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Lionel Bringuier: New Artist of the Month

April 2, 2009 | By David Mermelstein
MusicalAmerica.com
LOS ANGELES — On a sunny, early spring day, Lionel Bringuier recalls his childhood in Nice and compares the weather of his hometown to that of this city, where since September 2007 he has been assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, regularly covering for music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and many guest conductors, as well as occasionally mounting the podium himself.

“I study my scores here under the sun just as I used to in Nice,” says Bringuier, 22, who moved to Paris when he was 13 to begin instruction at its famed Conservatoire, where he studied cello and piano in addition to conducting. From there, he came to Los Angeles, his audition in fall 2006 marking his first time outside of Europe.

His parents, though not musicians, were music lovers – frequently taking him and his siblings to symphony concerts at the Nice opera house, which partly explains how all five children wound up in the field. Brother Nicolas is a pianist, two sisters teach piano, and another brother, now in finance, worked as an administrator at the Orchestre de Paris.

“Part of why I work as a conductor” Bringuier says, “is that I see it as a way to share music, something I first did with my brothers and sisters when we would play chamber music together. And when I am conducting, I really feel like a chamber musician, as one musician among others.”

Putting that view into practice, Bringuier eschews the autocratic tendencies sometimes associated with conductors – a wise choice given his age and even younger-looking appearance and demeanor.

“The musicians already know what they do,” he says, speaking not only of the L.A. Philharmonic, but also of the players in other ensembles he has led, such as the BBC Symphony, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. “They don’t need someone to instruct them. They want somebody in front of them who will be able to inspire them – but from a position of mutual respect not arbitrary authority.”

And just as an ensemble’s players need to understand what he wants from them, so the young conductor must familiarize himself with the musicians he is to direct, most of whom are older by far than he. He prefers to start rehearsals by playing scores all the way through, rather than stopping and refining elements early on. “It’s the best way to get to know an orchestra,” he says, “especially one you haven’t already conducted. Then from there, we can create the sound together and start to come up with an interpretation.”

Bringuier will make his first scheduled subscription appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall April 23-26. He has occupied the podium before, leading a couple of Green Umbrella new-music concerts and, last season, substituting for Stéphane Denève on extremely short notice in a Philharmonic program of Ravel, Poulenc and Roussel for which he earned rave reviews. This time, he leads a program of his own design, consisting of familiar works by Liszt, Ravel and Lalo, as well as a rarity: Florent Schmitt’s ballet “The Tragedy of Salome,” a fierce piece he says helped inspire Stravinsky to compose “The Rite of Spring.”

Over the summer, Bringuier is scheduled to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Festival in July and make a debut of sorts with the New York Philharmonic in June, leading the chamber orchestra in Britten’s “War Requiem” during one of Lorin Maazel’s final programs as music director. (He worked with Maazel in the same capacity when the L.A. Philharmonic performed the piece last year.) He’ll also return to the Hollywood Bowl, where last year he led Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. This time out, on July 21, the program consists of Dukas, Mussorgsky and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto – unusual fare for the Bowl but a fitting tribute to the man who has mentored Bringuier these past two years.

“I ask his advice frequently,” says the young conductor. “I ask him how to make a program. He always finds time for me, and I’m very grateful. I’m not only learning by seeing him conduct, but also because I can talk to him. Sometimes, even on days of his concerts when he’s finishing his rehearsals, he still finds time for me.”

Bringuier will remain at the Philharmonic after Salonen departs, because his two-year contract was renewed through 2009-10 -- Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural season. He is set to lead two subscription concerts, as well as serve as cover conductor for many of the new maestro’s programs.

As for the thrill of being in Los Angeles at such an exciting time and leading some of the world’s major orchestras at such a young age, Bringuier says he still can’t quite believe it. “I never wake up feeling I am a conductor,” he maintains. “I am simply happy to say, ‘Oh, nice, today again my day is filled with music.’”

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