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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 15 MARCH 2016 —"My aim is to create a world-class orchestra for Paris, a world class city", Douglas Boyd, the recently appointed new principal conductor for the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, told me. Speaking in his dressing-room at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées shortly before a concert featuring the trumpet player, Reinhold Friedrich, Boyd said that he intended to find the orchestra a style of its own, so that it could be instantly identified. "It’s my dream to change the profile so that we are seen as one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world."

This might seem like wishful thinking to anyone who has not assisted at one of the orchestra’s recent concerts, but in the relative short time he has been at the helm, this dynamic, immensely likeable Scottish conductor is more than halfway there. Since his official appointment in September 2015, the sound and personality of the orchestra has dramatically changed. From being a somewhat jaded group of musicians, albeit individually gifted, attracting audiences by virtue of such guest artists as pianist Fazil Say or contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, it has become an exciting entity in its own right, with orchestra members extending their joy of music to their spectators. I asked Boyd how he had managed this and what his future projects for the orchestra were.

"First of all", he began, "I try to remain myself and although I know I’m very demanding, I always try to respect each musician. I have a lot of energy and find it easy to communicate my passion for music. I was also incredibly lucky to be brought up through the European Youth Orchestra project which gave birth to the Chamber Orchestra of Europe four years later and where I was not only a founding member, but principal oboe for 21 years. We played as though our lives depended upon it and shared the joy of making music at the highest possible level".
"I tell the musicians that music isn’t a job but a privilege which has to be shown every time they go on stage. And then", he added, "there’s a very good chemistry with everyone which is not always the case, and once we got the spirit going, it was like a roller-coaster. Everything we do is about articulating the music to make it come alive".
Born in Glasgow in 1959, Boyd grew up surrounded by music both at home and at school. His mother was a pianist who played the organ in church each Sunday, while his grandfather, he recalled, had a wonderful voice and spent his time singing all the songs of Mario Lanza, a singer he venerated.

He reminded me that everyone in Britain could learn to play an instrument as in the 60’s, before the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, all lessons were free, and that he was able to play in a local youth orchestra as early as the age of 9.  Later, they had a residency every summer at a castle on the banks of the Clyde where it was an absolute paradise with lots of pretty girls around. It was there, he said, that he discovered the joys of playing in an orchestra and abandoned an early ambition to be a footballer to become a musician, although the choice of the oboe was pure chance. He fancied playing the clarinet, but the only instrument left in the school was the oboe ... the rest, he reminisced, was history.

After studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Boyd completed his studies with Maurice Bourgue in Paris, perhaps when his love story with the French capital began. But although Boyd began his career as an oboist, he always harboured a wish to conduct and  15 years ago, inspired by both Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, began conducting, first of all with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and then with ensembles including the National Orchestra of Scotland and the B.B.C.  2001 found him music director of Manchester Camerata, his first important conducting commitment where he remained for 10 years. Simultaneously, following in the footsteps of Richard Strauss, he began conducting the Musikkollegium de Winterthur, a leading Swiss orchestra formed in 1629, as well as becoming the artistic director of the prestigious Garsington Opera in the U.K. He also accepted invitations to conduct the Chamber Orchestra of Paris on several occasions.

"When the job of Principal conductor was proposed and knowing the potential here, I didn’t hesitate", he said with warmth and conviction. "I relished the challenge and immediately set about learning to speak French; I love Paris, it’s an amazing city, and it was the right time for a change. It was a time when several people were leaving the Ensemble and there was the possibility of new blood with people who shared the same ideas, enthusiasm, and mentality. Now I plan to spend about 10 weeks a year here. It’s enough. As an oboe player I worked a lot with Abbado, Solti and Karajan, but if I’d had to work with them every week of my life, I’d have gone stark raving bonkus, and I wouldn’t wish that on "my" orchestra. I learned so much from different people and musicians need all the experience they can get."

"I was also attracted by playing at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, a theatre with a tremendous history, and where one can look out of the windows and see the elegant Avenue Montaigne, the Seine, and the magical Eiffel Tower! "But perhaps most of all, there were the tremendous possibilities offered by the residence at the new Philharmonie, with all the young people and the educational programmes that are going on here that is so important." "There’s certainly more money for culture here than in the U.K.", he continued, "Simon Rattle is desperately trying to get support for a new concert hall for the London Symphony Orchestra, and here, they just did it!"

Douglas Boyd and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris
Photo: J.B. Millot

Moreover, he added that the orchestra was doing a lot of work with both individual musicians and small groups who played in different places, from hospitals to prisons. He related the project for a February concert in a low-security prison at Meaux, a small city outside Paris, where some prisoners who had been learning to play instruments were going to appear with their teachers and where members of the orchestra were working with them. There had already been a successful project at the Paris City Hall for New Year when a group of children, a group of teenagers, and a group of adults went to a concert with Gautier Capucon to listen to works by Stravinsky, Mozart, and Philippe Manoury. They subsequently created three different pieces of their own which were performed at a big concert  including many of France’s leading politicians.

Previously, on December 22nd, 350 volunteers had rehearsed extracts from The Messiah with a choirmaster followed by 40 minutes with Boyd himself, and the subsequent performance at the Philharmonie was a great success.

"They’d never sung with an orchestra before", the conductor added, ‘but it goes to show that what we do offstage in the community is just as important as what we professionals do onstage. The Philharmonie was constructed in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, an area where there are social and economic problems and where there is less access to classical music. I want to attract a new public of young people by getting out and bringing the joy of music to the community. I firmly believe that one’s life can be changed through music."

He concluded by repeating that he wanted to shape the sound of the orchestra and do his best work so the musicians would follow him to make  things happen. Recordings* would help, and as their reputation grew, doors would open in terms of touring. As it is, they are going on tour to Germany shortly with a tour planned to Istanbul next year.

"But our home is Paris," he reminded me", with French music and the French contemporary scene a priority, but the more the word gets out that something’s happening here, then we’re on a journey. Each concert that we give is the most important. You can never come in from the garden and tell your wife, ‘the garden’s done,’ he said with a smile. "It’s just like that with an orchestra; it’s never okay, the work is never done. We can always go further."

A stupendous concert was given at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées on February 19th, with the sublime Russian soprano, Julia Lezhneva singing extracts from Hasse, Mozart and Rossini. The orchestra gave a rousing version of Rossini’s William Tell overture which had the sedate Paris audience on its feet for a lengthy standing ovation, repeated with even more enthusiasm after "La donna del lago" which ended the evening.  Douglas Boyd is accomplishing the near impossible. This orchestra is being woken up with a boom and a bang. People poured out of the packed theatre, their faces wreathed in smiles.

* Bach’s concertos, Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert’s 4th and 8th symphonies form just part of Boyd’s vast discography, while his recordings of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and the Das Lied von der Erde with the Manchester Camerata won international acclaim.

Headline portrait photo credit of Douglas Boyd: J.B. Millot

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on Marc Chagall - The Triumph of Music.

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