Raphaël Pichon on Monteverdi’s Vespers, the seventeenth century, and the current musical landscape

Raphaël Pichon © François Sechet

Hailed by many as the face of the new generation of young conductors exploring the Baroque repertoire, Raphaël Pichon will lead the Ensemble Pygmalion and a cast of soloists in a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine this weekend at the Château de Versailles.

Deep in the throes of final preparation, he sat down with us to talk about just what makes this larger-than-life work so magical, why he is absolutely fascinated by the seventeenth century, and the challenges and joys of bringing the past to life in the twenty-first-century musical landscape…

On Monteverdi’s exhilarating Vespers:
I think it’s probably one of the most exhilarating pieces a musician gets to perform in their life. Exhilarating because it is so monumental in several ways: its proportions, its variety, its virtuosity… It’s a veritable marathon for everyone, instrumentalists and vocalists alike. Plus, we’re performing it without an intermission, all in one go!

On the unique experience of playing—and watching!—the Vespers:
It’s one of the few pieces that leaves you feeling more alive than when you started. The sheer jubilation and absolute intensity give off a kind of powerit’s so unique! Monteverdi pushes the limits of composition throughout the entire piece; he really invents a kind of sensory experience. It’s almost like he’s able to reach us, to touch us, even, through every possible medium. And just when we think we’ve arrived at the end, when we reach the Ave Maria Stella, which constitutes a real pause in the piece about two-thirds of the way through, it feels impossible that Monteverdi could give us more, or that the piece could get anymore intense and extraordinary. But that’s exactly what he does with the Magnificat! It’s almost a new piece inside the Vespers: 25 minutes of pure genius in which he pushes the limits even further. It’s almost an overdose of jubilation!

On adding plainchant back into the piece:
For this version, we decided to add the plainchant back into the piece. When the piece was written, Venice was overflowing with monasteries and plainchant was an important part of the musical culture. What we call the “cantus planus” was performed very slowly with a strong emphasis on vocality; we could almost describe it as lyrical. It was in and of itself a kind of sonic overdose, especially if you imagine the acoustics of the churches where it was performed (with all the reverberation!) and the beautiful, trained voices of the monks singing in full voice. So putting the plainchant back into this piece was important for us. It also serves as a response to the psalms. This adds a breath of air into the pieces and lets the psalms really shine. Without them, if we perform just what’s written in Monteverdi’s score, it’s almost too much. Adding the plainchant back in allows us to reach an equilibrium and tempo that makes the music even more resplendent.

On bringing out the work’s “sonic theatricality” in Versailles:
It’s a piece that was made with space in mind, that was practically conceived as a 360° experience for the senses. It plays with space, at times you might wonder if what you’re hearing is coming from the sky! In Versailles we’ll really be able to work with the space by spreading out the choirs and the soloists, by playing with the echos, by making the most of all three dimensions: North/South, East/West, and the volume. I really hope it will bring out the sort of “sonic theatricality” that’s essential to this kind of piece! Plus, in Versailles, we have the advantage of working with Bertrand Couderc on the lighting; he’ll be able to add another layer to this theatricality and play with the space in a different, complementary way.

On returning to Versailles, where he spent many of his formative years:
It gives me a sense of security. Which makes it the ideal place to take risks! I know it very well because I’ve experienced so many intense emotions there, both as a conductor and as a young singer. This sense of security encourages me to put myself in danger, to dare to try new things! This liberty is also something that Laurent Brunner, the director of the Château de Versailles Spectacles, has given us. It’s a huge honor, and a huge opportunity.

On the nuances of Monteverdi’s rich and “profoundly human” score:
Monteverdi’s oeuvre is possibly one of the most impressive collections of sacred music in Western history. In the Vespers, he draws on the music of the past, with elements that make us think of ars subtilior or of early Medieval polyphony, and yet at the same time includes elements that are fascinatingly modern. We feel like he’s inventing musical gravity or musical levitation, or at times like he’s taking us to the battlefield! This foregrounding of passion makes the piece feel not necessarily secular, but profoundly human. The idea of sacred versus secular isn’t important because it didn’t exist back then. All music was sacred, in a way. It’s the humanness that’s really fascinating in this piece. The way he brings out the text opens doors in unimaginable ways, allowing him to reach us directly. For me, this is what ought to be brought out to its full expression.

On crafting his vision and sharing it with the performers:
Because this music is so sensorial and so theatrical, it’s above all a question of images and sensations… And of course, this is work that is constantly evolving through discussions with the performers, through rehearsing. It’s important that I let myself by enriched by these interactions, particularly for pieces like this one, which open up so many possibilities. While Monteverdi gave us very precise instructions for certain sections of the piece, others are much more open in terms of instrumentation: orchestrating timbres, dispatching the numbers of singers, or doubling or tripling choirs… It’s a work that offers a conductor endless opportunities to be creative.

Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion, © Piergab

On the seventeenth century as a period of infinite possibilities:
Like many other periods, the seventeenth century was a transitional moment. It was a period of possibility: the playing field was infinite and liberty was the magic word! I’m thinking of course of language, of form. Between the end of the Renaissance and the birth of opera, composers tried tons of things, it was a musical laboratory! So we have this sense of madness. And out of this madness came new forms, each adding to the abundance. This kind of period really interests me a lot, as does the sound. There was an almost magical relationship with sound, both in terms of space and acoustics, and in terms of instruments: their timbres, their ability to evoke emotions, their pairings. There was a vast, nearly infinite sense of sonic richness. It goes much further than the music for me; this kind of magical period is truly fascinating.

On the importance of innovative storytelling and listening to what the audience wants:
Our musical world is in a period of change. Today, even more so than a generation ago, we’re completely surrounded by music and musical practices—what a chance! The realm of possibilities is endless. For classical musicians, our relationship with our profession, with concerts, with opera, must change as well. Maybe it’s time to present and to share music in a new light, in new ways. Our way of presenting concerts—I’m talking about the traditional symphony concert with an overture, a concerto, and a symphony—is conservative, even maybe cold at times. Perhaps that’s not what the audience wants. I think we need to listen to what they want and look at how we can tell our stories in a different way. Storytelling is extremely important. I mean shedding light on the repertoire in new ways, whether that be through the space, the program, or anything that can help us bring life—real flesh and blood—to our music. This is essential to nourishing our interpretations and creativity.

On bridging the gap between the past and the present:
This moment in time is also a bit unusual. We’re no longer in a period in which the music of today is our principal focus. We now live in a period in which the music of the past is our principal focus. Of course, there are many, many things happening with contemporary music! But more than ever, we live through the past, and the way we bring the past to life needs to be inspired by the world of today… The keyword is curiosity. It’s about being curious ourselves as musicians, and awakening that curiosity in the listener.

Don’t miss Raphaël conducting Monteverdi’s Vespers this weekend, live on medici.tv! Click here to learn more.


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