Lucie LeguayA sense of sharing

Interviews 24.01.2022

She prefers the neutral English genre, "the conductor", to talk to us about her job as an orchestra conductor in which she is now fully involved, with a solid profession, flawless organisation and a good dose of positive energy. Present on the international scene, on the podiums of the great orchestral phalanges, the young thirty-year-old Lucie Leguay intends to tackle all the repertoires, including opera, which she particularly cherishes, and the music of today, which is an integral part of her training, her practice and her reputation. She looks back on a dazzling start to her career and a no less exciting current situation, invited to the Casa da Música in Porto and the Cité de la Musique in Paris for a rather original concert of creations.

You were assistant conductor of five formations between 2019 and 2021; then appointed assistant to Mikko Franck in 2021, with whom you are still working this year. How do you see your career today?
I have indeed taken on the positions of assistant to the Lille Orchestra, the ONDIF (Orchestre National d'Île de France), Picardie and the Verbier Festival in the same year! I didn't expect to get the job with theEnsemble Intercontemporain (EIC) a few months later, an invitation that I was quick to accept, of course. It was a heavy task, but a very rewarding one, because I understood from Matthias Pintscher that contemporary music is conducted like that of the repertoire, with precision of detail, of course, but also with the presence of colour and phrasing. My familiar contacts with symphonic and operatic music have nourished this approach to contemporary writing, which in turn has made me hear the music of the past in a different way. I already had the opportunity to conduct in France and abroad at that time, invitations that are multiplying today and that I can honour with greater availability: like this opera project next March with the Paris Conservatoire, Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, which I am delighted about. I also work a lot with Germany, Amsterdam, the Brussels Philharmonic; I recently collaborated with the Strasbourg Orchestra; I will be in Bordeaux in 2023; I have established partnerships with the Munich and Buenos Aires orchestras. Since my time at the EIC, I have been called upon a lot today for contemporary music projects, in Geneva with the Lemanic Ensemble and Contrechamps and in Frankfurt with the Ensemble Modern. But I want to be active on all fronts, conduct all kinds of music and above all remain open to new repertoires.

You have just assisted Matthias Pintscher in Wolfgang Rihm'sTutuguri; I believe this was your last collaboration with him? Tell us about working with him. What did you learn from it?
Contemporary music has always been part of my training, whether with Peter Eötvös and his master classes in Budapest, with Jean-Sébastien Béreau, with whom I worked for almost ten years, or with my conducting teacher at the Haute-École de Musique in Lausanne. My two and a half years at the EIC introduced me to a huge repertoire, especially during the Covid period when I was often called upon to replace absent conductors at short notice; I absorbed a great deal of contemporary music and learned a great deal from the musicians of the EIC and Matthias Pintscher. The positive energy, the enthusiasm he exudes, his way of working, of guiding the musicians in sound and colour are all notions that I share with him. Matthias Pintscher is a very important meeting in my career.

The conductor's position is certainly not the same in front of an ensemble or an orchestra...
It obviously changes radically, above all in terms of relations with the musicians. I have been able to forge special bonds with each of the EIC soloists, which is more complicated with a symphony orchestra, especially as a guest conductor. But I like both experiences. Just after the confinement, I did a rather crazy project with the Intercontemporain that really brought us together: the world premiere of twenty pieces commissioned from as many composers in a period of great distress, which put a smile on everyone's face.

Qhat role will today's music play in your career as a conductor?
An important place that I would always like to defend; if I am invited back by an orchestra, as is the case with the Orchestre de Bretagne, I want to propose a contemporary piece to them as part of the programme that we decide on together. The Brussels Philharmonic did not hesitate to include a work by a young Flemish composer in the concert that I will be conducting, knowing my experience in this field. And I intend to defend creation with these large phalanges, which are sometimes a little cautious about it. I have fond memories of this concert with the Strasbourg Orchestra, Silence(s), presented by Clément Lebrun for children, where repertoires and styles were mixed together with true happiness. I conducted, between Brahms and Ravel, four works of contemporary music, including a premiere!

In this regard, you will be conducting the Ensemble Intercontemporain on 26 January at the Philharmonie de Paris, where a new work by the Catalan composer Hèctor Parra, La mort i la primavera for two ensembles and two conductors, will be performed. This is a composer with whom you have already collaborated?
This is the very first time I have conducted his music and it is always a joy for me to come into contact with a composer and his sound universe. He was there at the first rehearsal to introduce us to his piece, to tell us the story behind it, a story taken from the novel by the Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda, and to bring us closer to his sound project. The next day, he left for Porto to repeat the same presentation with the Remix Ensemble and Peter Rundel, who was conducting with me. We took the time to work on the colours, the bowing positions for the strings, the balance and the spirit of the piece. He was happy with this first reading, already satisfied with the sound result obtained. One senses a real connivance with the musicians he knows well and for whom he has written. In his score, the woodwinds (flute, oboe and clarinet) are brought to the fore in an evocation of nature; he himself gives the musicians images of flowers opening up. The writing is very detailed, serving the timbre he wants to hear. And in fact, when I read it, when I was working at the table, I already had music singing in my head. Hèctor Parra compares polyphony to a muscular tissue that deploys physical energy and likens the movement of his music to dancing bodies. La mort i la primavera is subtitled ballet imaginaire.

