Ten years ago, in the midst of a successful career as a concert pianist, Philippe Entremont received an invitation to become music director of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

He had never considered such a position, he recalls. “I’d always been interested in orchestras, and I had done quite a bit of guest conducting (including a tour with the Austrian group in 1975), but this offer came without my trying.

“ ‘Well,’ I said to myself, ‘that’s the end of my free time.’ ”

Not entirely. Evidently, he still had a few free hours, since five years later the 51-year-old Frenchman found time to become music director of the New Orleans Philharmonic--a post he relinquishes next season in order to head the Denver Symphony. Whatever happened to the piano?


“It’s true, I don’t play as much as before, but now I play in places I like to play,” says Entremont, who brings his Viennese ensemble to El Camino College tonight and to UCLA on Sunday. As audiences will observe, the pianist/conductor is still able to keep his keyboard chops in shape while on tour: At each venue, he will double as soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No. 14.

“I love playing piano with this orchestra,” he notes during a telephone conversation from Denver. “I know all the players--and the conductor as well.”

Entremont dismisses the suggestion that he is spreading himself too thin: “I realize that conducting requires different skills. But I consider myself a true professional. Yes, I had no formal studies, but I was born with the most important of skills--the ability to communicate. You can’t learn that.”

He then seizes the opportunity to takes a shot at certain unnamed players who casually take up the baton. “I get very upset by the fact that some soloists make fools of themselves as conductors. This is really serious work.”


In conversation, Entremont displays an easy charm that fits perfectly with his French accent. On the podium, however, he is a different man. “It’s the Jekyll/Hyde thing,” he notes. “Usually I am easy to get along with. But with the Vienna I am very demanding, because I know what they can do.”

A pleasing aspect of working with this group is drawing out that distinctive Viennese sound, he says. “It is actually very close to the French sound in the strings. There’s a special sweetness of tone you don’t get anywhere else. It makes me happy.” To display that “sweetness,” Entremont has programmed two works for strings: Tchaikovsky’s C-major Serenade and “Piece de Concert,” by Helmut Eder.

The similarities between French and Viennese styles allowed Entremont to adjust “almost immediately” to his new chamber ensemble when he came aboard in 1976. Evidently, this rapport was reciprocal: Entremont is now conductor-for-life of the Vienna group.

“You know something,” he says, “my approach to Haydn and Mozart makes more sense because I am French--not despite. Sure, both composers were Germanic, but their music is not . Their style is more Italian, more brilliant, more (he pauses for impact) Latin.”

Ah, vive la difference.