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Interview: François-Xavier Roth

Founder of the dynamic period instrument orchestra Les Siècles, Music Director of the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne and Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO (to name just a few), François-Xavier Roth is in demand for his unique and innovative work. We spoke to him about his experience of working with different orchestras, and connections between the music of Lachenmann and Mozart. 

Listen to François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles on Primephonic. 


francois Ravel

Let’s start by talking about Les Siècles. It's been about fifteen years now and I’m interested in how the ensemble has changed, is it very different now?

Yes. First of all, it takes a long time to create an orchestra and fifteen years old is a baby compared to what the orchestra needs. I would say that from the beginning I was very clear about the project and what I wanted to achieve with it. I wanted to create an orchestra with a very specific profile regarding the period of music history – it was extremely important to me. The structure was clear from the beginning and after that we developed our certain identity that we have today.

So when it comes to the authenticity of your performances, the performance practice and the period instruments – is there ever anything that becomes difficult or impractical?

It’s an interesting group. Orchestras that perform on period instruments have existed for decades and you can still create an orchestra like that today, you can find players from all around the world that specialise in these instruments. I did it differently, I chose musicians because I was very conscious of their talent and not specifically within any certain musical period. If I look back I would say that the most difficult aspect of building this orchestra, was and is also the most exciting aspect, that the entire group takes risks together.

Are there any composers or periods that you wouldn’t approach, that would be too much of a risk?

It’s not a question of risk, it’s a question of taste. Whatever we play with the orchestra, it is always the music I am interested in. For example, I would not be interested in performing Tchaikovsky’s symphonies but I find the ballets very interesting. I’m quite interested in a lot of music but my main problem is to try and fit all these wishes and dreams into a single lifetime.

Is there a difference between how you work with your own orchestra versus orchestras like the LSO, in terms of the way you approach the music? Or the way you rehearse certain aspects of performance with them?

You know, very often I'm asked if I rehearse or conduct differently. What is very clear is that Les Siècles is my base and it’s a very healthy base because it is much more than an orchestra - it’s like a laboratory. When we play Mahler's Symphony No. 1, we play and  rehearse it like it is a creation, like it's been written yesterday or the day before. Every time we have the advantage of doing it as a group for the first time we have this curiosity towards how it should sound and how it should be performed. Then suddenly this base is the departure point for each project so that when I come to the LSO, Cologne or Boston I bring this benefit of seeing the music with fresh eyes.

You’ll be coming to Amsterdam to perform a programme of Mozart and Lachenmann at the Muziekgebouw as a part of their chamber orchestra series. To you, what are  the defining aspects of music for chamber orchestra? Do they even exist for you?

What is a chamber orchestra? Les Siècles is definitely not a chamber orchestra, it’s an orchestra. This week I conduct the chamber concert of Schumann and I decided to reduce the size of the orchestra because of what I’d read about the premiere, that Schumann was very glad the orchestra was not too heavy in comparison with the cello. I had the feeling, conducting this piece, that this is chamber music. The way it is structured and the way the dialogue is built between the soloist and the orchestra is chamber music. I think that music is more of a philosophy than the amount of people you have on stage. I am very glad that we are going to perform in Muziekgebouw and I will say that chamber music is not necessarily the amount of voices you have on stage, but how you perceive music. 

When you talk to really great orchestral players they are almost all chamber players too, and I think that idea of listening and of exchange is something that the really great symphony orchestras have in their blood as well, right?

Yes! It’s also a philosophy of conducting and how I see the connection between the players because this is something very special in the orchestra. You have the connection to the music but also with the single person who stands in front of the music. I am not interested in players looking directly at me but that they make this connection, and this is very different in how we consider music making in orchestras. We are going to perform these works by Mozart but at the time of Mozart the conductor didn't exist. It was much more like a string quartet which was extended.

Why this particular pairing of Lachenmann's 'Mouvement' and these late Mozart symphonies? Do you think that the Lachenmann brings something out in the Mozart, or vice versa?

Certainly. One of the reasons is how can you experience the works differently. This is very important for me. How can we listen to works that we know already extremely well? One of the solutions would be to change the perspective or to propose a perspective. In the case of Lachenmann and Mozart there is a kind of provocation and I like it. Mozart is maybe the most glamorous composer in the classical music: when you cross the street and ask somebody who is the most popular classical composer, and it will be Mozart. Mozart wrote all of this fantasy in the classical style, which can be a little cheesy or a little kitsch. I think that especially in his late works, he is a provoking composer wanting to shake the audience. In this way, especially in the late symphonies, he already announces what is going to be the evolution in music making. By bringing along the Lachenmann I hope that the audience can see that Mozart's works are more modern than we think, and that Lachenmann can be heard and experienced in a much more traditional context. It always benefits one period or another. I would say about this production: don't expect something you think you know already, from both periods - modern and classic.

I think ‘Mouvement’ is one of the masterworks of Lachenmann and I wanted to find a work to fit into the amount of players on stage compared with the Mozart. So it's both a choice of one of the best Lachenmann works and also one that can really simply and pragmatically be done in the same concert. 

Daphnis_FrancoisYou've made some award winning recordings with Les Siècles lately. Is this the sort of project that you might put down on CD anytime soon? And do you have any recording projects coming up with the orchestra?

We do, but it's also very difficult to record everything, even though I would dream of it. Lachenmann is one of the composers I am very interested in at this time and it would make sense to record. Also, it's been a long time since we played Mozart but the orchestra is so great in the classical music period so I am very looking forward to do that.  We recorded Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 that will be out one day, Mahler...We recorded many. It will come out step by step. We have just released an album of Debussy's music and the next month is our new Berlioz recording.

I have to say that I only record live performances. In my whole career I did only 3 or 4 studio recordings. I usually begin with the live concert and then do some patch sessions to have a clean last chord without applause or when we have to delete some noises. It's something very different to the studio recording and I really like it because of the energy of a concert.