An interview with Olivier Latry

May 31, 2019

Lorraine Brugh is currently resident director of Valparaiso University’s Study Centre in Cambridge, England. She is professor of music and the Frederick J. Kruse Organ Fellow at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana.

The Three Choirs Festival celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2015. With a brief hiatus during each world war, this is the longest-running non-competitive classical music festival in the world. The festival is so named for the three cathedral choirs of Gloucester, Worcester, and Hereford. For more information, see Lorraine Brugh’s article on the 2018 festival at Hereford Cathedral in the February issue of The Diapason, pages 20–21. The festival included a recital by Olivier Latry on the cathedral organ.

This interview took place in the Hereford Cathedral gardens after Latry’s early morning practice time. His program for July 31, 2018, included: Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552, Johann Sebastian Bach; Choral No. 2 in B Minor, César Franck; Clair de lune, Claude Debussy, transcribed Alexandre Cellier; Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, opus 7, number 3, Marcel Dupré; Postlude pour l’office des Complies, Jehan Alain; Evocation, Thierry Escaich; improvisation on a submitted theme.

Lorraine Brugh: I came in this morning to hear you practice a bit. It sounded wonderful. Is the organ tuned above 440?

Olivier Latry: Yes, a bit. It is always the case in summer when the temperature is high.

I am curious about your recital. Is this the first time you played at the Three Choirs Festival?

No, I was here fifteen years ago for the festival, so this is my second time. I have played recitals on all three of the cathedral organs, but only once before at the festival.

Your program tomorrow includes the Franck Choral in B Minor, a favorite of mine.

Yes, it works very well on this organ.

I’m curious about the Debussy transcription. How did that become an organ piece? It is your transcription?

The piece was originally transcribed for the organ by Alexandre Cellier, a contemporary of Debussy’s. In fact it was normal at that time, when a piece was composed, to make transcriptions of these new works to other instruments. It helped the publisher to sell more copies of the music. Many publishers did that. There are other Debussy pieces that were published that way. Vierne did the same thing with Rachmaninov. With transcriptions we often have to adjust the music. I don’t think it’s a problem to transcribe a transcription, since it was already on the way toward that.

I’d like to hear about Gaston Litaize as a teacher, and the way you have followed him in his footsteps.

Let me say first why I went to Litaize because it is important. I grew up in Boulogne-sur-Mer, in the north of France. I began to study the organ in 1974.

The year after, a new organ had just been built for the cathedral there, a very nice instrument by Schwenkedel in the German style. There were a lot of concerts there at that time.

We heard all the great organists. Pierre Cochereau came to play, Philippe Lefebvre, Litaize. Among them it was Litaize who impressed me the most. He had a way of playing the organ that was viril. (He looks up the word in a French dictionary.) In English it is virile, manly. (Latry makes a growl like a lion.)

I was so impressed because the organ sounded like I hadn’t heard it before. We knew that the organ wasn’t the master, he was the master. He played his own music, Franck on this German instrument, the Prelude and Fugue in D Major by Bach, and Clérambault. It was really great. Then I decided I wanted to study with that man at the Academy of Saint-Maur. He was very nervous, much like his playing in fact. Never relaxing, always speaking with a very big voice as well. He was impressive.

For my first lesson at the Academy of Saint-Maur, I was 16 and went on the train with my parents. He was not there that day. He had me play for his assistant. Then the next day he called me and said gruffly, “I heard that you are very good. We will meet next week, and you can play for me.”

So I went there, and he asked me to prepare the first movement of the [Bach] first trio sonata. I said OK, but I thought it wasn’t enough. He didn’t know anything about me so I prepared the whole trio, and then I also played the Bach B-minor Prelude and Fugue.

He first gave me a musicianship test, to see what I could hear, what kinds of chords he played. It wasn’t a problem to do that, it was almost like a game! Then, during the Bach, he made me play an articulation I didn’t like. I didn’t know what to say. I wondered if I should say I don’t like that, or just say yes. I said, “I don’t really like that. Would it be possible to do something else?” He said gruffly, “Ah, very good! Yes, of course, you can do that.” He was so happy because I had my own way.

