French conductor Laurence Equilbey is one of the lucky ones in the conducting world. Her domain is Le Seine Musicale, on the Île Seguin, an island on the Seine river between Boulogne-Billancourt and Sèvres in the southwest corner of Paris.
This impressive music and theatre complex, shaped like a giant globe attached to a center pole structure, houses her Insula Orchestra and her accentus chorus. The Maestra rules the classical musical world within. Her unique performances, frequently using state of the art multi-media, virtual reality, and digital technology for the mise-en-scène, have built a solid reputation for innovation. Yet, her musical world is the opposite of 21st century technology: it’s exclusively from the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic eras.
Equilbey, the Insula Orchestra and accentus chorus, will bring their version of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Cantata 1, 2, and 3) to Müpa Budapest on December 12 at 19:30. Interestingly, the geographical position of Müpa’s complex on the shores of the Danube somewhat mirrors that of the La Seine Musicale on the banks of the Seine River in Paris.
The Christmas Oratorio’s texts are taken from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The four vocal soloists, the period instrument ensemble Insula Orchestra, and the accentus chorus express the jubilation when first hearing of the birth of Christ, the intimacy of the nativity scene, and the dance of the adoring shepherds. It’s one of Bach’s most sumptuous and joyful works featuring flamboyant instrumentation and radiant choral parts.
Q & A with Equilbey
– Dear Maestra, we welcome you to Budapest! Have you and your ensembles performed in Budapest before – will December 12 be your Hungarian debut?
– Actually, about 10-12 years ago I brought only my choir, accentus, to Budapest to perform a piece by Ligeti at the Academy of Sciences. This time, I am very happy to bring both the choir and orchestra to the Palace of the Arts for the ‘Christmas Oratorio I,’ with the first three cantatas of that work. So, for the Insula Orchestra, December 12 is indeed their Hungarian debut!
– What musical or personal influences have been the most important for you in shaping your career?
– I studied for two years in Vienna with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was a pioneer in the Baroque revival of the 70s. He was super-important for me and inspired me a lot. He was an intellectual and a great musicologist, a man of the theatre, a real poet of sound. And in Sweden, with Eric Ericson, who was an important influence for all the choral conductors. Also, Jorma Panula the Finnish conductor, and Denise Ham and Colin Metters at the London Royal Academy. I think my most important influence was Harnoncourt; but also while in Vienna, the wonderful [Claudio] Abbado whose beautiful conducting technique I love a lot.
– How will you shape the performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to show the audience the imprint of your unique musical identity and approach?
– We work a lot [to create a] beautiful continuo: that means the lute, an organ, and bassoon, The continuo has to be rich to accentuate the energy, the joy, and the poetry of the text which has to do with the birth of Christ, and also the depth—because in the work, we feel often that the end of this life will be very dramatic. I want the soloists to render the text in a very intelligible and sensitive way. The sound of the orchestra must be sincere and direct but also [evince] a very spiritual way of playing. It’s often more abstract but this is where you have the real story: sometimes you have the Evangelist’s commentaries, and sometimes you have the real story [sung by the soloists and choir]. [We] have to make the difference between his engagement and their direct expression, [making it] more poetic and more sensitive.
– Will you include any multi-media, like virtual reality or the unique stagings that you’ve become known for?
– Nothing digital, but will have lights that will help highlight the differences between the Evangelist and the real story.
– I imagine that in order to do Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music, you must have a huge assortment of musicians who can play a variety of old instruments that correspond to those eras!
– Most of them live in Paris, or France, but they are not all French. They are coming from Italy, Holland, from Austria, England. Most of the instruments are copies (because the old ones are too fragile) but otherwise, yes, many musicians. Some are more Baroque/Classic and some are more Classic/Romantic. But I think most of them play multiple instruments. Not only do they have to change instruments, but they have to adjust to the tuning systems (the temperaments). In our discussions about using the well-tempered tuning for Bach or not, we have a lot of fights with the musicians. The lutenist is generally the winner because that instrument is more difficult. For Mozart we very often use equal temperament.
– How did the 2020 pandemic shutdown affect you — did you find the need to re-think your outlook and goals?
– It was really difficult for all of us. During the first crisis, we did a lot of recordings, and many immersive experiences in digital world – for example, an animation series with period instruments with penguins! We kept busy during the first and second lockdown, but I would say if the crises come again, it will be very difficult because the artists are very depressed and tired, and without money, so it would be complicated. It was hard, but we survived. We did a lot for our artists – we could rehearse and do some recordings so the second lockdown was much different than the first.
– Were there good results in terms of reshaping your future?
– Naturally, we think a lot about the pandemic and [we had to pay attention to] the problems with the hygienic conditions, including changing the climate control/ventilation in the building. We could perhaps, think of something to present next year with more depth, to think more territorially, to develop a more intense connection with the public, [for example] to organize a residency in a big city for three days, and be more conscious of what we do.
– Is there a question that you always wished someone would ask, but never did?
– Journalists rarely ask me what I would do if I hadn’t become a conductor. I think I would have liked to be a visual artist or a screen writer. So, I hope I can have another life!
Nota bene: On January 6th, the Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir of Budapest will continue the project with ‘Christmas Oratorio II’ with Cantatas 3, 4, 5 at Müpa Budapest