Scotsman Journalist Ken Walton investigates the world of François Leleux - one of three Featured Artists in the 2018/19 Season.
Leleux plays Haydn Oboe Concerto in his first concert of the Season on 3 – 6 October
Does a top class performer necessarily make a good conductor? The answer is no, and there are plenty examples – no names, no pack-drill – to prove that the answer lies in either direction and at various points in between.
Every so often, though, magic happens. There’s no better example than with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra itself, where guest soloists have invariably returned at a later date to try their hand with the baton, and the result has been electrifying.
One such musician is the phenomenal French oboist François Leleux, who was such a big hit directing the Orchestra this year, he’s back next Season as an Featured Artist conducting three magnificent programmes, including a highly-anticipated performance of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été with fellow SCO Featured Artist, Soprano Carolyn Sampson.
Leleux has been a known to Scottish audiences for some time. Besides appearances with the SCO over the past eight years or so, which included the Scottish Premiere of James MacMillan’s Oboe Concerto, he has starred at the Edinburgh International Festival as a member of the celebrated Les Vents Français, collaborated with the Hebrides Ensemble, and famously fell off the stage at a rehearsal last year (thankfully unhurt) while directing the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
But it is his relationship with the SCO that will dominate his visits to Scotland in coming Seasons. It’s a gig he looks forward to:
“The personality of the Orchestra is sparkling, and the individuality strong. The Orchestra has a great commitment to the music and is very flexible”
He’s enjoyed the challenges, as guest conductor, of getting to know the players and, in turn, learning tough new repertoire, such as the twelve-note complexities of Bernstein’s Flute Concerto ‘Halil’. “Alison Mitchell played it so beautifully,” he recalls of that recent performance.
This coming Season marks Leleux’s most extensive commitment to the SCO, when he conducts, over three programmes, a mix of music close to his heart.
The Berlioz programme in January/February 2019 is exclusively French, opening with music by Gounod, Debussy and 50-year-old Eric Tanguy. At the start of the Season, in October, the focus is on Austro-German repertoire (Haydn, Schubert and Brahms), with Leleux doubling as soloist in Haydn’s Oboe Concerto.
Then, in March, more Brahms, but with a twist of Dvořák and Wolf to spice things up. “Plenty variety,” he promises.
But what is it that encouraged Leleux to take up the baton, especially when he was in such demand as one of the world’s leading oboists? “While I was playing in orchestras several conductors, promoters and music managers suggested to me multiple times that I should conduct. I was then very excited about this possibility and it started from there.”
Can he recall when the idea first translated into reality? “It was when a small chamber orchestra proposed me to be the artistic director for two years in Germany. I was 25 years old!”
Perhaps it was inevitable that an artist with such a searching musical mind and innate musical insight should look to expand his ambitions in this way.
“I saw it as an opportunity to explore amazing repertoire which I cannot play on the oboe, and the incredible variety of sounds that an orchestra provides”
But why shouldn’t such a transition be natural for someone so used to working under other conductors? Leleux’s answer is resolute. “I played for 30 years in orchestras – the Orchestre national de France, Opera de Paris, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Europe. That was really a wonderful schooling.”
It’s often said, of course, that such a well-oiled machine as the SCO, itself populated by some of the most talented players in the country, barely requires a conductor. As a prominent chamber music specialist himself, Leleux appreciates the point, but nonetheless defends the value in having a strong musical personality at the front to direct. “You have a strong musical idea and a programme concept you want to propose to the audience, so yes, it is very important,” he argues.
It’s vitally important, too, from the planning perspective, which Leleux believes requires the most careful balancing of priorities. “I like to take great care considering the composers’ messages, but it is also important to reflect the joy of working with the SCO, and take into account a very developed sense of the concert journey for the musicians as well for the audience.”
This Season’s repertoire choice – French, German and contemporary – is music Leleux clearly feels at ease conducting. But he has his future sights on areas that equally excite him. “Yes, I want to do more Ravel and Debussy; I would also like to do more MacMillan, Adès and Bernstein.”
But his immediate focus is on such immediate adventures as Les Nuits d’Été. “This is a very important composition of Berlioz, and the French poem by Théophile Gauthier is so beautiful, surrounded by Berlioz’s music. I am so glad too that Carolyn Sampson is with us for that programme. I have followed her career with great admiration and her voice will be just magic with this music.”
In case anyone is worried, Leleux has no intention of giving up the oboe. He sees it as essential in helping him develop as a conductor.
OBOIST AND CONDUCTOR
“Producing the sound yourself is an experience which is an effort. That sense of contact is crucial in order to understand the mastery of colleagues in the Orchestra, who do it on a daily basis with such skill. Also, I love to play the oboe.”
Is the opposite also true: has conducting positively influenced his oboe playing? “Absolutely,” he says. “The way to prepare an oboe concerto, to both play and conduct, did help me understand better the scores and voices of the Orchestra.”
This Season’s close association should be, he says, a springboard to further SCO collaborations. “We are making such great music together. I do believe that the relationship will, and can only, develop.”
Music to all our ears!