Congratulations on winning the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition – what does that sort of accolade do for a young conductor?
It gave me the chance to see the LSO rehearsing with great conductors as much as possible, and then the chance to conduct them a lot during the year which is an incredible experience for any conductor – young or not so young! With the Donatella Flick you get a special internship with the LSO which is not really the same as an assistantship with any other orchestra. Usually you’re tied to the orchestra and have to be there for every rehearsal, but I was allowed to work outside to develop my career on top of that. That freedom gave me a great balance.
What about the LSO itself? Daniel Harding says everything is always technically perfect at the first play-through…
This is exactly right, at the first reading of a piece! That was the biggest shock I had when I conducted them first – the reaction they have to any gesture is huge, even just from eye contact. So when you want something it’s immediately there…you don’t need to talk too much and that’s the best way to rehearse with any orchestra. Not coming from the British orchestral culture which usually has a very fast way of working, I learnt a lot from that – how to build a programme with very little rehearsal time.
How do you establish a rapport with an orchestra when you meet them for the first time – is it terrifying?
Ha! It’s not terrifying, it’s exciting usually. Each orchestra has different personalities within it but also has a different character as a group, so the first moment is always very different depending where you are. Conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at short notice…well, they are really totally different orchestras and those first rehearsals didn’t happen the same way at all.
Do you change your behaviour or approach when you get a handle on what they’re like?
Yes, you have to adapt…should your conducting match the orchestra’s needs more, should you change the way of rehearsing? So for example in Amsterdam there is much more time for rehearsal and the building process is a little bit longer, you’ve got more time to learn from them, how to react to their sound, or the acoustic of that great hall. In Britain it’s different…so at the BBC NOW it was a little more like the LSO – you have less time and need a very efficient reaction in the first rehearsal. You also have immediate information about what the orchestra can do.
Are you excited to be conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic? An orchestra which has probably never been better than it is right now…
I’m totally thrilled, yes! I know that they’re a very good orchestra, but also the programme is just so exciting for me, most of it is French repertoire and very much masterpieces from the French composers which I have been dreaming of conducting for maybe 10 or 15 years.
Are you a French music specialist…or just a French conductor?
When you’re French you’re asked a lot to conduct French music – especially maybe when you’re just starting out, as I am. But I’m really glad Liverpool wanted this programme because I wanted to have the chance to put my hand on some very hard repertoire like La Mer and La Valse.
Has the old French ‘school’ of conducting filtered down to the new generation – to people like you and Lionel Bringuier?
I think it depends on the person. I’ve always forced myself to have the widest possible list of influences from everywhere and I’ve studied a lot in Paris but elsewhere in the world too. I wouldn’t say “I am from the French School” but I love Charles Dutoit, for example, and I’ve met him several times now and worked with him, and I admire this French approach: very particular and detailed. I very much understand that world, but I don’t know if I’m exclusively part of it.
Does a conductor starting out in 2013 need a bigger range of skills – a better sense of empathy, human development, the idea of ‘the workplace’…?
Yes – the world has changed and it’s now completely different, as is the psychology of the orchestra in general; the players are different and so is their expectation of how they would like a conductor to behave. I would say for a young conductor the most difficult thing is experience, which we don’t have yet. When you conduct a piece for the first time you don’t know what is going to happen, how the orchestra will react, what energy the orchestra will give off. We’ll see what happens in Liverpool…I’ve never done La Valse before and I can imagine the energy is huge, but since I am not there yet I can’t guess exactly. The most important part actually is learning how to react.
Will you be conducting from memory as you did at the Donatella Flick final?
I usually do it because I feel much more comfortable but I have never asked myself the question “am I going to do it without the score or not?” It’s just natural…if I know that I know the piece I just do it. I don’t decide either way!
Alexandre conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra 13 and 14 November 2013.