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Ravel, with Thibaudet, Lacombe, and the BSO

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Saturday, June 12, 2021
8:00 PM

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is the soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and Jacques Lacombe leads the Boston Symphony in the composer's Daphnis and Chloe, in an encore broadcast from 2018.

Jacques Lacombe, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus

DEBUSSY (orch. RAVEL) Sarabande et Danse
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the left hand
RAVEL Daphnis et Chloé (complete)

See the original program Ravel conducted in 1928 (courtesy of the BSO Archives).

Hear a preview with Jacques Lacombe in the player above.


Brian McCreath (BMcC): [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB with Jacques Lacombe, who is here at Symphony Hall to conduct a program that pays tribute to Maurice Ravel. Jacques, thank you so much for a little bit of your time today.

Jacques Lacombe (JL): [00:00:09] It was my pleasure.

BMcC: [00:00:10] You are here having conducted the Boston Symphony a few times at Tanglewood, but this is your first time conducting in Symphony Hall. And I think you've been to concerts at Symphony Hall. What's it like? What's different about being on stage now with the BSO?

JL: [00:00:25] It is very special because in my opinion, this is one of the great concert halls in the world. So, I mean, I'm discovering the hall. Of course, like any halls, you have to make adjustments, but I mean, I have now, I feel I have this relationship with the orchestra. It's my, I guess my fifth collaboration, fifth or sixth collaboration with them, and of course, they know the hall. So I take a bit of advice and I've asked questions about, you know, how it is when it's full, because when we rehearse, of course, the echo, the reverb is a little bit more, so, especially in a program like that, I would say, where, you know, colors are so important and clarity and definition. So this would change a little bit when the audience joins us. So, and of course, I want to I want to make those adjustments now. And, you know, in a piece like Daphnis, which they own so well, it's a lot of fun.

BMcC: [00:01:21] Well, I was just going to say that for your first conducting in Symphony Hall to have the BSO doing Daphnis, and everything else, these other things by Ravel, is pretty special. For Ravel in general, I kind of feel like most musicians have one, two, maybe three composers at their very core that sort of drive them. They've have always been there. How far towards the center or outside the center is Ravel for you?

JL: [00:01:46] It's a very interesting question because, well, being French, French-Canadian, I have to admit from my background, when I started to study music, my instrument was organ. I did my master's degree at the organ first when I was fairly young. I was 18. And at the time I've worked on, you know, a lot of German music. And, of course, Bach. I was sort of a Reger specialist. Yeah, that was my thing. I played obviously some French organ music, but when it came to orchestral music, when I was a teenager or young adult, it didn't get me at first. I mean, Ravel, I've always liked, but to give you an example, Poulenc, for a long time, I took it for very superficial, and now I love doing Poulenc as well. You know, I've done "Dialogue of Carmelites," for instance. I, I'm dying to do it again. It is just an amazing piece, an amazing theater piece as well, but also orchestral work. So and but of course Debussy and Ravel are certainly at the top of the list. And I really enjoy revisiting those scores over and over again, because even though it is quite precisely, that's what's fascinating about this music, it is quite precisely written and marked and composed. And you have a lot of information to score, a bit like Mahler, for example. Beside that fact, this music always gives you room to make it your own, and it's funny, I got comments from musicians yesterday after our first rehearsal saying, uh, you know, that it's such a great piece and each conductor does it a little bit differently. And that's exciting, and it works. I mean, this is that I truly believe in this art form that there's not one truth. And and so that's why I'm always trying to question my ideas to keep it fresh, because, uh, we always have to remind ourselves that it should feel like we're discovering this for the first time, even though we know this piece very well.

BMcC: [00:04:02] So I'm really fascinated by your background as an organist. This is, I'll confess, this is something I didn't actually know. And the thing about organists that I always think is so fascinating is that there's such, you have to tune your ears so precisely to color in order to make any given instrument work, because you're always going from one extreme to the other. You can't say that you only play on one instrument. And that's also at the heart, I think, of what it is to conduct Ravel. And so, do you sort of feel like that background helps you to maybe dissect those colors or maybe that's not the right term, but to balance those colors within an orchestra, yeah?

JL: [00:04:39] You're absolutely right. And well, the funny thing is, when I was a teenager, I mean, my relationship with music started fairly late. I mean, it was sort of an accident because I my goal was to go and study science when I was a kid. And then the story is, my family moved in a house where there was a piano. We rented a house where there was a piano in the basement and it was a mechanical piano with rolls and everything. And I started to play by ear, whatever I heard on the radio, or whatever, I would play. And I was about, I guess, maybe 10 years old or something like that. And so I did that for a few months and then went to my parents, said I had an interest into this. They suggested I should take piano lessons. So I started in sixth grade, in elementary school in our system in Canada. So when I was, it was about eleven, as I said, studied piano. And almost right away I became a member of a boys choir in my hometown, which was Cap-de-la-Madeleine. It's now part of Trois-Rivières, which is between Montreal and Quebec City in the province of Quebec. And, uh, in that town, there's a big pilgrimage center, a wonderful church. And one of the best pipe organs in the country, in Canada. It's a Casavant. It's I think three keyboards, 75 stops. It's really a great instrument. And that's, being a member of the boys choir, I heard this. I started to take piano lessons with the organist and one thing leading to the other, I started studying organ.

