© Marco Borggreve
RADAR

Jean-Guihen Queyras, an open-minded cellist

Interview

Concerto or recital, classical or contemporary: the French cellist tries his hand at them all,  with success. He proves to us that versatility and quality are in no way incompatible. 

After working with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Queyras revealed his talents as an experienced chamber musician in his work alongside partners such as the pianists Alexandre Tharaud and Éric Lesage and the flautist Emmanuel Pahud, before sharing the stage as soloist with the Belgian National Orchestra. We meet this "insatiable" musician who likes to try his hand at everything.

Where did your love of the cello originate? 
I grew up in a family where music was everywhere. My mother was an amateur pianist and used to play regularly with a cellist. But it was at the age of nine that the love affair really began. I went to a concert where I saw a young female cellist perform the concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns. From that moment on, I was obsessed by the cello. 

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

Your musical journey is exceptionally eclectic. Why is it important for you to play Bach, the classics, the romantics, and modern and contemporary composers? 
My eclecticism is an expression of an insatiably curious nature. That said, I believe that familiarity with living composers helps you to understand the masters of the past and, conversely, interpreting the great classics helps you to give form and structure to today's creations. 

Música mediterrânica - Socrates Sinopoulos, com Jean-Guihen Queyras

And it’s not just classical music, as is demonstrated by your album Thrace, recorded with the Chemirâni brothers on drums and Sokratis Sinopoulos on the lyre...
A project that is very dear to me as it brings together different strands of my life. First, it evokes the sounds I heard in my early childhood in Algeria, between the ages of five and eight. The fact of having this contact with other cultures, languages and traditions certainly had an impact – in my view a very positive one – in developing an open and inclusive world view. At the same time Thrace is the story of the friendship I have shared with the Chemirâni brothers since the age of eight. This project also takes me back to the years I spent with the Ensemble InterContemporain that gave me the opportunity to discover the many bridges between different music, regions and periods. 

You also make connections between music and dance. Did your work last September with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Rosas at the Monnaie change the way you look at the Bach Suites?
The relationship between the rhythm and the presence of the dancers influenced my perception of this masterpiece as well as my interpretation of it. Working so intensely with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Rosas caused me to deepen my knowledge of the Suites. These pieces are freely based on baroque dances that provide a structure behind the rhythmic energy, while this music in turns gives birth to dance. This "return to the source" is stimulating and inspiring.

Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten (2017) — teaser

What is your favourite memory of your concerts at the Henry Le Bœuf Hall?
I remember with great emotion Webern's Three Little Pieces and Rachmaninov's Sonata op. 19 that we performed there with Alexander Melnikov. The hall is hugely inspiring, an ideal space and the scene of pinnacles of music performances stretching back over decades. One of my favourite halls anywhere in the world! 

On the occasion of the "portrait" that BOZAR is dedicating to you this season you are first performing with Alexandre Tharaud. A partnership that goes back a long way… 
Alexandre is like a brother to me. We have known each another and worked together for 20 years! We hold no secrets for one another, musical or otherwise. When I share a stage with Alexandre I always have a sense of coming home. 

How did you go about preparing the programme for your concert? 
Bach was a constant source of inspiration for Shostakovich and a more occasional one for Brahms. This influence is felt in particular in his Sonata op. 38. As to Berg's Four Pieces, they are a genuine masterpiece echoing Brahms' Viennese inspiration.

Brahms Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor, Op. 38 (Alexandre Tharaud, Jean-Guihen Queyras)

Then it will be the turn of Emmanuel Pahud and Éric Lesage to join you on stage.
Emmanuel is of course a living legend on his instrument and Eric has an absolutely marvellous velvet touch. It is a great privilege and true pleasure to work with them!  

If you had to choose just one favourite out of this programme dedicated to Haydn, Weber and Martinů?
If I had to choose, then my heart would go out to Haydn. I love every note of his music. It shows that he must have been a lovely man, full of wit, generosity and with an insatiable appetite for life and music… 

You will also be performing Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante alongside our house orchestra, the Belgian National Orchestra. What role is accorded to the soloist in a concertante work of this kind? 
Prokofiev was particularly proud of the orchestral harmonies, which no doubt explains the title. It is also a work of immense virtuosity due to his illustrious dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich who liked to perform it. 

Prokofiev: Symphony-Concerto for cello & orchestra in E minor, Op. 125

What other fascinating projects does this season hold in store for you? 
There is Schumann's Concerto with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra conducted by that great Schumannian, Sir John Elliot Gardiner, and Edward Elgar's Concerto that I will be playing at the London Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. A very special event.

And your motto, to conclude?  
Tolerance, curiosity, empathy and the readiness to listen.

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