Bringing Nordic music to Paris

The prestigious contemporary music festival Présences is finished and artistic director René Bosc looks back with Ballade. This year’s focus was on the French composer Phillipe Hersant, whose works were played by several national and international ensembles during the two-week long festival. A strong Nordic profile was another characteristic as the MAGMA festival was incorporated in Présences.

Rene Bosc

“The European culture centre might just as well be in the periphery as on the continent,” René Bosc, artistic director of the Présence festival told Ballade’s Kyrre Tromm Lindvig in Paris. MIC English brings you the translated interview about the Nordic dimension at this year’s Présence.

Let us step back in time. The MAGMA festival was first arranged in Berlin in 2002 in an attempt by the Nordic composer organizations to bring the biannual contemporary music festival Nordiske musikkdager abroad. This year, the two festivals are separated in an attempt to let MAGMA be an international portal to Nordic music.

Bosc was invited to MAGMA and Ultima in Berlin. Until then, he did not know much about Nordic music, he admitted.

Including MAGMA at Présence
“I knew very little about Nordic composers, but I am interested in music from all over the world. I appreciated the music at MAGMA a lot, but I noticed it is a tough job to arrange a festival out of the blue. That was why I suggested that we could incorporate the next MAGMA in Présence, where Radio France has the whole infrastructure and support system that is needed, Bosc says.

He was also invited to two Ultima festivals to learn more about Norwegian and Nordic music, and he argues that the contemporary music in the Nordic countries are among the most vital in Europe.

“The continent has not exclusive rights to define European contemporary music. The European culture centre might just as well be in the periphery as on the continent,” Bosc says.

The open festival
Radio France, situated in a mastodon building by the Seine river in Paris, disposes resources the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation can only dream about. With two large concert halls, two orchestras, and two choirs, the French national radio station is able to set premises for French music.

“It is important for me to create a festival that has an including aesthetic position. Here in Paris, lots of people are thinking about contemporary music as the canon, especially the environment around IRCAM (Institute of Research and Coordination in Acoustics, established by the composer Pierre Boulez on commission by president Pompidou in 1970). That was why I tried to make Présence a more open festival, more popularly oriented than most contemporary festivals, which I have also been strongly criticised for.”

Bosc recognize the contradiction in terms when creating a popular festival for contemporary music.

“But the main point is to present a wide variety of events, and it must be allowed to look back in time as well,” Bosc maintains.

Taking a risk or three
In that perspective, the programme performed by Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on 13 February is very typical for the festival’s including profile. After playing the festival composer Phillipe Hersant’s Cinq pièces pour orchestra, they continued with Arne Nordheim’s Tenebrae for chello and orchestra. After a short break, they served the audience six excerpts from Geir Tveitt’s Hundrad Hardingtonar before they concluded the evening with Bernt Sørensen’s Symphony.

A programme pointing ahead and behind, in other words?

“Exactly, that is what we have to dare. Aesthetic judgements are central when deciding what to play. I will add that I do not have problems with IRCAM’s futuristic policy, but I would like to make a contribution in order to complete the musical image. It would be a waste of time to do the same as IRCAM, because they are doing it so well themselves,” Bosc says.

Let’s talk about the Nordic dimension. You ordered five pieces for girls’ choir and orchestra. That is a bit unusual in a contemporary music context?

“The reason why there are no orchestras at contemporary music festivals is economic, not aesthetic. Otherwise, there is no reason for only having sinfoniettas and smaller ensembles. Who has said that symphony orchestras cannot play contemporary music? Here at Radio France we have all the resources we need both when it comes to space and musicians. Regarding the girls’ choir; I want contemporary music to reach all kinds of age groups, both among the audience and performers,” Bosc says.

Thoresen as "horizontal festival composer"
He has been critizised by French media for his eclectic programme choice at Présence. But the artistic director argues that his focus has been to attract new audiences.

“I could have played safe and only presented works by Pierre Boulez and other popular modernists. I think it is more interesting to present unfamiliar composers that need more attention at the continent. I am trying to create a festival that is raising questions instead of defining what to listen to or not. My mission is to produce a festival that is willing to take some risk.”

The Nordic profile has been strong at this year’s festival, as MIC English and Ballade have written about earlier. The main news this year was that Lasse Thoresen was chosen as “composers in residence” until 2007. Bosc describes Thoresen’s music as the ultimate mixture between an intellectual approach and directness.

“He manages the whole aspect of composing and creates music that is immediate. I have called him a horizontal festival composer; instead of giving him the main focus at one festival, he will be represented by different works until 2007, among them a commissioned piece. Lasse Thoresen, j’adore,” concludes Rene Bosc.

Translated from Norwegian by Bente Kalsnes

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