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Interview: William Christie | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: William Christie

Interview: William Christie

Les Arts Florissants celebrate 30 years of mischief-making

"It's mostly very clipped and formal, but parts of it have been getting wonderfully wilder and wilder in the last few years." William Christie, whom I’ve met several times in the last decade, is describing his famous French garden in La Vendée, which has featured in many a glossy magazine. But he could also be describing himself.

American-born Christie initially made an enviable reputation as a rather high-minded, even severe, director of Les Arts Florissants, one of the leading early music groups. They have been showered with international awards, particularly for their revivals of early French composers such as Lully, Charpentier and Rameau, as well as for their transcendent versions of Monteverdi.

Then he started doing things like collaborating, in a production of Rameau's opera Les Boréades, with the avant-garde dance company La La La Human Steps (he describes them as "human bullets thrown around the stage – violent but elegant").With the Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu, he's done Rameau's opera Les Paladins, in a wild and most exuberant version, which he brought to London in 2004. Performers included breakdancers, Brazilian martial artists and naked dancers, with extraordinarily high-spirited choreography by José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu. The entire back wall of the stage was a giant video projection imaginatively designed by Montalvo which featured, among many other things, 18th-century types in wigs bouncing around in clouds, much shapeshifting with people turning into animals. Oh, and a Metro train.

This season the repertoire and staging are more sober – more from the clipped and formal part of the Christie garden. Two English conductors have become a close part of Les Arts Florissants family in recent years - Jonathan Cohen and Paul Agnew. Christie is nonetheless delighted when I tell him the esprit de corps of Les Arts Florissants reminds me of a Cuban big band.

"You'd have to be deaf and blind not see this is a group of people who like each other and know each other," he says. "My image was always the Duke Ellington Band coming into town. Listen to those recordings from around 1930 and you can hear they are having the most fabulous time." His reputation is as a determined scholar with steely will-power. As soprano Sophie Daneman told me, "He's very vocal and opinionated, which some singers can't handle. He will give people enormous chances, but if they don't take them . . ." Her voice trails off and the phrase "doesn't suffer fools gladly" hovers in the air.

You don't get the kind of critical adulation that Christie has had, or achieve his levels of productivity, merely by having fun. He settled in France in 1971. After being a member of experimental music group Five Centuries Ensemble, and playing keyboards for René Jacobs's Concerto Vocale, he founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979, and this season is a 30th birthday celebration.

The name of the ensemble was taken from a Charpentier opera. With his emphasis on early music, It's as if Christie is engaged in a heroic attempt to shift the centre of gravity of the European repertoire. "It is fantastic to realise there are as many masterpieces and geniuses of the 17th and 18th centuries as the 19th and 20th, and we know them far less," he says. "Beethoven symphonies are wonderful, but 200 years on they don't have that freshness any more, and what the composer wanted was a sense of newness and discovery. Yet there are masterpieces by Lully and Rameau that are simply not known." Christie has also taken his revisionist approach to better-known composers, including Mozart's Requiem and Mass in C Minor, Handel's Acis and Galatea and Monteverdi's Vespers. His current season at the Barbican and Union Chapel features Purcell, Handel and Monteverdi.

By classical music standards, Les Arts Florissants have a relatively young audience. They used to perform in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in the same season as contemporary arts luminaries Laurie Anderson and Pina Bausch. "I loved the fact that we rode the new wave in New York with some of the lunatic artistic fringe," says Christie. "I'd much rather be in the company of an avant-garde theatre director than some old fart who wants to keep things the way it always was."

Christie was born in Buffalo, New York in 1944. After switching from history of art at Harvard to music at Yale, he moved to France partly to avoid the Vietnam War. But while the arts are littered with Americans going to Paris for cultural enlightenment, Christie went the whole hog and now has French citizenship to go with his house and what he describes as his "notorious" garden there. "I've never regretted drinking from the source, having loved French culture when I was in the States. It gives me great satisfaction to play in a chapel Couperin played in, or be in a room where Monteverdi was, or spend a week among autographed manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale."

Even the idiots who have no sense of historical perspective and saw away don't play or sing Mozart the way they used to. That's partly because of people like us

After some initial resistance, he is now a well loved figure in France. He has been awarded the Légion d'Honneur and is almost a national institution - which makes him uncomfortable. "The French would adore me to become a highly respected establishment figure. In France someone becomes a great figure and immediately becomes stuffed and mummified... We've always existed outside the French cultural orthodoxy. They love us because we're famous and we've done good work, but we're not funded like Boulez's empire or like the orchestras in Paris or Bordeaux, for example. I've always felt an outsider, I imagine I always will."

While Christie dismisses talk of authenticity as a "waste of time", he does insist on period instruments. "You could do Purcell on Fender Stratocasters and I'd quite like to hear it, but it's not for me." He defends his version of Dido and Aeneas, a staple of the ensemble’s repertoire. "I expect some people will say I've mutilated and destroyed the piece and turned this lovely string music into a circus of instruments. The fact is, we don't have the original music, only an incomplete copy, so no one really knows. But it all has historical precedents - the French-style instrumentation is there in Purcell's King Arthur. It is actually thought out, researched and controlled, even if I do like going out on a limb."

He says that one of the big influences that Les Arts Florissants have had is on how Mozart and Handel are played. "I don't believe you improve Mozart with bigger, better instruments. Even the idiots who have no sense of historical perspective and saw away don't play or sing Mozart the way they used to. That's partly because of people like us."

The one thing that he says he can't stand is egotists and "swelled heads". Not that he is renowned for his modesty. He is enormously rude about some of his collaborators, but then tells me it's off the record, and should any of it appear in print, he will kill me. He certainly had a big falling out with the soprano Dawn Upshaw, who told me, “I guess it’s like when you are at a party and you don’t get on with everyone. At a party you can just move on and talk to someone else - it’s more difficult when you are working with them.” He also had a famous and public spat with Pierre Boulez, the guru of the French avant garde. "He can be charming, but seems to believe that you should burn everything down and start from scratch."

When I ask which singers he most admires I'm expecting a list of sopranos and tenors, but initially he mentions the great Arab singer Oum Kalthum, who died in 1975. "She had fabulous coloratura, the tuning was amazing: my tongue was out in sheer slobbering adulation." The other singer he admires is Aretha Franklin. "One of the best experiences in my life was going to New York to hear her. I would give an entire career to have done half of what she's done."

As he has such a wide musical vision, why does he restrict himself to early music? "It's true that if you have some success these days, the sky's the limit. They say, 'You do Monteverdi wonderfully well, why not do Offenbach?' You get these hallucinating, illogical follow-up offers which you can get sucked into. It would be fun to jump in the deep end and do something Romantic or post-Romantic, but I think I have a useful, built-in sense of limits that some of my colleagues don't seem to have. There's just too much to do with the old stuff."

Les Arts Florissants continue their season at the Barbican and the Union Chapel. Book here.

I'd much rather be in the company of an avant-garde theatre director than some old fart who wants to keep things the way it always was

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