The Mystery Kid
The young man — the slender, bespectacled, smiling schoolboy — strode to the Disney Hall podium, took his bow, turned to the orchestra. His gestures were modest, sure and eloquent; the curves and pulses of Mozart’s Figaro Overture fell beautifully into place. Whoever he was, the guy obviously knew the music and how to make it come alive.
He is Lionel Bringuier (LEE-oh-nell BRANG-ee-AY), and he has just turned 20. There he stood last Saturday before our formidable Philharmonic, unidentified by previous announcement from the stage or in print; he had replaced the scheduled assistant conductor, Joana Carneiro, at the latest Toyota Symphonies for Youth concert. He had had no benefit of rehearsal, but you wouldn’t have known this from the sparks he gave off on the stage that morning, the sense of assurance in a program of Mozart and Richard Strauss. He was at the end of a three-week visit to the Philharmonic, during which he had been hired by the orchestra to cover such situations as Carneiro being called out of town. He had also triumphed in a competitive audition to become the Philharmonic’s next assistant conductor (overlapping with Carneiro’s final year), a post he will take on next fall.
The buzz from that competition is that all who sat in judgment — conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, orchestra members, Philharmonic president Deborah Borda and several highly placed board members — have been knocked off their collective feet by this small Parisian with the huge talent. And the buzz, inevitably, devolves back to the Philharmonic’s unique history in discovering and holding on to fantastically talented, wet-behind-the-ears conducting talent, with names like Salonen, Simon Rattle, and the current season’s Gustavo Dudamel coming immediately to mind, and the name of Ernest Fleischmann as supersleuth.
Out of 110 videos submitted as applications for the Philharmonic competition, seven conductors were invited to compete in person, leading the orchestra in unrehearsed passages with a judges’ panel seated at a table behind the players. At a Music Center lunch, I wondered to young Lionel how much a competing conductor can reveal about him- or herself in such a high-pressure situation, without the chance of previous rehearsal.
“I think that if you have strong ideas about the music,” he answered in a potpourri of French and English that we had concocted for the occasion, “you should be able to show this with very little talking. To me it is important to prove to the orchestra that you are listening to them, and then they will begin to listen to you, and this begins to happen almost immediately without any necessity to speak. The quality of conducting means to me the quality of listening first; then comes all the rest.
“I was 4 when I knew that music was to be my life. That is when I began to play the cello. My parents have no musical talent, but there are four brothers and sisters, and we all play. One brother and I have a professional duo of cello and piano. By 14, I knew that I wanted to be a conductor. By that time, I had enough musical experience, however, that I didn’t want to be just a 14-year-old conductor, a kind of freak like — we won’t say any names. I was ready for a serious career.”
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Yes, he is ready; that you can’t miss. Our lunchtime chat ranged far (the latest word on Formula One car racing, of which news I was a mere recipient) — and wide (the music of Marc-André Dalbavie). One further encouraging newsbit: On good authority I have it that when the victory of Lionel Bringuier was announced at Disney Hall, the members of the Philharmonic — a hard-boiled bunch, as we all know — stood and cheered.
Ernest Fleischmann wants me to set the record straight on the story of his “discovery” of Esa-Pekka Salonen, when the young Finn leaped into the breach and replaced Michael Tilson Thomas at a London concert at which Ernest “just happened” to be in attendance. It was much more complicated; Ernest had already left London that day in 1983, and had to be summoned back from Los Angeles in order to catch up on this rising young phenom. In any case, in addition to his many years as Philharmonic honcho, assuring a tradition of stability that few musical organizations can match, Fleischmann is indeed the authoritative tracer of young conductors, a reputation that dates back a quarter-century and more.
Young Lionel first came across his line of sight a year ago, at the 49th running of the prestigious Besançon Competition for young conductors, where the young Parisian scored the same kind of jaw-dropping triumph that he later repeated at Disney Hall. With considerable career advice from Fleischmann, he has been able to develop his French and American triumphs into a career parlay: a part-time post with the small Orchestre de Bretagne, and the Los Angeles job, which will call for a couple of kiddie concerts (this time with name credit), a “Green Umbrella” program, a couple of runouts and — who knows? — a chance to step in when duty calls. He obviously understands the local priorities; he spoke at our last meeting about finding an apartment.?