William Christie: baroque inspiration

For over thirty years, conductor and harpsichordist William Christie has been rediscovering and sharing baroque music. This year, the charmingly enthusiastic maestro and his ensemble take up residence at the new Philharmonie de Paris.

William Christie (photo : Denis Rouvre)

photo : Denis Rouvre

Air France magazine April 2015

You’ve just celebrated the 35th year of your ensemble, Les Arts Florissants. What does it mean to you?

It is the celebration of a stage of life… and of youth. One of the greatest qualities of this ensemble is its goal of remaining fresh and spontaneous vis-à-vis the public and its approach to music. This is why the ideas of transmission and sustainability are so crucial to my fellow musicians and to me. Thirty-five years ago, we contributed to the rediscovery of baroque music, but also helped develop a new way of working. I’m now slowly handing it over to Paul Agnew and Jonathan Cohen.

How did the Baroque movement transform the musical landscape?

Attitudes have changed over the past 30 years or so. A symphony orchestra or modern pianist no longer plays Mozart in the same way. The emphasis on early instruments was also a definite change. It began in the 1960s and subsequently became an integral feature of the international music scene. People realized how the instrument itself adds tremendously to the color and interpretation. And no single opera house can fail to include composers like Handel and Rameau in its repertoire.

Are you still discovering “new” early works?

Yes! And it is sheer joy to bring back completely unknown works; sometimes the composers are famous but the works have almost never been performed in public since they were written. I recently conducted Rameau’s Birth of Osiris and Daphnis et Eglé. These had never been heard in London before! And now, with my colleagues from the Glyndebourne Festival, we’re looking at the Venetian composer Francesco Cavalli. We’ll be doing his Hipermestra for the 2017 season. It’s an opera from the 1650s that has only been performed once or twice.

What’s the best way to approach this repertoire?

As conductors, we often go through traditional classical training. I took conducting classes while I was at Yale for a repertoire that I no longer direct. So in opting for baroque music, I had to develop a specifc technique for 17th- and18th-century works; the requirements are very different from techniques for works by Bruckner or Stravinsky, for example. But our work is not only about rediscovering forgotten scores. We also do new interpretations of Mozart, for example.

 Why include Mozart in the world of Baroque music?

Because he is the product of a tradition. His notions of harmony and counterpoint and his musical references are deeply rooted in earlier decades. He listened and analyzed music in a way that was much more similar to those who preceded him than to those who followed. So it’s better to get to Mozart via baroque music than via Shostakovich or Berlioz!

In January, you conducted at the Philharmonie de Paris, for the first time, where Les Arts Florissants are newly in residence. Is this a turning point?

Yes, and a new chapter with respect to the great passion linking me to Paris and to France, my adopted country. The Philharmonie project demonstrates France’s need to confirm itself as a land of culture, despite the controversy. I hope that Jean Nouvel’s extraordinary creation, with its incredible acoustics, becomes a standard. Like the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lincoln Center in New York.

A few years ago, you launched a music festival in the gardens of you home in the Vendée region. Where does you love for flowers come from?

I grew up in nature, in Buffalo, New York, surrounded by relatives who loved beautiful things. My passion for horticulture developed at the same time as my passion for music, when I was seven years old. I am thrilled to be able to combine music and gardens in my life today. The festival attracts people who love ancient music, but it also stimulates local residents, and this makes me really happy. I’m a communicator, I like to please through music, and I do everything for it to flourish.



© Cécile Balavoine 2016