Emmanuel Krivine, whose podium experience dates to the ’60s, has long centered his work in Europe. It is perhaps not surprising that the French-born maestro will make a belated guest-conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during concerts on Nov. 17-19 and 22. As he often does, he will steer clear of French repertory, leading instead a program that will feature Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Denis Kozhukhin, as well as works by Liszt and Dvořák.
He began his career as a violinist, winning the Premier Prix at the Paris Conservatoire at age 16, but he had to give up the instrument after a car accident in 1981. By then, he had already started conducting, inspired by a meeting with famed Austrian conductor Karl Böhm in 1965. His tenure from 1976 to 1983 as principal guest conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France served as a springboard to a series of significant posts in France and around Europe. These included positions as music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon from 1987 through 2000 and music director of the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra from 2006 through 2015.
In 2017-18, he will take over as music director of the Orchestre National de France. In the meantime, he is continuing as head of La Chambre Philharmonique, a period-instrument ensemble that he founded in Paris in 2004, and principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
In an e-mail interview conducted in French, Krivine discussed his Chicago debut, his new position with the Orchestre National de France and his non-musical passions:
With these concerts, you are making your debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; how do you feel about this milestone?
Of course, I am delighted to take part in this collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is an orchestra that I have known for a long time through its recordings and concerts. I even attended the last concert of [Georg] Solti with my wife. We had just one handkerchief between the two of us, and it was not nearly enough, considering the tears we shed. I also have great admiration for Maestro [Riccardo] Muti, who has given some of his time to the ONF [Orchestre National de France], which we enjoyed considerably.
Do you do anything different when conducting an orchestra for the first time?
No, I always have the same attitude [toward] listening. The conductor plays a sonata with the orchestra, but instead, he has empty hands.
Have you previously worked with Denis Kozkhukhin?
Yes, we worked together in St. Petersburg. I have a very fond memory [of that collaboration]. and I am happy to join him again.
The usual expectation, at least in the United States, is for a French conductor to present French repertoire, but this CSO program lacks a French work.
Identifying musicians with their nationality is a reflex. It is not always the “nationals” who play their own music the best. For example, many Americans are champions of French music. Music is a universal and ecumenical language, which does not stop at national borders. I was a student of Karl Böhm, who was an assistant to Richard Strauss. My parents were Russian-Polish. I work with the Orchestra National de France. In short, it is a “mixed salad” that strongly resembles the curriculum vitae [of other conductors].
Is the Orchestre National de France that nation’s most important orchestra? Does it possess a uniquely French quality or sound?
It is a great pleasure and a great honor that I was offered this position. I like very much this orchestra, which has character, high energy and a long tradition spanning the famous music directors who have led it since its creation. I am equally happy that the musicians approved and supported the choice of musical direction, which is a good sign. In addition, there has not been a French head of the National since 1973, with the departure of Jean Martinon, and of the [Orchestre de] Paris since 1981.
Is it difficult to make the transition between modern orchestra and your early-instrument ensemble, La Chambre Philharmonique?
No, the attitude is the same. It is a question of mutual listening. The split between the two common groups — “institutional orchestra” and “artisanal orchestra” — is make-believe. Good musicians can play in all manners. It is a question of tools. The result, however, is not the same: orchestras on period instruments are in general more preoccupied with style and language than with efficiency, but in our time, a good musician can have all the cards in hand.
Do you believe that you have “a strong arm,” as the French newspaper Le Monde once said?
No, I don’t have a strong arm, but I have a strong ear. The authority of a maestro is not social but musical.
Could you discuss your tenure with the Orchestre National de Lyon?
It was above all with the Orchestre [Philharmonique] du Luxembourg for nine years that I was able to have a real artistic plan. In Lyon, that had more to do with the reconstruction and management of the organization. However, I was able accomplish great work with the group between 1987 and 2000, and I return from time to time.
Would you like to work more frequently in the United States?
I really like working in the United States because the orchestras have an open and available disposition, abundant energy and legendary concentration that helps avoid fatigue. I will say that it is understood in the United States that there is no difference between chamber and symphonic music: it sounds just as good with 100 musicians as with five.
You are known as a connoisseur of wine. Do you have a cave for your wine collection? Do you attend wine tastings when you travel to wine countries and regions?
I am not a connoisseur but a wine lover. I have many wine-growing friends and beautiful things in my cave. (By the way, my father-in-law founded Champagne Devaux.) The attitude during a tasting is very similar to listening to music and the senses in action are similar, one being olfactory and the other auditory.
When I was young, my mentor was Steven Spurrier, a great expert of wines for the famous magazine Decanter. American wines are absolutely sensational; you remember the famous tasting (in 1976) where they scored in a blind test ahead of the European wines? It is absolutely necessary that the French stop self-censoring because wine is the jewel of our country and our culture. Unfortunately, politicians don’t understand that. I hope they will change quickly and become the top supporters of the viticultural world.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.