That was taking a risk.

Of course, especially since it was the first time I played for him. From that day, really, it was very nice, because Litaize could teach his students at different levels. For those who didn’t know anything or have their own musical personality, he would say, “No, do it like this . . . that,” making everything very precise. When someone had enough of their own ideas, then he said they could do it on their own, which was very good. In some ways he taught me many things.

I remember some very nice teaching on the Franck Second Choral. It was just wonderful. The French Classical literature was also very nice. Then we became closer. The second year I went to Paris. I lived with a friend of Litaize who had an organ in his home. Litaize didn’t want to go back home during his two days of teaching in Paris, so he also stayed in that home. He spent all evening speaking about music, listening to music, which for me was very nice. I heard a lot of stories from the 1930s; it was great, great, great. He was also very nice to all of his students. He arranged concerts for his students, and he set up invitations for us to play recitals. The first concert I gave in Holland was because of him. He just gave my name, and that was it. The same thing happened in Germany, and that was very funny.

He said he had accepted an invitation to play in the cathedral in Regensburg, but he didn’t want to go there. He said to me, “Here is my program. You practice my program, and three weeks before the concert I will tell the people that I am ill and I can’t go there. Then I will give your name, and you will play it.”

Can we talk about Notre-Dame? You became one of the titulars early in your life. Can you speak about how the position is for you?

It’s just the center of my life (laughs) although I am not there very often. The three of us titular organists rotate, playing once every three weeks.

I see that you are on to play this weekend.

Yes. We make the schedule at least three or four years in advance; we are currently scheduled until 2022, so we know when we are free. If we need to be away, it is no problem to switch with a colleague.

Notre-Dame is the center of my life for several reasons. First, as you said, I began there early in my life, and it was quite unexpected.

Wasn’t it a competition for that position?

No, there was not a competition for that position. When Cochereau died, Jean-Jacques Grunenwald at St. Sulpice died almost a half year before Cochereau, so that meant that both big instruments had a vacancy for the titular organist at about the same time.

Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, made a rule for hiring the organists for the entire Archdiocese of Paris. We young organists all competed for that, to create a list for the Archdiocese of Paris. This is what the competition was for. I just applied, and was thinking, because I was the second assistant to François-Henri Houbart at La Madeleine, that perhaps there might be another opening there. I played some of the Masses there, and I thought François might move to Notre-Dame. He was one of the best organists in Paris. He first applied and then pulled out. He felt it was better for him to stay at La Madeleine than to be one of four organists at Notre-Dame.

In fact, I didn’t know that, but I suspected that many of the finest organists would apply for Notre-Dame, and that would create vacancies in other parishes. But a few weeks before the competition, I just got a letter saying I was chosen for the competition for Notre-Dame. I was surprised and wondered why. I think it was because I had already been a finalist twice for the Chartres competition, so I was already known by some of the organ world. In addition there was a scandal related to the second competition. In fact I was more known for not winning the prize than had I won the prize. Many people as well as the newspapers were on my side. They all reported that I didn’t win the prize, so everyone was talking about it.

That’s a good way to get famous if it works.

In fact, it was normal, well, not normal, but at least it happened many times in those years that competitions were contested. The Rostropovich competition, the Besançon conductors’ competition, which happened at exactly the same time, also the Chopin Competition, where Martha Argerich left the jury, because Ivo Pogorelich was kicked out.

Was it politics?

We never know. I was also known by the clergy because I was teaching at the Catholic Institute of Paris, so that’s probably why I went on the list for Notre-Dame.

I was so sure that I would not be chosen that I was totally relaxed. I just played. I almost never improvised at that time. The first time I improvised three hours in a row in my life was at Notre-Dame for the rehearsal for the competition. It was very funny. And it worked!

Evidently! That’s a good way to enter something, though, when you don’t think you have a chance.

It was not difficult afterwards, because I was ready technically, but I was only twenty-three. I had a lot of repertoire, but I wasn’t fully mature. With Litaize I played at least thirty to forty minutes of new music every week. I just wanted to spend my time learning repertoire.

Did he require that?

