Benoît Mernier: Organ, Voice and orchestra

Benoît Mernier: Organ, Voice and orchestra

Benoît Mernier, a New Season with Organ, Voice and Orchestra

The composer Benoît Mernier will be at the heart of the inauguration weekend for the organ at the Centre for Fine Arts (15th-17th September 2017) with his Concerto for Organ by the National Orchestra of Belgium and his Dickinson Songs by the Youth Choir and the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra. He talks about these two works and the context of this particular weekend with Crescendo Magazine.

- As a composer and organist, does being commissioned to write an organ concerto for the long-awaited inauguration of the organ at the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts have a special significance for you?

Benoît Mernier: Yes, it is a pleasure and an honour! Naturally, it is a commission that is different from others because this piece is specific to the inauguration of the organ at the Centre for Fine Arts. That must be taken into consideration.

- Exactly what are the specific challenges for this commission?

There are several! First of all, an inauguration is a festive time, therefore Olivier Latry (who will be the organist for this work) and I agreed on the “festive” nature of the score; as such, I didn’t want to focus on a score that would be too complex. Secondly, you have to consider the programme for the concert because the Concerto for Organ will be the only piece on the programme for the event at which we will hear the new instrument. It’s therefore important to show the public all of its colours and potential! Finally, you must consider that the instrument was not ready when I started composing. In October 2016, when I started putting the first notes on paper, seventy percent of the organ was finished, but there were still areas to be finalised and perfected. So I was only able to see and hear the entire instrument... when I had almost finished the score. This Concerto for Organ is a unique experience.

- We have been eagerly awaiting the organ at the Centre for Fine Arts for a very long time. As an organist, what does this inauguration mean to you?

It is a great joy! Especially since there are very few concert hall organs in Belgium – aside from the one at the Philharmonic Hall of Liège, the one in Brussels is the only one. There is a whole repertoire for organ and orchestra that could be played only in imperfect artistic conditions, relying on an electronic organ and not a true pipe organ. The new organ will also allow for developing new pieces. Currently, several concert hall organs have come into being in Paris and Hamburg and new scores are being commissioned like the Concerto for Organ by Péter Eötvös, which will be played at Bozar for the inauguration festivities and then at the Philharmonie de Paris. Another aspect to consider is developing concert formats or activities that cannot be held in churches, a traditional place for organs: chamber music concerts, cinema concerts, and events involving dancing. All of this will no doubt help to change the public image of this instrument, which for most people is still associated with churches.

- You have written concertos for violin and piano, but this time you are writing for your instrument. Is your approach different?

It is completely different and there is even a rather surprising reversal. Writing an organ concerto seems much more difficult than a concerto written for an instrument that I don’t play! For the Concerto for Violin, I worked with the dedicatee Lorenzo Gatto who advised me on the liaison between the sound aspect and the instrumental aspect. For the Concerto for Piano, since I play the instrument myself, it was rather easy; keeping in mind there are several concerto models that can be looked at for technical solutions that other composers have found.

For the Concerto for Organ, even though I know the instrument very well, I encountered difficulties that were not technical but rather related to the balance and colours between the organ and the orchestra. Remember that unlike piano and violin, there are not many examples of masterpieces for organ and orchestra. I didn’t want to redo a Symphony No. 3 by Saint-Saëns or a Symphonie Concertante by Jongen. The problems come from the fact that we’re working with two rather close entities (which could thus be in competition): the organ is effectively constructed in the image of the orchestra, but they are diametrically opposed in the way they function in terms of expression. Even in great successes such as the Concerto for Organ by Poulenc, there are still problems with balance during rehearsals, a bit like those we have with voice and orchestra. So we always have to adapt! In the end, I am rather pleased with the result, even if I am not entirely calm. But I have total confidence in the artistic team: Olivier Latry on the organ, the Belgian National Orchestra, and Hugh Wolff, its new musical director.

- Tell us about your other piece on the programme for this particular weekend: the Dickinson Songs, which will be performed by the Youth Choir and the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra?

It is based on a commission from the Youth Choir of La Monnaie and its director, Benoît Giaux. We collaborated on my first opera Frühlings Erwachen, which went very well. Benoît Giaux wanted a new piece for his choir of young girls. It is a piece in seven parts, with different rhythms, that lasts thirty minutes.

- How did you go about choosing Emily Dickinson’s texts?

I had several ideas in mind but I chose Emily Dickinson, an American author from the second half of the 19th century. I really wanted to work with the writings of a poet, if possible in English, because at the time there was a plan to replay the score in the United States. I also wanted texts that were symbolic for young girls. Through research, I fell in love with Emily Dickinson’s poetry; a sort of model of her personality, her independence, her high level of culture as well as of her open-mindedness and her questioning of her era. In some ways, her relationship with the world does not seem so different from adolescents of our time.

- On the La Monnaie website, it says that Debussy’s Nocturnes, which are also on the programme with Dickinson Songs, never leave your desk. Can you tell us more?

It is a turn of phrase because my desk is not big enough for all the pieces that have taught me a lot or influenced me! The Nocturnes are the first of Debussy’s works that I focussed on and that I analysed deeply. Debussy is a “subtle revolution”, as stated in the title of André Boucourechliev’s book on the composer. Debussy’s revolution is not a shock or a break, but a gentle evolution through timbre, the way the instruments play together, and the musical matter itself (e.g. rhythm, pitch, harmony...). 

- Aside from Debussy, which other composers influence you?

I could mention many composers: those that act as interpreters (with Bach clearly at the top of the list), those that inspire me through their power of invention, such as Beethoven, those that simply resonate with me or make me dream... Sometimes people think that composers of today are disconnected from music of the past. It may have been the case at one time (in the 1950s), but that was more revealing of the attitude! The composers of today, even if their language has nothing to do with older ones, face the same problems: timing, making an instrument vibrate or emit a sound, developing a language, a style... and especially expressing emotion... Questions are asked differently and the responses are also different, but the basic problems are the same.

- Which projects will you work on after these two pieces?

After two orchestral works of around a half an hour each, I hope to return to less ambitious projects in terms of length and individuals involved, such as chamber music. I also have a collaboration project with a Belgian author and poet, François Emmanuel, and the singer Clara Inglese.

I would also like to do a new opera, the project unfolding bit by bit with the director Vincent Boussard, but there is not yet a clear vision for production. I am also going to rework some of my pieces that I’m not totally satisfied with, which I have never done.

 Pierre-Jean Tribot for Crescendo Magazine, Belgium (August 2017)


Have a look at the scores