Simone Menezes: “I want to bring more audacity to the approach of classical music
The music documentary METANOIA, supported by Cartier, unveils the portrait of Simone Menezes, an Italian-Brazilian woman conductor determined to break down tradition and open up classical music to composers who are not yet widely performed.
By Cristina D’Agostino09 juin 2022
Her vibratory intuition of cultures, in her role as conductor, creates a unique meeting point between Simone Menezes and music. This instinct allows her to create a fluidity between herself, the orchestra and the audience. While for years the conductor's vision has been dirigiste in the image of Toscanini, today it is more open. In his view, Claudio Abbado was the first to engage in a dialogue with the musicians. Simone Meneze says that she likes to feel what they have to offer her, and thus seeks the best, in a new way of transmitting art. Her demands lead her to discover the signature, the vibration, the rhythm, the accent of a composer. She dives tirelessly into the archives, the life stories, the friendships, the cracks, the influences that he may have known to restore the salt of his creation. She sometimes takes risks when she chooses to guide the orchestra on these singular musical journeys. If not all ensembles are ready for this approach, often culturally hindered, Simone Menezes has learned to guide by listening, to impose her musical choices by the passion that has driven her since childhood. Being a woman conductor was not an easily accessible profession in her native Brazil. It was just as difficult in the years following her brilliant training at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, as the profession is still too often reserved for men. Today, she is able to express her visions through her ensemble "K", a group of 15 talented young musicians based in France, which has accompanied her for four years. Simone Menezes is now in demand internationally. Her approach has recently been the subject of a film METANOIA supported by Cartier, which follows Simone Menezes in her conversations and musical proposals. The film was shown in Florence, Rome and Paris last May and was well received. It will be released on DVD on September 2nd. As a prelude to its discovery, Simone Menezes offered an exclusive interview to Luxury Tribune.
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Why did you choose to become a conductor?
As a student in San Paolo, I watched orchestras play. I found that the musicians played Tchaikovsky the way they played Shostakovich. All I wanted to do was to come to Europe to hear the great tradition of interpretation. To listen to Vivaldi in Venice, Debussy in Paris. I was lucky enough to work with Paavo Järvi, the great Estonian conductor, when he was recording the Beethoven symphonies. I learned a lot. Then I realised that this great European tradition was reserved for continental composers. I felt that other, more distant proposals, such as the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, also needed to be interpreted and coloured, and be the subject of appropriate musicological research.
Does this classicism frustrate you?
Yes, a little. But the new generation, like my own group, which has an average age of thirty, is quite permeable. It's a generation that is faced with increased competitiveness, obliged to play baroque or contemporary music at the conservatory to find a place in an orchestra. At the beginning of the 20th century, Stravinsky needed ten or so rehearsals with the orchestra to play The Firebird, because the musicians of the time did not have the same level as today. Pierre Boulez and others then had the idea of developing ensembles specific to musical styles. Today, this is no longer necessary, but the stereotypes remain. So does the stereotype of being conducted by a woman. Some orchestras still refuse. The situation is improving, but it's not over yet.
How would you define your approach to the transcendence you address in the film METANOIA?
If you, as a performer, can find the same vibration as the composer, then you can hope to go beyond the notes, to reach a certain transcendence. The composer has an almost quantum intention to go beyond the barriers of time and space. I'll give you an example: one day, when we were in the middle of a pandemic, all masked, and in a big rehearsal with the musicians, in a room with bay windows overlooking a courtyard full of children playing, I asked the ensemble to start again, with a strong intention of joy and happiness to play despite the situation. Well, by the end of the piece, all the children had stuck their faces to the window to listen to us play. Everything is in the invisible, the feeling of this vibration of the intention.
The film METANOIA expresses this intention. What do you expect from it?
It is a great opportunity for dialogue with the public, because it is difficult to put words to transcendence. Because it is not expressed in concrete terms with the musicians. I try to build a benevolent atmosphere, so that we put down our fears and defences. This means choosing who you work with. You have to be ready to unplug the mind. It is a luxury to have a private set that allows this. With the "K" ensemble, I tried to create a laboratory, to create openings, new musical paths.
What was your best experience in this search for transcendence?
At the Paris Philharmonic, with the Rouen and Normandy orchestra, during the presentation of the evening dedicated to the Amazonia exhibition by photographer Sebastiao Salgado. A very strong photographic proposal. I wanted the musicians to look at the images before playing. And the result was memorable. They played exceptionally well. We all felt this transcendence. It is fortunate to have the support of Cartier, which recognises the role of the artist.
Is the notion of multiculturality also a key to understanding?
It's always interesting to cross universes to see how close we are to each other. That is also my role, my ambition. To choose a repertoire that constitutes me and that I defend. I like to play historical women composers like Louise Farrenc and Lili Boulanger or more contemporary ones like Lera Auerbach and of course composers from other cultures like Heitor Villa-Lobos. Introducing little-known repertoires also helps to dispel fears. I like to propose a project that mixes classical, neo-classical and contemporary music.
You are also keen to encourage the younger generation to listen to classical music...
Yes, it's for them too that I try to propose shorter pieces, seven to eight minutes - the average time they spend listening - and to vary the styles, to avoid boredom and encourage discovery. Classical music is a harmonic treasure, but today it does not represent what it is, because traditionalism - which is not tradition - closes it to the world. I want to open up. And to try out proposals, to play, to have fun. That is also what music is about.
What does the film METANOIA offer?
The film is a series of pieces of music that lead to conversations. I didn't want to approach it as an introspection, an inner story, but as an opening onto worlds, encounters. And thanks to this film, and the exchanges with its director, I learned how to frame an idea. Because I have never thought about building a career. What I know is that I want the freedom to create. And to be more daring in my approach to classical music.
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