No, I just wanted to spend my time learning repertoire. I could learn pretty fast. It is how I was trained. If you are trained to learn fast, you can learn even faster. I remember, once on a Monday I started the Diptyque by Messiaen, and I spent nine hours that day, and I played it the next day for a lesson. I couldn’t do that now.

Do you think you have some unusual kind of memory or is that just how you were trained?

It is my training. I don’t have a photographic memory; that is actually my weakest kind of memory. Even so, visual memory would be the last kind I would use. When I see someone just use their visual memory it makes me nervous. I would use more tactile memory.

We call that muscle memory.

The best is always intellectual memory. I’ll come back to that.

When I began at Notre-Dame it was difficult because I was not ready for that kind of exposure to the public. When I played a concert before, perhaps forty a year or so, I had between eighty and two hundred people at a concert. Then, from one day to the next, it was never less than two hundred, and usually more. And why? I don’t play better or worse than yesterday, so why is it like this now? That is the first point.

The second point is that I discovered that people can be very tough. Many critics I had for a recording I made early attacked me for no reason. Just because I was there at Notre-Dame, I was the target. That was really difficult for the first two years, and then afterwards I was OK, I just said, ‘let’s go.’ Before that I was on my way to resigning. Some friends had said to me if I didn’t feel comfortable there, if I needed to protect myself more, perhaps I shouldn’t stay there. These were not organists who wanted to be there, they were just friends. Then I realized that I am an organist at Notre-Dame. I can’t leave it now. So I just changed my mind, and that was that. It was very hard.

Can we talk about your teaching and how much you do at the Conservatoire?

In fact, I started at Rheims, and then Saint Maur where I succeeded Litaize, and remained there for five years. Then I was approached by the Conservatoire in 1995. It was very funny because before that, I was assistant to Michel Chapuis. When he was retiring, the director of the Conservatoire asked if I would like to be one of the teachers. He wanted to divide the organ class in three different ways. One teacher would teach ancient music, i.e., the music up to Bach; another would teach Bach and after, including contemporary music; the third position would be for improvisation. He wanted me to be the teacher for Bach and contemporary music.

I said I wasn’t sure I wanted something like this because I like to teach every style of music. I don’t think it’s good to have some sort of specialization like that. One really needs to have a general approach to literature. He said that it was my choice, but think about it, and that if I didn’t want to do that, it was my decision. I was quite depressed about this and called my good friend Michel Bouvard. I said I had to tell him something, I was just asked to teach at the Conservatoire de Paris, and he let me speak.

Bouvard told me that he agreed with my approach not to specialize, and he said what he liked in music is what is common in all music. He let me speak for ten minutes, and then he said that the director had called him also. I didn’t know that! He wanted him to teach the early music part, and he would refuse because he didn’t want to do that. So we both refused. Then, finally, we decided to have an organ class with two teachers teaching all the literature.

The students can go to either teacher. It’s very nice, because it’s a different approach for the students. It is sometimes difficult for them, because Bouvard and I are never in agreement about interpretation. Often we have a student for one year, and then we switch, but it can be less, sometimes months or even one lesson. In fact, when they have the same piece with both teachers it is very funny because I might say, “Why do you do it like this?” and “It’s not right, you should do it like this.” And the same goes for Bouvard. The student wonders what they should do. It can be disturbing for the student in the beginning because they have to find their way, their own way. The only time we ask them to do something really as we want is when we both agree. Then they better do that.

It is very effective because we are friends, and don’t always agree, but we never fight, even over these twenty-three years. It is also a good thing for the students to see that we can disagree about some things. It is also good for the general idea of the organ world. It is not that we are only critical of one another. In fact since we have made these changes at the Conservatoire, other areas, the oboes, for example, have started sharing students. The best would be when the pianists will share students, but, for that, we will probably have to wait another hundred years.

It is nice because Bouvard and I have the same goal with the music but we always take it in different ways. We have a lot of discussion; we write and call each other five or six times a week and discuss and argue about musical points. We have long discussions.

That’s nice for the students, too, that they can see you dealing with each other in mutual respect.

