Interview with Laurence Equilbey | PREVIEW | The French conductor discusses her collaboration with British installation artist Mat Collishaw

This November, the Paris-based Insula Orchestra and conductor Laurence Equilbey join forces with British installation artist Mat Collishaw to present Sky Burial, inspired by Fauré’s ethereal Requiem, in London. Mat Collishaw is a key figure in the influential cohort of British Artists who emerged in the late 1980s, producing artwork that is immediate, sometimes shocking with a heart of darkness. He has created Sky Burial as a video reflection on death, ritual, humankind and nature in a post-industrial society. In this interview Darius Riahy speaks to Laurence Equilbey about the project.

Fauré’s Requiem is serene compared to similar compositions. Why do you think that is and what is it that makes this Requiem special for you? 

I would say ‘relatively serene’. This music is at once serious, sometimes austere, dramatic at its core, and also often very calm, gentle and serene. Fauré’s musical and textual choices clearly reflect his spiritual views. The serenity you speak of is accentuated by the fact that Fauré uses a very early Parisian rite, which does not include the usual developed dies irae – the one that depicts the Last Judgment in a frightening, apocalyptic way – and employs the Pie Jesu. At the end, he has added two Gregorian antiphons, which he has completely recomposed, with a harmony of which only he has the secret, to bring a happy distance. And there a lot of space for purity, and even tenderness, which underlines the fact that death is a sweet liberation that can be a moment of grace.

Mozart’s Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem do not have the same textual development and are rather dark and dramatic. The general musical atmosphere of Fauré’s Requiem is often calm, suspended, with diaphanous, almost angelic sonorities.

Fauré composed this Requiem a few years after his father’s death, although he doesn’t seem to have been particularly pious himself. Are you religious and does that effect your interpretation of a Requiem? 

I have had a Christian education, and I respect the essential values of this religion, like those of others. Unfortunately, I no longer believe in the resurrection. It is a pity. On the other hand I have a spiritual life and I have always read a lot of sacred texts, also in the Old Testament. I like sacred music very much, it touches me by the depth of its discourse. Every artist thinks about the vertiginous moment of death, it often obsesses him. I am not immune to this, and I am very touched when I conduct a Requiem.

For this Requiem, you are conducting the Insula period instrument orchestra and Accentus chamber choir, both of which you founded. What do you think makes this performance and your interpretation different from others? 

For accentus, this is a work they know almost by heart. We put it in the repertoire 30 years ago now. The team of singers has obviously changed a little, but with the excellent preparation of our associate conductor Christophe Grapperon, their interpretation remains a rare thing, very masterful in emotion and in color. 

With Insula orchestra it is a first, and we were impatient to make this Requiem sound, which often refers to early music. The romantic brass instruments of the period are very relevant in this work and bring contrasts, especially in the more dramatic moments.

Is the timing of this performance significant? Does it relate to current events and present day concerns? 

At the time of the conception of this project, COVID-19 was unknown, and it was only in the final stages of the film’s production that the parallels between what was happening in the real world had some resonance. In particular, the question of our difficult relationship with the natural world was brought to the forefront by this pandemic. The fact that this project is a requiem and that the film opens on a tower – between heaven and earth – devastated, with people – all elderly – leaving for the other world, obviously resonates strongly with recent dramatic events. The war in Ukraine only reinforces this feeling. We feel in this project that life on earth is the most precious good, even if death can be a grace for some. 

The association with Gounod St. Francis d’assise was an obvious choice for us, as this saint links man to nature and humility.

Why have you decided to include a visual performance? How do you think this changes the musical experience and the composer’s intention? Do you think it makes music more relevant or accessible to a wider audience? 

Insula orchestra produces stage creations at La Seine Musicale each season, especially with works that are not operas. 

We work in particular with an agency called “Ponts neufs”, which told us about the project of this film by Matt Collishaw with Fauré’s Requiem. It’s an agency that works to bring together the visual arts and music. This artistic resonance has always inspired me, even though I love pure music!

This project also starts the anniversary events for accentus, which just turned 30. 

Another priority is opening up to audiences. I think that today, visuals can be a wonderful gateway to music, to help people feel it, especially young people.

How did this collaboration with Matt Collishaw come about? Were you already familiar with his work? 

I knew some of his work, he is a great video artist who is fascinated by the natural.

Did you have an input into the video installation? Avez-vous participé à l’installation de la vidéo ?

Together we decided on the views of the images, in relation to the tempo and the dramaturgy of the work. But most of the work was done in Baden Baden, during the creation with T. Currentzis.

What do you think the video installation attempts to convey and how does it complement or contrast with the music? 

Matt Colishaw’s film, which accompanies Fauré’s work, begins in a large defaced tower, between heaven and earth, suggesting that a catastrophe has taken place.  The beginning of the requiem is also very dramatic and freezing.

These beautiful, sometimes harsh images bring us closer to the very character of Fauré’s work: a sacred space, impressive, but also humble and appeased in the face of death.

Fauré speaks of a happy deliverance that we feel through these images. The passage into the next life begins with an ode to earthly beauty. Like those rivers that begin as a modest stream, grow into much larger estuaries, until the water is dispersed into the sea.

This Requiem music seems to be listened to by those who are leaving. We thus find the strength of this often heard text and allow us to question our relationship to our own humanity, to our own departure.

Please tell us about your plans for the UK performances.  

We are scheduled to perform this work at the Barbican Center in November 23rd.

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