PARIS — The Los Angeles Philharmonic's resident conductor Lionel Bringuier is enjoying a rapid rise in the world of classical music.
With three concerts this week at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the young Frenchman will complete a six-year stint in Los Angeles in which he evolved from an insouciant prodigy into a world-class conductor. "My last concert will have a lot of emotion," he said in a café at the Bastille on a bitter wintry day.
FOR THE RECORD:
Lionel Bringuier: An article in the April 21 Arts & Books section about Los Angeles Philharmonic resident conductor Lionel Bringuier included one reference that misidentified him as an associate conductor. —
Bringuier spoke of memories, of sharing, traveling, dining and drinking with musical colleagues who have become like family. "It will always be a part of me, these six years. … I have a powerful bond with L.A."
As resident conductor he conducts some subscription performances as well as concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and in the Green Umbrella contemporary music series, in addition to working with guest conductors and with Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. In some ways Bringuier has come of age, musically, in Southern California, realizing potential that was clear early on.
The well-known Hungarian teacher Zsolt Nagy first encountered Bringuier, barely a teenager, playing Bartók on the cello in an orchestra. The adolescent was excellent, Nagy noted.
Soon after, the kid from the city of Nice on the French Riviera outclassed 49 older applicants and was selected, at age 15, to study with Nagy at the Conservatoire de Paris as a conductor. Nagy was accustomed to young musicians with great talent but not conductors because that role requires extensive life experience, a broad understanding of music and a developed capacity to interact with the complex personality of an orchestra.
"He stood correctly. His reactions were excellent. He was on point. He had a musicality and a kind of professionalism," Nagy recounts. "And he was very, very small."
Even now, when clean-shaven, the 26-year-old Bringuier wouldn't look out of place at a high school prom. Musically Bringuier has not stopped growing. He will become the chief conductor and musical director of Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, Switzerland, beginning at the start of the 2014-15 season. The Frenchman will take the baton from David Zinman, who is a half-century older, to lead one of the world's most reputable symphonies.
Bringuier is the embodiment of a wave of young, dynamic, charismatic and sometimes eye-pleasing conductors.
British musicologist Norman Lebrecht wrote in the December issue of the U.K.'s Standpoint magazine that Bringuier is part of a "podium revolution" that marks a "profound perceptual change of what musicians and audiences can expect from a music director, and what a music director may hope to achieve."
Such conductors must not only know the classics, but they must integrate them into our "contemporary lifestyles" and convey why such works should be performed, according to Lebrecht, who believes this transformation is modernizing classical music's image.
Who better to do that than a Generation Y conductor with preternatural skills and who has learned from Gustavo Dudamel, a key agent in the youth movement?
In a list of the best orchestra "brands" of 2012, Lebrecht explained that the Tonhalle merited a No. 2 ranking because the appointment of Bringuier "turned a dormant ensemble into an international eye-catcher." (First place went to the Frenchman's current place of employment, the L.A. Philharmonic, because it is, in his estimation, the most talked-about and widely traveled U.S. orchestra, "carrying Brand Dudamel to all four corners of the earth.")
Los Angeles' youth movement isn't exactly new. Esa-Pekka Salonen took over at the L.A. Phil in his early 30s, eventually passing it on to his successor, Dudamel, who was 26.
So Disney Hall may have been especially open to a starry-eyed 19-year-old kid on his first trip to the United States when Bringuier auditioned to join the orchestra. The tryout, the Frenchman said, was like a "thunderclap" of musical first love. "Everyone took me under their wings."
Cellist Brent Samuel recalls the general impression among the orchestra that the players were in the presence of "tons of musical talent."
"I do believe the whole thing about how, with tons of hard work, anyone can learn to play an instrument well," Samuel said." But with conducting you need large amounts of talent and a very natural, inborn way of moving so that people can understand and read what you are thinking from your movements. I think the really great conductors have all that to begin with. Lionel is one of those people who is musically gifted and physically very natural, which translates into excellent conducting early on."
Very early on.
"I was a baby," Bringuier said, noting that when Deborah Borda, the L.A. Philharmonic's chief executive and president, and Salonen, who was the music director and chief conductor, told him that he had been selected as the resident and assistant conductor, they invited him to Kendall's Brasserie on North Grand Street, one block from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, to celebrate. "I wasn't even allowed to drink a beer. I drank a Diet Coke."
Nor did he have a driver's license. That is why he settled into an apartment on the Grand Tower Promenade, a block and a half from the concert hall. "The Disney is sort of a second home for me," Bringuier said, noting that since he couldn't get around Los Angeles early on, he spent nearly all of his time early in the auditorium or studying in a small office there. (A couple of American retirees from Pasadena eventually taught him to drive in the Rose Bowl parking lot.)
Bringuier, in Paris to conduct the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, acknowledges a debt of gratitude to the two Angeleno conductors he worked with, first as the assistant conductor to Salonen in the final stages of his time there, then as the associate conductor under Dudamel.
Of Salonen's technique, the Frenchman says: "It is almost impossible to not play with him."
"There is Gustavo's admirable preparation and the way he leads the orchestra, how he gets what he wants out of them, and the extraordinary energy that he gives to his orchestra to bring 100% out of them."
On one occasion in 2010, Dudamel gave so much that he had to be taken to the hospital in the middle of a performance. Bringuier was sitting in his regular seat in the audience at Disney Hall. When intermission came, he learned that Dudamel was hurt, that the conductor had lost feeling on one side of his body after engaging in a lunging move during Dvorák's Cello Concerto. (Dudamel was later diagnosed with a pulled muscle in his neck.)
It was a strange moment. Bringuier, in his third year with the L.A. Phil, was torn between the opportunity to lead the orchestra and replace his injured (new) mentor, but, he notes, his job was to be ready at the drop of baton.
"You say to yourself, it is time to wake up. It isn't the same to watch and to conduct. It was a unique situation," he recalls. "But the musicians followed me that night like we had always worked together."
Times music critic Mark Swed called Bringuier's difficult fill-in performance of Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" "sizzling," and the conductor's effort garnered broad attention. It wouldn't be the last time.
"It was an orchestra that allowed me the chance to grow," Bringuier said. "To be there during the transition from the last two years of Salonen, when there was magic every night, to Gustavo was truly marvelous."
From the beginning, Nagy says, Bringuier came across as a special talent and not one of the many who find a way to sabotage themselves. "Lionel is a very easygoing guy. He doesn't wrestle with doubts," the Hungarian conductor explained by telephone from Tel Aviv. "He is very healthy in the mind, like a farmer."
Of Bringuier's evolution since he moved to Los Angeles, his former teacher has noticed that he is in ever-great sync with his orchestra. "You need a very fine receiver," Nagy said. "He hasn't changed, but he is deeper."
No replacement for Bringuier, who now holds the title resident conductor, has been named. With his final performances at the Los Angeles Philharmonic looming for April 26 through 28 (he will be accompanied by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet), Bringuier recalled the intense and somewhat surprising pride he felt when he first stepped on stage to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. As an American flag waved in the breeze and as his parents watched, the first song the Frenchman conducted in public was the National Anthem. "I practically felt American."
And for his last shows, he noted: "The emotion will be on stage and in the audience, because I think they will feel it. ... I feel like an Angeleno. I want to thank everyone for these marvelous years."