A Surprise Choice: Emmanuel Krivine as head of the Orchestre National de France.

by:  Frank Cadenhead

On Wednesday, during a morning interview on France Musique, Emmanuel Krivine was blunt. “I’m trying to go to the end by being a little less of an ass than at the beginning” His selection as the new music director of the Orchestre National de France, starting with the coming season, was much delayed and many see it as controversial. His statement is certainly a reference to his reputation as a difficult taskmaster. At 69, he also bucks the trend toward young music directors by Paris orchestras. Mikko Franck, 37, is the new head of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Daniel Harding, 40, is the incoming director of the Orchestre de Paris. Philippe Jordan, 41, is music director of perhaps the most talented orchestra of the four majors, the one at the Opera National de Paris.

Krivine replaces Daniele Gatti, who is going on to lead the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and is among top-ranked conductors, with regular appearances in Vienna, Berlin, Salzburg and Bayreuth. But Krivine’s career has not at that level and his leadership of the Barcelona Symphony and the Catalonia National Orchestra will come to end with this season. Since September, 2015, he has been the principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and he has recently ended a nine year stint as music director of the Luxembourg Philharmonic. He continues his direction of La Chamber Philharmonique, a chamber orchestra he founded in 2004. Like Krivine himself often does, It focuses on the original instrument performance style but mostly for the Romantic repertory.

It was the end of his term as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (1976-1983) that I first heard about him. I remember the orchestra being more than a little unhappy with Krivine who had an difficult reputation with the musicians and who even avoided engagements with the orchestra during his last years at the helm. He also lead the Orchestra National de Lyon from 1987 through 2000 and, some say, brought them greater unity and international recognition but with much of the same grumbling by orchestra members and relief at his departure.

Monday’s announcement, by the CEO of Radio France, Matthieu Gallet, and the Director of Music and Cultural Creation at Radio France, Michel Orier, presumably was made after consultations with musicians of both radio orchestras; the Philharmonque’s office is a few doors down the hall from the Orchestre National, and there should be musicians there who remember his rule. We hear nothing about the ONF interim artistic director, Steve Roger, who was appointed for a one year term in July of 2015. One can assume that M. Orier or perhaps Gallet himself are taking on the role of artistic director (to save money?). The same is apparently true for the Orchestre Philharmonique with the angry departure of Eric Montalbetti, after 18 year of service, in late 2014. One does note that both Mikko Franck and now Maestro Krivine are found to be discussing an overall artistic concept and ideas for guest conductors, etc. in the press and interviews. One could assume that both orchestras have made the post of artistic director redundant.

The threats of combining the two radio orchestras and the subsequent strikes and controversy of more than a year ago are now in the past. Krivine seems assured that the budget threats are behind the orchestra and Radio France will not shrink its musician numbers. Much has been made of the fact that Krivine will be the first French conductor of the National since Jean Martinon (1968-1973). Not known for his French repertory, Krivine will not be, in his words, a “jingoistic missionary” but comments that “French music, it must be delt with, it’s very interesting.” He admits his repertory in this area is “limited.” “Therefore, I will invite whoever does the best work that I do not know, the type that would be absolutely appropriate for that composition.”

Regarding his previous experiences with the Orchestre National, he was equally candid: He recalls a 2004 engagement: “It was messy. It is true that it was not at all messy with Kurt Masur and with some other conductors. I’m just saying that I, that time, I felt I had too much to take care of with discipline.” His more recent experiences, in September of last year, were more positive. He found the discipline “was by listening, and that’s very healthy.” We will certainly know more about his alleged mellowing in the coming months and years.







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