In November and December 2022, it was time to continue deepening the ongoing orchestral collaboration between the CNSMDP – Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris and the mdw – University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna … this time in Paris. From the large pool of applicants, it ultimately proved possible to send 40 students. They ended up reuniting with more than a few familiar faces, since this was the fourth joint project following an initial series of projects in 2017/18 and a visit to the Parisians last June.
Sustainable Orchestral Travel
The Webern Symphonie Orchester’s journey to Paris by rail, for which the 43-person mdw delegation boarded a direct night train in Vienna, proved a successful experiment. It was all very simple: meet at the train station, board, put the cellos to bed and then oneself. The students’ assessment: “Fantastic, very comfortable!” By morning, they were already at the centre of Paris and could go out on their own for a while.
The rehearsals began the next day, and the schedule was a challenge: five rehearsal days for one concert at the impressive Philharmonie de Paris. This striking concert venue, sporting a reflective silver-grey avian façade by architect Jean Nouvel, opened in 2015. Inside, the Grande Salle Pierre Boulez stands out for its outstanding acoustics devised by Harold Marshall and Yasuhisa Toyota, and it offers seating for a concert audience of 2,400. This complex of buildings is used intensively for educational programmes and is also home to five orchestras including the Orchestre de Paris, Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Les Arts Florissants.
Discoveries Old and New
Back in 2018, the joint concert at the Cathédrale des Invalides in Paris had featured an intriguing programme that included a captivating Psalm by Lili Boulanger. For the 2022 concert, the two institutions decided to commission a new work. They ultimately asked Marie-Claire Sinnhuber, a Swiss-French composer and herself an alumna of the CNSMDP, to compose an work for orchestra. Her work was completed in summer 2022 and bears the title Le ravin des figures.
For many of the students, working on Sinnhuber’s music was a new experience: at first, there were questioning looks—such as upon seeing performance instructions like “flautando, comme un souffle coloré” (flautando, like coloured breath) in the violin part and “essuie-glace” (“windshield wiper” bowing) for the cellos and basses. But as they worked directly with the composer in their rehearsals, such questions merged into a collective quest for and discovery of new sounds and ways of playing. The immanently capable Alain Altinoglu led this rehearsal work: “It’s different from how things are in Berlioz; the point here is not to listen to what the others are playing. Instead, concentrate and count very precisely: everyone’s playing an individual part.”
The composer herself explained her underlying intentions as she set out in search of the right sounds together with the young players. Her music, she told them, is rather delicate and shy. The respective solo parts, however, should stand out clearly and energetically. She had at first gone about composing this work without a title in mind but then hit upon one that seemed to fit: Le ravin des figures (Ravine of the Figures) refers to a Spanish ravine where old petroglyphs were discovered. Some of these cave drawings are faded and blurred to the point of unrecognisability, but individual figures do clearly pop out—which Sinnhuber says is analogous to her new work.
The Symphonie fantastique, with its expressive sounds and dramatic love story, was new territory for many of the participating students—and the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France kindly made available the tuned bells called for by this piece.
A True Master on the Rostrum
This project enjoyed wonderful musical leadership in the person of Alain Altinoglu, who teaches a conducting class at the Conservatoire. Word had also quickly spread amongst the students that Altinoglu would be conducting the Vienna Philharmonic a week later. However, it was above all his total commitment that enthralled the young musicians, whom he called by their first names from the second rehearsal onward. This despite the fact that it was over 90 students from a total of 20 nations who had come together to form this joint orchestra.
With Brahms, the project’s diverse group was on more familiar ground and blessed with a magnificent soloist in Sergey Khachatryan, who began his worldwide career in Germany and has been a known quantity in Vienna ever since placing second at the Fritz Kreisler Competition in 2000. He completed this programme’s Armenian leading quartet, with the respective orchestras’ concertmistress and concertmaster likewise having Armenian roots.
Despite the tight rehearsal schedule, the students had repeated opportunities to acquaint themselves with this or that Parisian gem, ranging from sights to musical and culinary revelations. Paris itself, however, remained fog-shrouded throughout the project, so glorious photographic souvenirs are few and far between. We did, however, take with us some new acquaintances and memories of pleasant encounters: several of the Parisian students doubled as cordial hosts and local guides. It was thus that one could hear, “Yes, yes, we’re already friends!” in some of the orchestra’s sections even on the second rehearsal day.
The students did, of course, encounter challenges playing together—but by the big evening, a state of euphony had settled in that made everything worth it. The concert, played to a full house, was a universally positive experience—and it felt hard to say goodbye. Since there was no Nightjet scheduled that day, the journey back had to be by plane.
Since then, a further reunion has already taken place: Alain Altinoglu invited the mdw students to the Musikverein for one of his rehearsals with the Vienna Philharmonic. And with any luck, it won’t have been the last time they come together.
The WSO at the Musikverein
14 June 2023, 7:30 p.m.
Musical direction: Daniel Harding
Viola: Antoine Tamestit