[00:06:05] But still, you know, when I finished my secondary school, my idea was to go into science. And my second organ teacher opened my eyes to the possibility of becoming a musician. I'll never forget, he told me, he said, "You know, science, you can always start when you are thirty years old. Music, you need some physical abilities that need to develop at a certain age." So I have decided when I was, what, 15, 16 years old to give music a chance. And there I am. 54 years old and still giving it the chance! And having a great time with it. But going back to your question, when I studied organ, it was not at all with the idea of becoming a conductor. But retrospectively, I could certainly say that it was fantastic training. It's a great background, as you said, for colors. But also I find that for a conductor, it's very important that you hear, and hear harmonies and hear all of that and pitches, and an organ, or keyboard instruments in general are a good training for that because you hear different voices, and it's especially so at the organ. And the other thing I would say that helps also, because playing the organ, sometimes you're in the choir loft or whatever, and you're far from the singers. So you have to deal with delays and stuff like that. Anticipate, and stuff like that. And sometimes as a conductor, I have to deal with that, with those issues, especially in the pit. When when you're conducting opera, for instance, this sort of issues come across from time to time. So I'm used to doing this from my background as an organist.

BMcC: [00:07:40] Well, and that's further evidence that we're training our ears when even when we don't know we're training our ears, it's actually happening. So and speaking of training, in a way, I notice that the good folks at the BSO Library pulled out some of the older scores of other conductors and their comments and markings in the scores. What do you learn from that when you look at the scores that maybe Munch conducted, or any of the other conductors who have led the BSO?

JL: [00:08:04] Well, it's interesting. There's, I also have an old score of "The Rite of Spring." And sometimes you find information that those conductors who really, you know, sometimes got it from -- what is the saying in English, "from the mouth of the horse," or whatever? I forgot what animal it is but something like that. And sometimes, I mean, these great conductors were very respectful of the composition and composers, but sometimes they had their ideas about, you know, certain instrumentation, certain dynamics, certain tempos, and so it's very interesting to to look at their scores and see what kind of small details they changed. So I just received the score, I haven't had the time to immerse myself in it, but I would certainly do that in the next couple of days. And because I find it fascinating and Boston Symphony is such, you know, an institution that they have here, you know, a significant part of the music history that you can have access to. So I feel very fortunate.

BMcC: [00:09:08] Have you worked before with Jean-Yves Thibaudet?

JL: [00:09:11] Yes. Jean-Yves and I, we go back a long time because he used to come quite regularly in Montreal when I was assistant of the Montreal Symphony. And we've done a few collaborations in New Jersey. And we are actually good friends and I really like Jean-Yves. He's such a fine artist, but easygoing, thorough, honest. There's no, you know, it's the music and the music and the music. And I have the highest respect for him. And as a matter of fact, I was reminding him because I saw him, I was visiting in Chicago a few years ago and he was doing a little program at the Chicago Symphony, Ravinia, with, uh, James Conlon. And Jean-Yves was playing both concertos on that night, the Concerto in G and the Left Hand Concerto, which we're doing tonight. And I reminded him because that summer there was so many, what's the insect, whatever they called it, they make a lot of noise. There was..

BMcC: [00:10:16] Oh, the cicadas.

JL: [00:10:18] Yeah. And they, I mean, and there was a program of French music where everything is so soft and delicate that there were moments where you literally lost the orchestra because they were so loud. I mean, it was pretty funny. So I heard him do the Ravel before over there. And so it's fun. We've done some Gershwin also together and, yeah, every time we collaborate, it's only pleasure.

BMcC: [00:10:46] You mentioned your time in New Jersey and now you're also, you've taken a Music Director job in France. And I wonder, what do you feel like is the biggest difference between working in Europe and working in, uh, well, the US, we'll say. Canada's a little bit different even still from those two. But between Europe and the US, what's the biggest difference in working in those environments?

JL: [00:11:09] Well, it changes a little bit from countries to countries. For example, I've worked also in the UK, in London. Sometimes it's a little bit similar to what you would face in terms of the organization of the work, uh, in North America. And for that matter, the difference between US and Canada is, for the most part, not that big. We're pretty much working with the same sort of times, I mean, the schedule and stuff like that. The financial part is slightly different in Canada than in the US, but in Europe because most cultural organizations are basically subsidized by the state, you end up having a lot more rehearsal time, which sometimes is good.

