Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 3 November 2007

Jean-François Rivest: From Peak to Peak

by Lucie Renaud / November 18, 2007

Version française...

It’s the start of an autumn morning like so many others at the Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Music. The corridors are already humming with snatches of practice music emanating from the rehearsal rooms. The door opens on Jean-François Rivest. The smile is frank, the handshake sincere, but you can sense in his eyes that he’s mulling over an idea, a musical phrase. He finishes it in his head before apologizing. The night was too short, the themes and inspirations of three of Beethoven’s symphonies were pre-occupying his mind. In a few hours the conductor will join the young musicians of OUM (Orchestre de l’Université de Montréal), an ensemble he founded in 1993, for a demanding dress rehearsal. The following evening, under his guidance, they will scale three summits of the repertoire: Beethoven’s Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. “I believe in the idea of a project, of an expedition, to climb a Mount Everest,” explains Rivest. “You’ll prepare better and you’ll generate more energy if you tackle something like that than if you’ve got three little mountains to climb. Even if the amount of work seems the same, a large project always produces more growth for everyone involved, for myself as much as for the orchestra or for the audience.”

The tone is set from the start. Rivest is not one of those conductors who stand back, who dissociate themselves from the performance or who rest on their laurels. Although he may preach discipline and precision, he does not hesitate to let his young charges know that he’s not afraid to “put his head on the block.” He also speaks of the importance of keeping the passion that only young people can instilled in their hearts like a crusade, a vocation: “I’m in the same boat with them. It’s important to make music for the sake of the music and not just for oneself.”

His mandate as conductor in residence of the OSM is threefold: to assist Kent Nagano during rehearsals, to design the orchestra’s programs for the young people and to promote contemporary music, particularly Canadian music, while developing close ties with the Montreal community. When Nagano rehearses with the OSM, Rivest takes very detailed notes. At break time he turns them over to the music director, who thus adjust his sights within the span of a few minutes. While he admits that he felt a certain shyness in doing this analytical work at the very beginning, he now talks about a friendly two-way exchange of ideas. As part of his duties, the Québec conductor must be able to react quickly. When Nagano turns the OSM over to him in the middle of Schoenberg’s monumental Gurrelieder so that the maestro can get a better idea of the concert hall’s acoustical balance, Rivest has to jump in immediately. When he is told that Valery Gergiev missed his plane and won’t be leading the rehearsal as planned, he has to absorb the scheduled repertoire. When he’s entrusted with the difficult task of conducting the orchestra for the first edition of the OSM’s International Composition Prize while dealing with over 700 metronomical changes in a single evening, he has no choice but to serve the composers. “To be honest,” Rivest confesses, “I don’t think I could have done the same thing when I was twenty.” When he’s given carte blanche to stage a summer program blending classical and jazz for concerts in the parks, his infectious enthusiasm immediately springs to the surface and the sense of pride is unmistakable when he recalls the accolades he’s received from audiences and critics alike.

In trying to be persuasive, Rivest’s excitement quickly builds up and as he explains or analyzes, he is exhilarating to behold. His father would say he’s “speedy,” but in fact the exchange is at the level of the intensity of the moment, whether he’s communicating with an individual, with musicians or with the audience. Moreover, he is strongly against the snobbism that has been attributed to classical music. “I’m a presenter of music, and music isn’t made just for the elite! As the person responsible for the OSM’s educational programs, as a university professor, as a conductor, I work at transmitting the music. These are all communicative activities.”

To succeed, Rivest feels it’s important to imagine the music: “You have to develop an inner ear, to help the performers develop tools that will lead them to a more intrinsic understanding of the works. A musical work is a complete being, with its own life, its history, its elements, its molecules, its universe.” For him that universe must be approached gently, with great deference, with all the doors open to understanding it through a series of essential steps. First of all, be on intimate terms with the work and realize that the work exists in spite of everything, almost in spite of oneself. “It has to be brought back to life, to be re-created. To perform means in a certain way to re-compose.” Then comes the moment to grasp the parameters of the work, by researching period performance practices, by considering the work’s genesis, by enlightening oneself about the text, by comparing performances, the tempi. “The truth resides somewhere in the middle, in the crevices between the various performance possibilities. Then, we can admire the crystallization of the work. When we know it well, we can break it up into little pieces, a bit like a clockmaker working in three dimensions, bits and fragments of the clock floating around him. Sometimes, despite ourselves, sometimes intuitively, one must reconstruct the work, examine and take it apart once again, from the performance standpoint . Everything gets redone, and we start over. It is then that an osmosis takes place between point of view and coherence.” Depending on the work, the approach can be intellectual, visceral, spiritual or physical. Jean-François Rivest compares the few days that precede the concert to a “gravitational well.” “The vise tightens on one version. You have to accept and be convinced of that interpretation, and then step out onto the launch pad.”

