With his sophomore album Incantation just out, French violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft was set to bring his “beautiful, front-loaded, and siren-like tone” and “impressive virtuosity” to Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on April 28. The concert will be rescheduled because of the COVID-19 crisis, but in the meantime, here is our enlightening interview with this exciting musician.
Boutellis-Taft recorded the album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The program for the concerts includes The Soloists of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and includes most of the music from the album: Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”; Vitali’s Chaconne in G Minor; Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” (in a new arrangement by Paul Bateman); Tchaikovsky’s “Sérénade Mélancolique”; Bloch’s “Nigun” (from Baal Shem); Chausson’s Poème for Violin and Piano; and Piazzola’s “Oblivion.”
We had a chance to speak with Boutellis-Taft as he was gearing up for a season that was planned to feature concerts at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Salle Gaveau, the Musée d’Orsay, and Cadogan Hall in London as well as Carnegie in New York.
The album is called Incantation. The works you chose to record for it span from the Baroque era through the 20th century. What are the commonalities among these pieces?
I drew my inspiration from the fascination and magnetism that these works have always had on me. They are all in a minor mode, and emotionally very charged (strong, intense).
The title “Incantation” which brings these pieces together is a tribute to the incantatory power each one has, by virtue of the lyricism and the beauty of the melodies, of the haunting and obsessive effects of the rhythms and repetitions, of their ambition both spiritual and sacred. The interaction of these works strengthens their captivating hold and a realm of incantation emerges which goes from hieratic enchantment to hypnotic trance.
Do some of them have special meaning for you?
All these pieces are dear to me and all have a special meaning.
The fervent “Nigun” and “Kol Nidrei” are both a prayer as well as a tribute, and I have played them throughout my travels, especially in Jerusalem with a Klezmer ensemble; the wonderful Chaconne by Vitali, with its cathedral-like structure and its brilliant and heady variations that take us to a kind of apotheosis; the inconsolable Tchaikovsky “Melancholy Serenade”; and the frenzied “Danse Macabre” by Saint-Saëns in a new version, a resounding arrangement by Paul Bateman which is a world première.
The bewitching Poème by Chausson is, for me, one of the greatest masterpieces of classical music. And there’s Shigeru Umebayashi’s “Yumeji’s Theme” from the film In the Mood for Love, discovered a few years ago when I was invited to play at the Cannes Film Festival for a retrospective of Wong Kar-wai’s films.
Do you find there are challenges to playing music in very different styles and modes during one concert?
On the contrary, I enjoy being able to tell different stories, to change styles and periods. I find it’s one of the best ways to help people discover classical music in all its diversity and richness.
You recorded your first album, Entre Orient & Occident (Between East & West), with pianist Guillaume Vincent. Incantation is your first album recorded with an orchestra, and you expect, if all goes well, to be touring with the Royal Philharmonic later this year. What was your experience working with the orchestra on the recording?
It was both a pleasure and a challenge to perform in the different atmospheres of each of these pieces, with music ensembles that varied from 80 to 20 musicians. This is so different from the usual classic recording of two concertos for an album.
The collaboration was magnificent with the full orchestra of musicians, as well as with numerous chamber music ensembles. During the recording of these pieces, with the different musicians, there was a superb duet between the soloist and the counter vocals from the viola solo in the Poème by Chausson, dialogues between the cellos and the violin in the Melancholy Serenade, an almost constant exchange between the flutes and the violin in the Vitali, and so forth. I left the recording both exhausted and invigorated, having put my whole heart into it. It’s an unforgettable experience.
The Soloists of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra would be accompanying you at some of the planned concerts, including at Carnegie. How many of these musicians are there, and on which instruments?
We have chosen a chamber orchestra formation of 10 musicians, except in England where there will be the full orchestra. The ensemble consists of a string quintet and a wind quintet: two violins, viola, cello, double bass and flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, French horn.
You play a violin that dates from 1742, the Domenico Montagnana “ex Régis Pasquier.” Would you tell us a little about this instrument?
Our first encounter was six years ago, and I can say it was love at first sight. It’s an instrument whose sound is more like a Guarneri del Gesu than a Stradivarius and this Montagnana is particularly spirited, with the character of a wild horse which took some taming. It’s a demanding violin that requires a certain energy, but once mastered, has no limits. I like its tones, from the softest treble to the huskiest bass.
You’re planning to perform the complete sonatas and trios of Beethoven at upcoming concerts as well. With whom will you be collaborating? And are you preparing already for those programs?
These works have been part of my repertoire from a very young age, and I have had many opportunities to play them, refine them, and develop them during my performances. I look forward very much to playing them again this year.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in France, in Limoges, and I grew up in Paris.
Do you come from a musical family?
On my father’s side, my great-grandfather was a violinist and my grandfather was a doctor and also an excellent violinist. Unfortunately, I never knew them. My brothers all studied a different musical instrument (piano, sax, flute, cello), so we played duos, trios and quartets of all sorts at home.
When I was small I found a violin case under a bed and the treasure inside. I fell under its spell, and I knew very quickly that I would be a violinist.
Where do you live now?
I share my time between Paris and New York.
You spend a lot of time on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you find American audiences and European audiences to be different?
Yes, what I find most evident in the American public is that young people are more and more present at the concerts, bringing a communicative enthusiasm which complements the more traditional public who are often very cultivated as well as open to musical discoveries.
The younger generation is often more passionate about new music, a mix of styles or crossover. I was pleasantly surprised in Paris, during the Salle Gaveau album release concert, to discover a particularly young audience from all walks of life, many of whom told me of their desire to come to classical music concerts more often.
Musical emotion is universal, and I am happy to see that classical music is opening up to as many people as possible, whether it be in Europe or the United States.
What are you looking forward to later in the year?
That life resumes its normal course! And that everyone can once again get back to their activities. The release concerts planned for this spring at the Berlin Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall will be reprogrammed for the fall, if sanitary conditions permit.
I’m also looking forward to the season opening of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, September 23 in London; the festivals this summer; traveling; new encounters and discoveries; canoeing in Vermont; and taking the time to live.
As of this writing, Carnegie Hall concerts are cancelled through May 11. Visit Virgil Boutellis-Taft’s website for information about the rescheduling of his NYC concert and other upcoming performances.