[00:11:58] I'll give you the example at the opera, because I have now a position as principal conductor of the Bonn Opera in Germany. And for an opera, a new opera production in Germany, you would get something like six orchestra readings, five, one or two musical rehearsal, which would are called "sitzprobe." And then you'll have four or five stage orchestra rehearsals, pre-dress and dress rehearsal. In North America, for the same opera production, you would get three readings, one sitz, one pre-dress rehearsal and one dress rehearsal and you say "thank you." So it's like that. So I always say that the best opera house in the world is probably in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but nobody knows where it is. No, but having said that, I find sometimes it's just, you know, it's done. And, of course, you have different levels. I mean, you can't compare Boston Symphony to a lot of orchestras because that's, as we say in French, "la crème de la crème." You probably know that expression.

But sometimes I feel in Europe, knowing that you have so much time to rehearse, there's a bit of inertia, or that process is sometimes a little bit slower. Musicians might not come totally prepared for the first rehearsal, knowing that they have time to work it out on the job. Where, here, in North America, every second counts because I think for the most part, because of the structural system of the finance of those organizations. I mean, every minute costs money and you need to work and raise money to be able to pay it here, where they don't face those issues quite yet in Europe. I think it's starting to change a little bit. But until now, sometimes I find that, you know, in Europe, you sometimes... working in North America, you get there and you feel you, sometimes at the beginning of the rehearsal, could feel a bit slow to get there. But and the other thing is, with some European orchestras, you really feel that from the very first reading they're really trying to interpret the music and where sometimes in North America, OK, well, let's figure out how this works, and then we'll, you know, so sort of step by step, a little bit more. It's just a general feeling from my own experience. But I, when in a situation like this week here, with this kind of repertoire, we've had like three rehearsals and a dress rehearsal. And that allows me to do everything that I that I want, because it's always a question of, you know, balance of knowledge of the repertoire from the orchestra. And so if you do new repertoire, obviously, you would you would probably allow yourself a bit more more time. But being music director on the two continents for me is interesting because now, as you said, next year I'll take the Mulhouse Orchestra in France and I'm still music director of the orchestra in my hometown, Trois-Rivières. So the organization of the work is not exactly the same in both places. It's very interesting to have to deal with that. And I wouldn't be surprised if for Andris it's the same thing, working at the Gewandhaus and working here, there is probably some some slight differences.

BMcC: [00:15:15] Yeah, yeah, sure. You kind of adjust depending on where you're going and it comes back to that, that old Hollywood accent they used to talk about, the Mid-Atlantic Hollywood accent, right? Something that's kind of in between. Well, just to bring it back finally to this particular program with the BSO's rich history with Ravel, not just that concert, the set of concerts that he conducted himself 90 years ago, but but with Munch's readings of Daphnis and the recordings they've made of Daphnis. Do you feel like-- and you conducted the second suite from Daphnis with the BSO at Tanglewood. Was there a sense that you learned something from the orchestra, when you're doing Daphnis with this particular orchestra?

JL: [00:15:59] It's give and take. Oh yeah. Because I'm always open to, uh. I decided, I told you earlier in this interview that I was an organist, and the main reasons why I decided to become a conductor and not an organist was that I like to work with people and I felt very lonely as an organist. And having said that, working with people for me means exchanging ideas. So when I conduct on the podium, I listen as much to what they give as I think about what my interpretation would be. I have the final word, because this is, in the position in which I am, this is my responsibly as a conductor. But I like my musical ideas to be fed by the orchestra. And there are, in Daphnis, and it's actually funny that you mentioned that because now that I'm doing the complete ballet, I don't have it here with me in Boston, the score I use for the second suite, which I did last time with them two years ago. And there are a couple of things that we adjusted when I did it two years ago. So I went back at some of the soloists, "I think this is what we've done last time. Are we...?" And so it is an exchange.

[00:17:12] And that's the beauty of music, I think, and it goes beyond beyond the words. I mean, it also, when you, I believe, when you establish this kind of channel of communication, it allows you in the performance also to, at one point, if a soloist needs a bit more space to breathe or move or whatever direction, I guess the soloist knows that this room is there and vice versa. So when you have this mutual trust and sort of complicity, if that's the right word in English, then it really makes sense to have live performance, because it's always a little bit different, and that's what's exciting about it. There's nothing worse in our art form than to repeat always the exact same thing, the exact same way. And this is what I love about this job.

BMcC: [00:18:01] I love the idea of a true exchange. Jacques Lacombe, thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

JL: [00:18:05] My pleasure. Thank you very much.