Classical: The French connection

Yan Pascal Tortelier's career could have been over-shadowed by his famous cellist father. But, as a festival in Manchester shows, the conductor is a force in his own right.

The most surprising piece of advice that the great French cellist Paul Tortelier ever gave his son was to avoid French music. "Papa adored French music, of course he did," says Yan Pascal, "but he knew how uncommercial it was. `You must play Beethoven and Mozart,' he said. `You must be international. And, at the time, he was right. French music was not so fashionable abroad. Papa was a realist, you see."

But he was also a realist who dared to dream. Was it really such a coincidence that the piece of music the world came to associate most with Paul Tortelier was Don Quixote by Richard Strauss? The wily old knight, dreamer of dreamers, champion of champions. That was no mere performance he gave - that was a musical manifesto, to fight the good fight for music of all colours and creeds. And Yan Pascal has inherited something of his father's chivalrous nature. He, too, believes in the universality of music, a common language transcending style, period and nationality.

Perhaps that's what his father was really getting at whenever he used the word "international". It is surely significant that only now, aged 51, is Yan Pascal Tortelier gaining recognition in his own country. Because only now is he seen as a truly international figure. Even the French (perhaps especially the French) are impressed by success abroad. And if the local hero can return armed with Mozart and Mahler, Beethoven and Hindemith, Britten and Shostakovich, Elgar and Strauss, so much the better. You see, Papa was right after all.

So what was life with Papa like? Never dull, that's for sure. Yan Pascal speaks of a vibrant household, father and mother (both cellists) holding court to an incessant stream of visiting musicians, many of them family friends, such as the composers Paul Hindemith and Henri Dutilleux. Yan Pascal played the violin, his sister Maria the piano - with father or mother making up the piano trio. But before the music-making came the learning, the theory, the indoctrination. Basic training - the notes and how to attend them - began early, by rote. Papa Tortelier was a stickler for technique. He knew all too well how redundant inspiration was without it. He was going to make sure that his children were well-equipped. Period.

But once the theory was in place and the imagination unlocked, how easy - or difficult - was it to hold one's own in the presence (or the shadow?) of this larger-than-life personality? Yan Pascal speaks of his father's enthusiasm, his encouragement, his inspiration. He was a bit of an actor, a philosopher, a humanitarian. But was it hard being anything other than his son? There is a telling pause as he recalls their second professional engagement together, a performance of the Brahms Double Concerto at the Proms. The review headline read: "Outplayed by Papa". That hurt. Though the hurt, if he's honest, was to some extent offset by the excitement of getting a review at all.

Even so, the penny was about to drop. As a violinist, Yan Pascal was aware of frustrations, even limitations. Being any kind of string player, he inevitably drew comparison with his famous father. For years his father had sat at the left hand of such legendary conductors as Toscanini, Walter, Strauss, Koussevitzky and Beecham. He often spoke of trading places - he occasionally did - but he was far too important a cellist to lay down his bow for a baton. So, he merely passed it on, like an inheritance.

It has taken the younger Tortelier the best part of 30 years to learn his trade - because the learning is in the doing. How else do you hone communication skills? "An orchestra is a strange animal," says Tortelier. "It's potential waiting to happen. When an orchestra `comes along' with you, it's irresistible. When there is resistance - for whatever reason - it's bloody hard. An orchestra must sense that you have something particular to offer them. You have to offer input - or, better yet, inspiration."

And to offer it, you have first to feel it: what you don't feel, you cannot express. It's an old adage, but a true one. Tortelier goes further. He needs to have slowly assimilated a score before he can think of conducting it. He does so from the score, from the printed page, not recordings. He cannot give a downbeat if the music is not already ringing in his head. Members of the BBC Philharmonic - which has been his orchestra now for seven years - will attest to his integrity and passion. He doesn't just beat the music, he plays it. He plays on an orchestra just as he would - and did - an instrument. It's his mind that beats on.

And the phrase "my mind beats on", spoken by Gustav von Aschenbach at the start of Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice, has great significance for Tortelier at present. A concert performance of the opera - the first by Britten that he has conducted - will launch a mini Tortelier Festival in Manchester that starts tonight and runs throughout May. The festival is, in part, a celebration of everything that he and the BBC Philharmonic have achieved over the last seven years. Spurred on by a recording contract with the ever-enterprising Chandos label, they have explored repertoire that only the BBC and an independent record company could afford to endorse, let alone encourage. "I guess I've been a winner on both counts," he says, in a French accent that is almost too good to be true. But it is, and so is the charm, modesty and humility that his father has instilled into him. He asks my advice on American repertoire, which he has discovered I know something about. He begs indulgence over the Tortelier Festival. He hopes it is not perceived as an ego trip. He has, he points out, thought long and hard about the content.

One half of one concert is devoted to the music of Lili Boulanger, the younger sister of the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger, who was Tortelier's professor. Lili was only 24 when she died. Her music, little heard today, seems to scent immortality. She won the Prix de Rome in 1913, at the age of 18. Ravel tried to win the prestigious award three times and failed, says Tortelier, as if to underline just how grand a passion this is for him. Another, of course, is the music of Ravel himself, and in the second concert Tortelier is pitting his own orchestration of the great Piano Trio against Ravel's masterly reincarnation of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition - "a dangerous game", he wrily observes.

Picture, if you will, Papa Tortelier, son, and daughter "at home" with the Ravel Piano Trio. An informal read-through. A few bars into the opening movement, Papa turns to his children and says: "You know the quality of sound we are looking for here - try to imagine three flutes, that's the colour." Colour. A Frenchman's prerogative. The opening bars of the Ravel had virtually orchestrated themselves, Yan Pascal says. His father always planned to make an orchestration of this much-loved piece, but once again, it fell to his son to fulfil the ambition. Most of the options were very clear to him. The physical act of playing the piece simply confirmed them. The violin and cello lines pretty well looked after themselves, the enormously challenging piano part more than suggested a fiercely symphonic array of woodwind, brass, and percussion. Ravel always maintained that no trio would ever be powerful enough to convey the trumpety, "heraldic" sound of the finale's grand peroration. The Torteliers agreed with him. Sadly, Papa died just a few months before their dream was realised.

Now Yan Pascal's own sons are collating their grandfather's writings. The eldest - Sebastian, an actor - bears a remarkable resemblance to him. A one-man show? I guess Papa will always be around.

Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts the BBC Philharmonic at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000) tonight, tomorrow and on 21/22 May

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open