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Between Boulez and Bach: Interview with Jean-Guihen Queyras – The B Side

There's a good bit from the WETA version of this interview with Jean-Guihen Queyras that fell on the cutting room floor. These are some of the more interesting parts that didn't make the final cut. He and Alexandre Tharaud will be at the Library of Congress on the 12th of this month, and in Baltimore at the Museum of Art on the 13th.

Is contemporary classical music—and its public appreciation—vital for classical music?

No..., not really. Rather I think there is an absolute inevitability to it. Great composers compose because they need to compose. They don’t do it to help the classical musical world, they just doit because they need to. And I must say as a performer it’s the same thing: I don’t play contemporary music because it is in fashion or because it looks good in a program, but it’s because I really need that. It’s part of the experience I absolutely need. Unless there is an absolute resistance, I will always propose some new music and it makes me very happy that more than once, and more than sometimes, people complement me and say: ‘Wow, that Kurtág piece was really what we enjoyed the most, tonight’. And that’s the thing. Which is to say: classical music, contemporary or not, will live anyway. But the second part of your question, on whether it is important that it will be recognized and that it is supported: of course I think it is important—again, because it’s a passion we want… a passion that only lives and truly lives when we make it accessible to the listener. That’s the really enjoyable part and we do always have to think and review how to make it possible for the largest possible amount of listeners to enjoy that wonderful experience that new music can be, the way we enjoy it as performers and composers.

Contemporary classical music used to be dominated by a highly ideological camp around the new serialists but has become much more inclusive in the last fifteen or so years…

Yes, yes, of course… there is always an evolution. When I started in the professional world of contemporary music, joining the InterContemporain—I had played it even before then, as a student—things had already changed a lot from when the EIC had been created a bit less than twenty years before that. The EIC was only created in the 70s, but the whole movement that went into it—Boulez, Stockhausen, and the lot—presented a sort of revolution in France, a struggle against conservatisms, a reaction against reactionaries. All these ideological struggles had subsided by the time I joined in the early 90s. I know that some people regretted that, but I always thought that was a chance for new openings and new connections between different musical worlds. And I’m very happy that I live in a time where I didn’t have to choose between Boulez and Britten. In the 60s and 70s I think in a way you were either on one side or the other. And in the 90s that wasn’t the case anymore. And that despite being in the EIC and playing a lot of avant-garde music, I was able to do my first recording for Harmonia Mundi with Benjamin Britten who was, in a way, emblematic for a composer who lived outside of his time. Who used a language that was unique, and his own, but—technically speaking—quite old fashioned.

Is there such a thing as asking too much of the listener?

“I released a CD with three contemporary concertos last year [Bruno Mantovani, Gilbert Amy, Philippe Schoeller], and much to my surprise—because I thought the debate was over by now—there was one critic who was quite angry at my choice of works because they were too difficult [they’re not], saying that we’ve had enough of those people who don’t care if people actually understand their work. In a way I understand that point… but on the other hand, why would everyone need to reach out to everyone? I understand the point” Queyras hastens to add “ that music has to be composed so that people listen to it. In a way I understand. But I also understand that Die Grosse Fuge by Beethoven definitely was—and is—an experimental piece that people might not like to listen to. And yet I think Die Grosse Fuge… if it hadn’t been composed, the whole world of classical music would be different today. It is a piece of major significance, but surely it wasn’t composed with the audience in mind. I like when there is debate, but my feeling is that… Well, I personally, as a performer, I don’t have the need to think that it is ‘right’ to play music that is more accessible or that it is cheap. Or to say that it is arrogant to compose a piece that is not accessible. Or to say that it is wonderful, because it is without compromise. What I mean to say is that each composer should do what he feels and if that’s language like Brian Ferneyhough’s: Good! Maybe it will be for, I don’t know, fifty people on the planet who listen to it day and night and say “Wow!”. Good for them. And if it’s more than that, also good. But I think it is good, also, that some pieces are written for the fewer. It doesn’t prevent the others to write differently. Well, at least not anymore. There was a time where that was the case, but that’s what I said before about being glad that I’m not living in the time of the trench warfare: “On which side are you?” I love the fact that it’s not Ferneyhough or Saariaho, but both.

