Though Fabien Gabel began his musical life as a trumpeter in Paris-area orchestras, he soon began to feel the lure of conducting. In 2002, he attended what is now known as the Aspen Conducting Academy at the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado, which has produced noted alumni such as James Gaffigan, chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
Two years later, Gabel won England’s Donatella Flick Conducting Competition and then earned an important appointment as the London Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor in 2004-06. His conducting career has taken off from there, with guest appearances with major ensembles such as the Houston Symphony Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. In addition, he has served as music director of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes (French Youth Orchestra) since 2017 and Orchestre Symphonique de Québec since 2012.
Next up, Gabel will make his guest-conducting debut April 18-20 and 23 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, an event that has the maestro excited “for sure.” “I grew up with the recordings of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” he said. “It’s a legendary orchestra. As a former trumpet player, one of my models was [Adolph] Bud Herseth” — the CSO’s principal trumpet from 1948 through 2001. “He was one of my gods.”
The program will feature Emanuel Ax as soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. Less familiar are the other selections: Bartók’s Dance Suite and Debussy’s Printemps (Spring), a work that the CSO has performed just twice before, most recently in 1999. The two composers have a “pretty obvious connection,” Gabel said, because Bartók was very much influenced by Debussy’s harmonies and orchestrations, and both drew on folk tunes to varying degrees.
Although Printemps is rarely programmed, the French maestro has conducted it with some frequency. “Unfortunately, French music tends to disappear,” he said. “We almost always play the same music — Debussy’s La mer or Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, but we completely neglect the rest of the French repertoire. I’m fighting for that. I’m fighting for other composers, but also I’m fighting for the unknown Debussy or the less-played Debussy. And Printemps is one of those amazing pieces.”
Now 43, the Paris native began taking trumpet lessons at age 6, going on to study at the prestigious Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris and later the Hochscule für Musik Karlsruhe in Germany. Afterward, he played with Paris orchestras, where he had the chance to get an up-close look at conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa and Simon Rattle. “That’s how it started for me,” Gabel said. “That’s how I decided that I wanted to at least try conducting.”
In 2002, he enrolled at the Aspen Conducting Academy, which was led then by its founder, David Zinman, former music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and former chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in Switzerland. “I was a beginner, totally inexperienced, and that’s how it started,” Gabel said. “From that moment, I knew I wanted to be a conductor. But it was a difficult moment to switch, because, of course, I had my career as a trumpet player and I was quite busy.”
One of his first successes was winning an audition to be an assistant conductor at the Orchestre National de France with its then-music director Kurt Masur, who became Gabel’s second podium mentor after Zinman. He went on to win the Flick competition, followed by further studies in London with such conductors as Haitink. “These beginnings were quite fast,” he said. “But after 2004, when I was appointed an assistant with the London Symphony, things calmed down.”
As noted, Gabel currently serves as music director of the French Youth Orchestra, a pre-professional training orchestra for musicians ages 16 to 24, and the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec. Canada’s oldest professional orchestra, the Québec orchestra is noted for its devotion to the French musical tradition. It also was the only North American ensemble that the celebrated if eccentric Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache led during his lifetime.
“Of course, we have a limited budget compared to the big U.S. orchestras, but also one of the hallmarks of our orchestra is to be quite creative with the budget, and we explore many things, not necessarily always the blockbusters,” he said. “But we try to open to new gates, not only encountering new music but also some works that are not often played. So we are quite curious and open.”
But as satisfied as Gabel is with his current posts, he does not deny that he is looking ahead at the same time. “Of course, I cannot predict the future,” he said. “But at the moment, I feel good in Québec, and we will see what is going to happen.”
TOP: Fabien Gabel. | Photo: Stéphanie Bourgeois