For many people, turning 21 is an excuse for lots of partying and drinking. But for Lionel Bringuier, who turned 21 this week, marking that milestone is shaping up as a much more sober affair: He will make his debut today as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new assistant conductor -- the youngest in the orchestra's history.
Yet Bringuier, who hails from Nice, France, doesn't want people to focus on his age. In fact, he's eager to avoid the subject.
"Orchestras don't care about how old the conductor is," he said recently during a break in rehearsals. "What matters is that they feel the conductor wants the best from them and that he gives the best of himself. Age isn't something I think about a lot. I prefer to concentrate on the music."
Today, Bringuier (pronounced Bran-ghee-AY) will bring that attentiveness to an all-Sibelius program at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the Toyota Symphonies for Youth series. (The concert is to be repeated Sunday and next Saturday.) On Oct. 9, he will lead the orchestra's New Music Group in works by Kaija Saariaho and Luigi Dallapiccola.
On the podium, Bringuier presents himself in much the same way he does off it -- relaxed, genial, almost Zen-like in his poise. His gestures are restrained and seldom more than they need to be. As ironic as it sounds, he's the kind of conductor who doesn't want to draw undue attention to himself.
"A conductor shouldn't be a superstar," he explained. "They are musicians among other musicians."
Bringuier first drew acclaim at the age of 14, when he conducted a concert live on French national television. That same year, he entered the music and dance division of the Paris Conservatory, where he studied the cello. In 2005, he won the prestigious Besançon International Young Conductors competition, which jump-started his career.
Most important, that victory -- in which he triumphed over more than 200 other competitors -- caught the attention of Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the L.A. Philharmonic Assn., who arranged for him to meet the orchestra's music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Then, in October 2006, he traveled to L.A. to audition for the assistant conductor job, eventually beating out nearly 150 other applicants from around the world.
"Competition isn't something I like, but it's obligatory in this profession," he said. "I usually take a little nap before I have to go on."
Bringuier's L.A. appointment will last at least two years, during which he will conduct several concerts each season. His main duties, however, will be to assist Salonen during rehearsals and to act as a cover if a scheduled conductor cannot perform. (He shares his responsibilities with the Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, whose tenure began last year.)
Those who have worked closely with Bringuier describe him as a natural and commend his lack of ego.
"He doesn't come on as a lot of young conductors do at that age, feeling they have to be Lorin Maazel right away," said John Nelson, musical director of the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, where Bringuier has served as an assistant conductor. "He's what the French call efficace -- he's modest and doesn't waste people's time."
When Bringuier filled in at the last minute for a Philharmonic youth concert last year, he was offered the chance to rehearse with the orchestra. But he declined, knowing that the musicians had already practiced the music. "He just did it and it was great," recalled violist Ingrid Hutman. "There were no glitches, and he was easy to follow."
Asked what conductors he admires most, Bringuier told a story about German maestro Wilhelm Furtwängler walking into a rehearsal by the Berlin Philharmonic. "He just opened the door to the hall, and all the musicians started to play really well," Bringuier said. "And he wasn't even conducting. He just entered the room. Being a conductor is about presence and charisma, not just giving the beat."
Bringuier plans to spend about 30 weeks a year in L.A. and devote the remainder to guest conducting around the world. This season, he will lead, among others, the Swedish Radio Symphony, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Basel (Switzerland) Symphony Orchestra. He will also continue as associate conductor of the Orchestre de Bretagne in France.
A diligent preparer and something of a workaholic, he said he won't have much time for tourist activities in his new home. (He plans to live downtown.)
"Even if I'm relaxing, I'm always surrounded by my scores or listening to my iPod," he said. Besides downloading music related to his work, he is a big jazz fan and enjoys movie soundtracks. One recent favorite is the John Williams score for Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can," the theme from which he can hum fairly accurately.
"A conductor never stops learning," he said. "Of course, you have to know the score perfectly. But you also need to know the orchestra as a group of people. My job is to give inspiration to them."
Bringuier also plans to take time away from music to master what sooner or later most new Angelenos must: driving a car. "I'm learning!" he said with a laugh. "I'm really going to focus on it. It's one of my priorities."
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall,
111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 11 a.m. today and next Saturday
Contact: (213) 850-2000
When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (213) 850-2000