Has he recorded anything with his Arcanto Quartet?

“Yes, actually. Two recordings have been released so far, also for Harmonia Mundi. Bartók String Quartets Five and Six and the Brahms c-minor Quartet coupled with the Piano Quintet. And we’ve just worked in the studio on a CD with French repertoire, due out next fall, with the usual suspects: Ravel, Debussy, and Dutilleux. It’s been done a few times, but we just wanted to do it so…”

“But I must say it’s mostly classical repertoire that we play. That’s because of the reason we started the quartet—Tabea Zimmermann and I—I said to her during a chamber music tour in Japan: It’s so sad that because we have other occupations and because we can’t enter the monastic life of quartet, we are going right past that absolutely amazing and unequalled repertoire…the quintessence of string writing by most composers has been for string quartet. So she said: let’s just get together and do it… and we loved it. And we loved it so much, we started playing on stage, too. But even now, we really play it just to be able to play all these masterworks written over those centuries, this absolutely great music. The way we chose our repertoire… everyone puts a name on the wishlist and then we see, as the opportunities come along, to add a piece to the repertoire. So now we are adding the Berg Lyric Suite.”

I bring up Webern’s Langsamer Satz and Queyras lights up: “What a fantastic piece; absolutely fantastic. Speaking of Webern… there is a wonderful concert organizer in Madrid, really an amazing and visionary guy with very impressive ideas: Louis Gago. And he almost forced us to play this crazy program which was Haydn Seven Last Words, then Webern Langsamer Satz, then Shostakovich’s 15th String Quartet—the one with eight adagios. So we told him that that’s ridiculous, that he’ll kill the audience, but we did it, because it was Louis and because we trust him. And it was one of the most amazing experiences we have ever had; something about time. Really an experience that went beyond music, almost to a metaphysical level.”

The purpose of “Rencontres Musicales de Haute-Provence”, the music festival JGQ and his brother founded when they were still students, was fulfilled when the butcher and the postman and all these people who might not have thought classical concerts ‘are for them’ started to attend. The idea of classical music ‘not being for a certain people’ gets Queyras going: “This, by the way one of the most fascinating things… how these clichés endure through time: the idea of the classical world being something very closed and reserved to an elite that is cultivated and dressed in a proper way. Maybe different from one country to another, but I experience it over and over again when I speak about it with taxi drivers in any given town. And sometimes I invite them: come to the concert tomorrow—and they say ‘Oh, but it’s not for me’… But why? All of which is to say that I think every initiative that can burst that bubble is still very much needed and welcome.”

This year, the first, open concert which we call “Journée Continue de Musique de Chambre” is on Sunday, July 15th and the festival lasts until July 30th. Of course it’s a little exaggeration because it does not really go on all day… but all afternoon and through the evening. I just hope the website—which I must admit: websites are not my forte—is up soon. Both, my website and the Festival’s, have been a bit dusty—but they are being worked on and should be OK. At least they programs should be on it now.

Chamber Music & Friendship:

“I feel so privileged that I have the possibility to play chamber music with people that I get along, personally, so well. I wouldn’t be able to do it, otherwise. It’s the same with the Arcanto Quartet. The three members are very dear friends and Alexandre is a very dear friend. What’s wonderful about a long collaboration like this is that when we start rehearsing a new piece, it’s fascinating for me to realize how there is so much that we don’t even need to talk about, that is clear from the moment. We see what the other one is doing, we see what the other one thinks, feels, and why he does this or that—and we can immediately react.”

Finally: if you could just pronounce your name for me… a few times. Queyras laughs: Yes, it’s a problem for everyone in the world, even in France. “Jean Guy-Yen Care-Us” he enunciates, very properly.

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