A conductor who wants to put you 'inside the sound'

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A conductor who wants to put you 'inside the sound'
The conductor Maxim Pascal, in France, July 24, 2023. Pascal, a latecomer to classical music, is arguably his generation’s finest conductor of 20th-century music. (Fredrik Broden/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

AIX-EN-PROVENCE.- Growing up, conductor Maxime Pascal was a self-identified musical dilettante.

As a child in the south of France, he had some skill on the violin, and sat in on the piano lessons his mother taught. At night, he watched his father play New Orleans jazz. But he didn’t really listen to classical music until he was 18.

Now, though, Pascal, 37, is arguably his generation’s finest conductor of 20th-century music, as well as an essential interpreter of contemporary works. And his schedule reflects both the breadth of his ambition and the respect he has garnered on some of the industry’s most prestigious stages.

He is “a fascinating artist who understands the times we live in and the role music theater can have on injecting new life in opera,” said Pierre Audi, artistic director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. Pascal spent July at the festival leading his ensemble, Le Balcon, and performers from the Comédie-Française in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” in a slightly altered though polarizing orchestration of his own design.

This month, Pascal is at the podium of the Vienna Philharmonic for the Bohuslav Martinu rarity “The Greek Passion” at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. And in November, in Paris, Pascal and Le Balcon will continue what he said has become his “life’s work” as they mount “Sonntag aus Licht,” their fifth installment in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s immense, seven-opera, 29-hour “Licht” — with an eye toward staging the entire cycle during the composer’s centennial year in 2028.

Through it all, Pascal has emerged not only as a conductor of specialized repertoire, but also as a fundamentally persuasive musical communicator. His gestures can seem excessively physical; he takes his bows looking as if he had just fallen into a pool. Yet they don’t have the performative drama of, say, Leonard Bernstein.

“The audience understands immediately if a gesture is honest or if it’s fake,” said Markus Hinterhäuser, the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, who has made Pascal a regular guest there. “More interesting is honesty. That’s Maxime. In his gesture you get an immediate understanding of what’s going on.”

If there’s an honesty to Pascal’s podium manner, it was cultivated unconsciously during his childhood. In retrospect, he said in an interview between performances of “Threepenny” last month, his entire upbringing and musical education funneled into his understanding of conducting today.

He was born in Carcassonne, between Toulouse and Montpelier. Even if he wasn’t immersed in classical music, he was surrounded by sound sensations, he said, that he still feels. There was the brassy timbre of his father’s trombone, whether playing onstage or along with concerts on television. The first film he saw in theaters was “Aladdin,” and he was overwhelmed by being engulfed in the vivid images and songs.

There was also the first time Pascal played in an orchestra, an experience that was practically epiphanic. “You realize you are part of a very high-level process that has existed since a very long time,” he said. “Musically, of course, and artistically, but also socially. If you want to know what the other child over there is playing, you have to listen. It’s something really strong.”

So, when the time came to pick a path for his education, Pascal chose music, eventually making his way to the Paris Conservatory. Quickly realizing how much of a comparative head start his fellow students had, he devoted himself to catching up. From the media library he would check out six recordings a day, following no real agenda. “I discovered everything at the same time,” he said: the standard repertoire alongside the works of Morton Feldman, Gérard Grisey and Pierre Boulez.

Pascal has a similar headlong approach today. He and Le Balcon don’t repeat programs, so he is constantly learning new scores. In a sense, he has never stopped catching up. “Doing that,” he said, “you will keep a child’s curiosity forever. You will be marveling at small details until the end of your life.”

As he attended shows, he wasn’t always satisfied with what he heard. At his first live experience with Boulez’s “Le Marteau Sans Maître,” he was so affected and stunned, he could barely applaud. But at some performances, he said, he felt “a bit too far from the sound and the work.” He wondered what would happen if he put on a concert that was entirely amplified.

In 2008, with a small group of composers, a sound designer and volunteer musicians, Pascal put on a program of student works and Maurice Ravel songs performed by soprano Julie Fuchs. When he heard the amplification — meticulously arranged and balanced — he snapped his fingers and said, “That’s it.”

“I was no longer just watching and listening to something,” Pascal said. “I was inside the sound.” It felt like watching “Aladdin” all over again.

They continued to put on performances, calling their ensemble Le Balcon, inspired by Jean Genet’s play of the same name. The decision felt spontaneous at the time, Pascal said, but “we realized this text could be our manifesto. It talks about representation and what it means to incarnate.”

At the time, Pascal was familiar with Stockhausen’s music but didn’t yet know how similar the composer’s aims were to his, particularly in the completely amplified sound world of “Licht.” The cycle has been performed piecemeal over the years, especially as it was being written, from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. But no company or artist had taken on the entire work before Le Balcon. (In 2019, Audi presented a three-day abridgment at the Holland Festival called “Aus Licht.”)

Repeating the “Licht” operas in 2028 would be something of a first for Le Balcon. The ensemble constantly explores new repertoire, Pascal said, because “the idea from the start was to always do something that would surprise us, to discover new things.” Some of those moves have been driven by Audi and Hinterhäuser.

Audi asked Pascal to conduct this summer’s “Threepenny” in part because of his talent with 20th-century works, but also because he is “always searching for an honest space for rethinking and reinvention.” Weill was new to Pascal, but, Audi said, “he plunged into it and emerged with a triumphant, refreshing and highly convincing result.” (A recording on the Alpha Classicals label is due for release in September.)

In Salzburg, Pascal’s musical terrain has been vast: Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, Grisey and Stockhausen, last year the large-scale “Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher” of Arthur Honegger and the harrowingly intimate “Jakub Lenz” of Wolfgang Rihm. “The Greek Passion” is his first appearance with the Vienna Philharmonic, a risky debut for any conductor. But, Hinterhäuser said, “the response is very beautiful” in rehearsals.

Critics have received “Passion,” which opened Sunday and continues through Aug. 27, well. Pascal was praised especially for his handling of the stylistically eclectic, unwieldy score. “Sometimes it sounds archaic, sometimes modern, sometimes lyrical, then again passionate,” Meret Forster wrote in BR Klassik. “That all these facets can be heard and understood in Salzburg is mainly because of Maxime Pascal.”

If he has one detracting critic, it’s himself. Pascal said he has spent years learning to be happy with his performances. “For a long time, it was really, crazily bad,” he added. “It happens still: People are saying it was fantastic, the orchestra is applauding, but I think it was so bad.”

Whether with Le Balcon or a new orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic, Pascal is striving to realize the ideal performance in his mind but also aiming for simple satisfaction. “It can be very difficult to accept, as an artist, that everything you will do is only a picture of what you are at that moment,” he said. “You may never reach what you are searching for, but you are always approaching it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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