In November, various OSM audiences will be able to enjoy Rivest’s talent as a communicator, as he’ll be conducting ten concerts. He’ll be backing the grand-prize winner of the OSM Standard Life Competition (this year’s edition will feature strings and harp) for two concerts, presenting his musical voyage around the world for young concertgoers in four OSM Youth Concerts and two family-oriented Children’s Corner shows, and welcoming his friend Benoît Brière in a 5 to 8 at the OSM instalment devoted to the dazzling actor’s musical favourites. The man who confesses to an elective affinity to Mahler, Shostakovich, Sibelius and Brahms will be revisiting the latter in a program which includes the composer’s Tragic Overture and Symphony No. 2, a work that in Rivest’s opinion, expresses love, not sensual, but one which is generous in its gesture. “To love, you must open yourself up to the other person, but Brahms chooses to do so while maintaining a certain reserve,” he explains. “The back-and-forth between well-being and tension in this symphony is extremely powerful yet natural.” Rivest then puts forward a parallel between the music of Bach and that of Brahms. The conductor perceives in them the “same harmonic perfection, the same eminently natural use of the harmonic system, the same beauty, the same riches insofar as harmonic tensions are concerned.” He holds that the primary difference between Bach and Brahms resides in the density of the musical medium, the evolution of the tension and of its resolution. To better demonstrate his point of view he sits down at the piano and evokes a trip on the back of a bird and the struggle between gravity, which draws one towards the ground (the tonic), and to the specific patterns of flight, influenced by the density of textures. In Bach and Mozart, that density conjures up transparency, whereas in Brahms it comes off as much more aquatic. “Brahms is like a manta ray, a leviathan, swimming in dark blue water. Despite the resistance of the water, we nonetheless continue moving, advancing.” Post-romanticism would be more like a sea of oil, Wagner achieving tension thanks to chromaticism and Mahler through his way of suspending the dominants to extremes. (Rivest will be conducting the immense final movement of the latter’s Ninth Symphony as part of the 5 to 8 at the OSM concert). The music of Sibelius, meanwhile, would be considered almost solid, more earthlike.

Nagano, wishing to confide in Rivest an almost total freedom of performance, simply insisted on the inclusion of the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”), “that French music that the orchestra plays so well,” to quote the OSM music director. Rivest didn’t hesitate for very long. “The OSM is fabulous in this music,” he explains enthusiastically. “I’ve conducted “Sunrise” from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and I had the impression of being in the middle of a gigantic school of silvery fish in clear blue water. At the height of the passage, the chord morphed into a flower before my eyes, as if we’d unravelled it together. The OSM is a true human and musical being, one with an incredible internal cohesion.”

Rivest speaks of the positive wind that now prevails, and that, in his view, comes through in the quality of the work. He admits that to a great extent this is what prompted him to go after the position of Conductor in residence. When they first met, Nagano wondered about his motivation, since the role of Conductor in residence is normally given to a conductor on the rise rather than an established pro. Remember that in addition to conducting the OUM, Rivest was also artistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestre symphonique de Laval and the Ottawa ensemble Thirteen Strings, and that he’d already won a Félix Award in the “Best Recording for Orchestra” category at the 2001 ADISQ Gala. After thinking it over for two weeks, Nagano came back to Rivest with a richer role giving him the latitude necessary to make his own mark. “No man is a prophet in his own country,’” he says with a smile, “but I tell you, I love this orchestra!”

Rivest confesses to only sleeping a few hours a night and to being consumed by music. Still, he is in no way obsessed with his career. For him, mental health has to do with balancing the artistic, social, human and family spheres in his life. His four children and his wife remind him that before anything else a life has ramifications in space and in time: “Our loves, sadness, parents, death, births, friendship – these are the most important events in a life, not a career.” He regularly feels the need to keep in contact with nature, to recharge his batteries and to test himself. He’s paddled thousands of kilometres in a sea kayak, walked 200 kilometres on Baffin Island with a friend, traveled 150 kilometres down the Amazon in a pirogue with his children, and climbed with them to Machu Picchu following the Inca trail. Through those landscapes, just as he does through musical works, Rivest continues to explore and evolve, one work, one prominent event at a time. n

[Translation: Ron Rosenthall]

Jean-François Rivest – Education

Trained at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec in Montréal under Sonia Jelinkova, Rivest won first prize at the OSM Competition at the age of eighteen playing the celebrated Bruch Violin Concerto, which he is coincidentally conducting ,with the same orchestra on November 6. He continued his studies at Meadowmount, Aspen and at the Juilliard School in New York with Sally Thomas, Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay. Unable to contain his enthusiasm, in two years he completed not only a bachelor’s degree but his master’s degree as well, besides turning to composing and being sought-after as a chamber player. When he returned from New York, he founded the Ensemble Carl Philipp, which he led from the violin, in addition to many concerts both in Canada and in the U.S. At the age of twenty-one he took on a new challenge by becoming one of the youngest members of the OSM, where he remained for five years and where he has been Conductor in residence since June 2006.

After over 1,000 concerts, more than one third of them as a soloist or as a chamber musician, Rivest changed course and took on orchestra conducting – without ever entering a conducting competition, without taking on assistant conductor posts, all while keeping away from masterclasses. “Students can’t be given experience,” he asserts. “They have to take it.” His approach to conducting remains highly organic and he’s gained recognition one work at a time.

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale