Q&A: Nathalie Stutzmann on barriers, becoming ASO music director

The classical music industry has rarely seen the level of excitement generated in the 1980s by the emergence of Nathalie Stutzmann. Here was a gorgeous, true contralto voice, a long-awaited successor to the legendary singers Marian Anderson, Kathleen Ferrier and Maureen Forrester. The buzz got even louder when Stutzmann began to conduct the orchestra in her vocal recitals, notably with her own ensemble, Orfeo 55.

The level of excitement is even higher (including a recent feature story in The New York Times) as Stutzmann begins her tenure this week as music director for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — the first woman to hold that position, and only the second to helm a major American orchestra.

Her first concert as the orchestra leader is Thursday at Symphony Hall on a program that features the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and is headlined by one of classical music’s most iconic works: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The program will repeat on Saturday evening at 8 p.m. and then Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.

Born in Suresnes, France, Stutzmann initially studied piano, bassoon and cello. She pursued vocal training with her mother and at Nancy Conservatoire, and was mentored in conducting by Seiji Ozawa and Simon Rattle. She has held posts at the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and is principal guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Stutzmann spoke with ArtsATL from La Monnaie in Brussels, where she was conducting Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame.

Q: How does it feel to be the first female music director of the ASO, and the only woman currently leading a major American symphony? That’s huge.

A: Yes. Yesterday, I was talking with colleagues after the performance, and reading the reviews. When I was reading the press quotes, I discovered that I was the first woman ever invited to conduct an opera in La Monnaie. I didn’t know. So, one more time it was a first. I was amazed because I never see myself as a “woman conductor.” I see myself as a conductor.

Q: Do you get tired of being called a “woman conductor”?

A: In a way. Of course, I understand that it is important. But I never said, “I’m a woman, but I will try to do this.” I just said I’m going to be a conductor, because it is burning within me. If a person has a talent for conducting, if a person has something to say, that’s what matters. I hope I help things change, but it’s not the purpose of my work. My passion is to make music. I did this because I adore what I do. And I hope that that will be enough.

Q: Does your singing career inform your approach as a conductor?

A: Of course, it does. The easiest way to show an instrumentalist what you have in mind for the color or shape of a phrase is to sing it. I do that in rehearsal, and usually they like it and understand very quickly. If you watch the videos of the old conductors from the past, they were singing all the time.

I think what is interesting about me is the diversity of my background. I started with piano, and with piano you develop your harmonic ear. As a bassoon player, you develop your breathing and knowledge about those needs. As a cello player, you develop knowledge about the bow. As a Baroque singer, you develop the liberty of interpretation. When you sing as a contralto you generally don’t sing the main line, so you develop the ear for the contrapunct (counterpoint). I don’t have one way of listening, but several. That is very helpful when working with a huge score. I think that is what makes me a bit different.

Q: How did your transition from contralto to conductor occur?

A: I was interested by those two things from the beginning. Music is my passion. I loved all the instruments I played. My parents were both opera singers, and I admired singers, conductors, instrumentalists, everything. The music itself was the point. But, how to express this music inside me was the question. That decision was quite easy, because when I came up as a contralto, I was young and immediately attracted so much attention because I had this rare voice. I got incredible engagements, and so singing was an obvious choice. At that time to be a woman and be a conductor was almost impossible. I was rejected in conducting class. But I kept the dream in mind, and just had to find the right moment to jump into the water.

Q: Was this what inspired you to form Orfeo 55?

A: That was really a parallel project. It was another dream to focus for a few years on Baroque repertoire, which I didn’t do for all my career. Some people think I am a Baroque singer, which is completely wrong, because I sang mostly Romantic repertoire and tried to extend the contralto repertoire as much as possible. I simply wanted to come back to this music which I sang mainly when I was a student. My conducting repertoire is the big stuff, the big German and Russian pieces. I just conducted Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame last night here in Brussels, and I am doing Tannhauser in Bayreuth next summer.

I felt that it was the right time for me, the right age, the right moment in society. Doors were slowly opened for a little more equality. I achieved many things as a singer, many dreams. But it was time for me to have a new challenge as a musician. And I must say, I love this development of my career. The last five years have been fantastic.

Credit: Brice Toul

Credit: Brice Toul

Q: What was your first impression of your players in Atlanta?

Stutzmann: It was such a special situation. I only had half the orchestra, and everyone was masked. It was a very odd feeling and completely disturbing. I could only see their eyes. Maybe they were smiling behind the masks, but I had no idea if they were happy with me or not. They asked me to come back very quickly, and the second time we were allowed more players. What I noticed immediately was that I worked them very hard, and they seemed to enjoy it.

That is important, because if you lose the pleasure of working out details in rehearsal, you lose the joy of making music. They seemed very interested in my crazy ideas, and my way of working. I didn’t try any seduction; I was just trying to make the sound better. I think they appreciated my integrity, and I loved their open minds. It was a good, relaxed atmosphere, but serious. I loved the attitude of the musicians, so the match was quite simple.

Q: Can you share your artistic vision for the orchestra?

A:I would call my vision musical diversity, because the orchestra needs to develop the ability to adapt their sound to a wide variety of styles. And I would love also to create more space for the players to find their own individual voices. I don’t want them to feel stiff on the chair, or that they are not allowed to express themselves as a person.

When you listen to the top five orchestras in the world, you could turn off the sound and just watch for two minutes and still know they are the best. You know why? Because you will see that everyone is involved and sitting at the edge of their seat. The body is totally involved into the music, so of course the sound is better. I love to create this freedom, which is a freedom under control, but it’s still a freedom to express more emotion. If I would sum up, I would say one of the most important things in my vision is to dare to be different. I’d like to make this orchestra one of the most expressive in the country. Our mission is to bring beauty.

Q: Why did you choose the Beethoven’s Ninth to open your stewardship?

A: What better way of reuniting after the pandemic than this symphony which starts in the darkest of times and opens into the light with its beautiful message of freedom, friendship and unity? We will also have a commission work from Hilary Purrington to open the program. As a music director it is my pleasure to defend the core repertoire. We must do new music, but we also have to maintain the highest standard in the highest repertoire.

Q: Why is the diversification of our classical music institutions important?

A: Because it is important to show that we believe that if someone is good in what he does, nothing else matters. The best way to serve diversity is to take the best people.

I am very happy to be the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s new music director. I am taking this very seriously. There is such a warm feeling here, and I think they all know my sincerity in music-making. I want people to trust our concerts, to know they will have an amazing event every time they come. And I will do my maximum for them.

CONCERT PREVIEW

Nathalie Stutzmann conducts Beethoven Symphony No. 9

8 p.m. Oct. 6 and 8, 3 p.m. Oct. 9. $51-$124. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, aso.org/events/detail/nathalie-stutzmann-conducts-beethovens-ninth


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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