How long does it take to prepare such a score?
You can only anticipate when you receive the score... I got it at the end of December; I worked on it for a week at the end of the year and then for a couple of weeks afterwards; I needed to assimilate this abundant writing and to master the overall form as well as the structure, which must take into account the score of the other ensemble. We can have overlapping measures and tempi; this is an additional difficulty, the requirement of great precision concerning my part and perfect synchronisation between the two.

From a practical point of view, how do you work beforehand?
First of all, I work at the table, which is very important, and consists of annotating the score to better visualise the musical discourse. First of all, I indicate the carrures, i.e. the articulation by successive musical phrases; I note the beats above the staves, in a Boulé-like manner that I learned from Jean-Sébastien Béreau; I write down the bow strokes for the strings, the entrances to each section, everything that I need to convey through my gestures.

Do you ever go to the piano?
I did go to the piano for La mort i la primavera in order to grasp the harmonic dimension of the writing that holds the architectural edifice together.

You started directing with Jean-Sébastien Béreau, a personality who has meant a lot to you. How did this meeting come about?
When I met him, he was 71 years old, he was giving lessons in Lille where I was studying piano. He had taught at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris for years. He was the one who gave me the opportunity to work with an orchestra and not two pianos as is often the case in conducting studies. We worked together for three or four years, but I developed a very strong bond with him. He now lives in Portugal where he has founded a conducting academy in Leiria. I went there every summer for almost ten years to continue to follow his advice. He passed on to me the heritage of French music.

Let's talk about your other mentors. Have you met Pierre Boulez?
Unfortunately not. I often ask the musicians of the EIC to give me their memories of the master because there are few sound testimonies of his conducting practice. After my training with J.S.Béreau, I met Aurélien Azan Zielinski at the Haute École de Musique de Lausanne during my master's degree in conducting. I could not find a personality as different from that of J.S. Béreau. He opened up new horizons for me; I discovered and developed other things, other ways of thinking about music and gesture in space, of managing my relationship with musicians. Then, as an assistant, at the Verbier Festival in particular, I received advice from Valery Gergiev, Daniel Harding, Klaus Mäkelä and Antonio Pappano. It only lasted a week, but I learned a lot, if only by watching them conduct. I also have a boundless admiration for Simon Rattle's gesture, which I was able to immerse myself in via the Digital Konzert Hall of the Berliner Philharmoniker. His work with the string section in particular is admirable.

What is it about the orchestra that you really enjoy?
I like to share with the musicians. This is something I missed as a pianist, even though I practised chamber music. I have felt, since my years in secondary school when I was in special classes, a frustration of not being able to join the orchestra and be with the others. And when I had the opportunity to play the piano in an orchestra for the first time, I felt this vibration and energy that made me want to conduct. I love the idea of changing phalanxes, from one week to the next, from one place to another, to discover new talents and other sounds at each engagement.

What was your first experience as a chef?
I'll never forget it! I was 18 years old, it was at nine o'clock on a Sunday morning in Jean-Sébastien Béreau's class, with Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 on the music stand. I then discovered this extraordinary way of creating sound without touching the instrument, of feeling through my gesture the possibility of shaping the sound. I had truly found my way.

You won the " Tremplin des jeunes cheffes" at the Philharmonie in 2018; what do you think of the La Maestra competition introduced in 2020?
First of all, I would like to come back to the "Tremplin" competition, which I had no desire to enter. I have a completely different conception of parity, even if I can only approve of this initiative and this impetus towards women who have been left out for too long. The presence on the jury of a large number of theatre managers ready to put women chefs on the podium made me decide to sign up, to meet them and convince them. Winning the competition did indeed generate a lot of invitations at a time when I was already very busy with my assistant jobs. It really launched my career. I was also chosen for the web series "chef.fe" initiated by the Philharmonie, which followed me on five projects, highlighting the profession of conductor, which is often little known by the general public. But I refused to take part in the Maestra competition , feeling sorry for male colleagues of my age who are now, in their turn, being neglected! We need to take things into account and feel that we are chosen not for our gender but for our merit and personality. This has led me to refuse certain projects that did not have this requirement.

Do you feel that things have changed in terms of women on the podium?
Clearly. I would say that it has become almost normal to have a woman at the head of an orchestra, at least that's how I feel. At least, that's how I feel. The same goes for female composers. But you have to be careful and assess the skills first before you talk about gender.

Are you aware that you are a role model for the next generation of female chefs?
I can tell you that I didn't need female role models to do this job. But I am aware that the presence of women at the head of an orchestra today can awaken vocations. I worked with the Demos orchestra in Lille where the children had two conductors, Alexandre Bloch, the current director of the Lille Orchestra, and myself. I think it is good to show children, both boys and girls, that the profession of conductor is a mixed one. The image is important to transmit.

You created the Lille Chamber Orchestra in 2014? It is a phalanx to which you were attached and which allowed you to experiment a number of times, notably to cross repertoires, to imagine other concert formats and to meet other audiences. Is this a mission that you are going to pursue?
I learned a lot through this project where I was in charge of everything, administration, treasury, production, direction, etc. The covid stopped our activity and I have to say that I don't have the time to do it anymore. If things start up again, which I hope they will, I will need other financial means to be able to delegate responsibilities.

What is your dream as a conductor today?
There are many: to do a grand opera by Strauss or a symphony by Brahms, or a ballet by Stravinsky, with the dancers on stage... 

Interview by Michèle Tosi

Concert "Du simple au double", Wednesday 26 January at the Philharmonie de Paris;

Watch Camille Ducellier's documentaries, here

Photo Lucie Leguay © Christine Ledroit Perrin