful scores by Schmitt, Ravel, Debussy, d’Indy and Roussel. Some of the pieces will be unfamiliar to most concertgoers. How did the idea for this concert come about, and how was the repertoire chosen?
FG: Working with the producer at the Philharmonie and the Orchestre de Paris, our mission was to come up with a theme for this concert. We were looking for a link that went beyond all of the music merely being French. And we weren’t looking at regular French repertoire like Daphnis or La Mer. It isn’t that these five composers aren’t well-known in France, but we were looking for music by them that is less played.
I started by submitting a list of pieces that I wanted to do, and on that list I put Schmitt’s Rêves and Debussy’s Khamma. That was the point of departure. Along with Khamma, I thought about Shéhérazade by Ravel, and so the idea of “orientalism” as a theme began to take form.
The story of Khamma takes place in ancient Egypt, so it was natural to think about Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre – also set in Egypt. Istar [Vincent d’Indy] is in Persia, and Padmâvatî [Albert Roussel] takes us to India.
But beyond the common subject of the Orient, all of these composers knew each other, which makes the thread of the concert’s theme even stronger.
And all of the pieces are fantastic.
PLN: In addition to being the music director of the OSQ, you keep a very busy schedule conducting orchestras in Europe as well as in North America. Tell us a little about those activities.
FG: Yes, I’m very busy conducting in North America and in Europe. I have my ten weeks here in Québec each season, plus I’ll be conducting six weeks in the U.S. next season including orchestras in Detroit, Houston, Rochester, Milwaukee and San Diego as well as the National Symphony in Washington. In Houston, it will be my fourth time conducting them.
I’m also conducting in Germany, in Helsinki, as well as in France. As for repertoire, I do everything – not just French music.
PLN: Are there any additional aspects about Florent Schmitt and his music that you would like to share?
I think one challenge with Schmitt is that he died so much later than the other composers of his generation – in 1958. And he kept his own musical language up to the end, which was a time when avant-garde contemporary music by [Pierre] Boulez and others was so vastly different.
But unlike some composers like Jacques Ibert, Schmitt has his own voice. He’s an independent, and his style is distinct. That’s part of what makes him so very special. He is a great French composer who deserves to be known and to be played.
It takes time, but little by little I think we are making that happen. La Tragédie de Salomé is being played by more orchestras, but we must also do that with other pieces he composed.
For me, it’s actually more interesting to introduce completely new music to audiences rather than something like the Salomé. I want to show that just because a piece is never played doesn’t mean that it isn’t good.
More broadly, over the past 50 years what audiences expect to see on symphony programs has changed. There’s been this big wave of emphasis on Shostakovich and Mahler – so big that it’s killed nearly everything else. I love Mahler, of course, but there’s not only Mahler, you know …
True to his word, Fabien Gabel has been advocating diligently for Florent Schmitt’s music, and this was underscored in the OSQ presenting the North American premiere performance of Ronde burlesque.
Many music-lovers are grateful for the efforts of Maestro Gabel and a handful of other conductors who are seizing every opportunity to expose audiences to Schmitt’s highly interesting and inventive compositions. Here’s hoping that the Maestro will continue to do so for years to come.