When Emmanuelle Haïm conducts an ensemble, it looks like a sensual experience, as though the Baroque music she directs is passing through her. Like a modern dancer, Haïm's body wavers and swirls in lithe, graceful gesticulations as she drives the music. At moments, she might bore in on a singer's solo, using two precise fingers pinched together to draw out a singular note, as if drawing it out on a fragile string.
"I try to feel the music, but it also consumes me, even when I don't try," Haïm said recently in her home in the northwestern Parisian suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine. "For me, these emotions aren't meant to be hidden.
"Some conductors don't show anything and yet in their music so many things happen. It is fantastic," said Haïm, 49, who will be making her first appearance as guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week. "When it comes to communicating emotion," she added, "to each his or her own."
Haïm communicates plenty of it. She is known for colorful and atmospheric readings that employ daring tempos as part of ambitious and expressive interpretations — some call them "iconoclastic." Her performers often find themselves beyond their comfort zones, whether in style, era or even range, sometimes to stirring results. Haïm, as New York Times music critic Allan Kozinn has written, is "a powerhouse interpreter" who is "dazzling and kinetic" and who has brought new vibrancy to the European early-music scene.
Haïm was born in Paris' oldest hospital. With a rich musical heritage in the family — singers, organists and pianists dating at least to the 19th century — it was only natural that she began to study the piano when she was just 41/2. But she also studied dance, which she dreamed of pursuing to stardom.
Her destiny as a professional musician became clear when virtuoso Hungarian musician Zoltán Kocsis (around 18 at the time) visited the family apartment, playing the piano there for hours. "It stunned me. It was the moment when I knew," she recounted. She was 8. (Kocsis later became the conductor of the Hungarian National Philharmonic.)
Soon after that a medical diagnosis of a crooked spine eliminated any remnants of Haïm's dancing dreams. At age 10, she was placed in a rigid body corset that ran up to her neck. She wore that constraint for the next decade, until she was 20, even as she honed her burgeoning musical talent.
"That is how they cared for the condition back then," Haïm said. "With those corsets, you can't move much. You can't see the keyboard. You can't really move. That meant that I learned the instrument with constraints, and that I couldn't move when I played."
When her body was finally freed, she felt the echoes of her childhood dance training stir anew. The result was broad, interpretive movements — much to the chagrin of some of her early musical mentors.
"They complained a lot," she said, laughing. "The fact that I was very limited in my movements for a portion of my life meant that I wanted to catch up."
She has caught up in other ways. She is both a harpsichordist of renown, often directing from her instrument, and she is one of the few internationally renowned Baroque orchestra leaders to frequently conduct modern orchestras. (She receives numerous international guest offers each year, accepting only a handful because she is the mother of a small child.)
Haïm became the first woman to conduct at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and she has performed with her harpsichord in an array of European cultural capitals as well as at New York's Lincoln Center. (Her inaugural West Coast appearance — Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at Disney Concert Hall — will also be the first time she conducts a symphony concert in the United States.)
The Baroque ensemble that she created from scratch in 2000, Le Concert d'Astrée, has received two Grammy nominations. (The group performs French Baroque as well as the works of Handel, Monteverdi, Mozart and Purcell.)
Rupert Christiansen, a classical music writer for the U.K.'s Telegraph, once described Haïm after a performance with her ensemble as "pure dynamite" in the early music world.
One rare off-key note of Haïm's conducting career — and one that received much attention in her homeland — came in 2010 when her guest appearance with the Opera de Paris, directing Mozart's "Idomeneo" at the Palais Garnier, was canceled after a single day of rehearsal.
While the French media suggested that sexism played a role in the rare turn of events, Haïm said that the real problem was in her unique interpretive style. With its quick turnaround that gives guest conductors little rehearsal time, the Opera de Paris requires musicians to play almost like a repertory opera, with specific interpretations of works. Haïm arrived with a distinctive musical vision and culture, and it quickly became apparent that there wasn't enough time for the performers to mesh.
"They have a certain type of relationship to a conductor. It must be: There are two rehearsals, and then 'Go,'" she explained. "They play so much. They work for years to do things perfectly in a certain way. I come in speaking a different language, and directing in a way that isn't conventional, and you can't do that in three minutes.
"It is like trying to force vegetarians to eat steak."
Haïm does come across gender discrimination in her work, though not from audiences, nor in any significant way from musicians. It is when she seeks financial support for her ensemble in the form of subsidies from French government officials or in the form of corporate sponsorships. Those people, she says, seem to be "more convinced" when male conductors ask them for money, she explained, adding: "That is more difficult for a woman; I am certain."
Change will come, she hopes, when more women pick up the baton, whether literally or — since she doesn't use one — figuratively.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
What: A program of Handel with conductor Emmanuelle Haïm and soprano Sonya Yoncheva
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Nov. 20
Tickets: $24 to $178
Information: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.com