Yes, I agree. Especially in Paris, where there are so many instruments and that long tradition of fine organists, it is important for the students to see and hear as many of the Parisian organists as possible, to meet them, hear their improvisations, like Thierry Escaich, as I did when I was a student. I went to Notre-Dame, to Madeleine, to Trinité. We encourage them to do that, too. Beyond that, though, we set up some exchange for the students to perform concerts, or to be an organist-in-residence. We have an exchange at the castle in Versailles. Not bad, eh?

Not bad at all!

Each student will play once on their weekly concert there in the French Classic tradition. For that they have five hours of rehearsal on the castle organ. The castle is closed, and they have the keys to the castle in their pocket. Can you imagine having that as a student?

It’s like heaven!

Yes, I think that too. This is one of the things that we do. We also have an exchange with the concert hall in Sapporo, Japan. We send a student there every year. They do teaching, playing concerts in the concert hall.

We have an exchange with the Catholic Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana. We send a student there the first Sunday in Advent, and they are in residence until the Sunday after Easter. They are playing for the choir there, also for Masses.

So they’re there for Mardi Gras. That’s rather dangerous.

(Laughter)

The Conservatoire makes the arrangements for this, but it is our decision to have this kind of exchange. We could just give our lessons, and that would be it. That is all that is required. We feel that it is so important for the students that we want them to have these experiences.

We also have now at Versailles a student in residence for a year there, and also at Notre-Dame. They play for the choir and other things. It would be like an organ scholar in the UK. They might accompany the choir, work with singers, do improvisations in the Mass, maybe play for Mass on the choir organ, anything that the professional organist would do.

At the Conservatoire we are trying to expand the students’ repertoire for the master’s students. They have to play fifty minutes of ‘virtuoso’ music the first year. This is music of their choice and proof that they can handle that. Then they play twenty minutes of music on the German Baroque organ, twenty minutes on the historical Italian organ from 1702 at the Conservatoire, then twenty minutes of French Classic music on the Versailles organ, to see how they react to different repertoire. Then for the master’s degree program they can choose the organ they want to play in Paris. They could say they’d like to play Vierne, Alain, or Florentz at Notre-Dame, or Messiaen at La Trinité, or Franck Three Chorals at St. Clothilde, or a Mass by Couperin at St. Gervais, and we arrange that.

I studied a few lessons with Chapuis one summer in Paris.

One really needs the instruments to do that.

And the teacher. He was wonderful.

Yes, he was. I also had lessons with him, together with the musicologist, Jean Saint-Arroman. Jean is still alive, in his eighties. He wrote a dictionary for French Classical music from 1651 to 1789. It is really incredible because so much information is there. Each time we have a question we just call him. Even when I would have a fight with Mr. Bouvard, we could call him up, and he would settle it! We will have a great project on the music by Raison next term at the Conservatoire, with all the approaches (old fingerings, story, religious and political context, figured bass, etc.) ending with two concerts.

I know one of the things you are interested in is new music.

Well, yes and no. What I love is music that is expressive, that brings something in an emotional way. So it could be something different for each piece of music. For instance, music can be angry. I don’t play music for that only. (laughs) I think sharing those emotions is important. It is also sharing in a spiritual way. Being an artist and an organist, I think we have that privilege to connect the emotional and the spiritual more than other instruments, even more than a pianist.

I like contemporary music that touches me. I play a lot of this music. Sometimes I just play it once, some I hope to play many times. The French composers like Thierry Escaich and Jean-Louis Florentz are so emotional. I also play a lot of music for organ and orchestra. It is a way to connect the organ to the real world of music. Otherwise the organ is always a satellite, only found in a church.

Those concerti help more people to be connected to the organ. I played a new piece by Michael Gandolfi for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I performed a piece by Gerald Levinson at the 2006 dedication of a new organ in Philadelphia.

In Montreal, we first premiered a piece by Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish composer. This piece was also performed in London and in Los Angeles under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. It is important to me to have that kind of relation with orchestras and other musicians. I will play the Third Concerto by Thierry Escaich in Dresden, and then in 2020, I will play the Pascal Dusapin Concerto.

What is your relationship to the Dresden Philharmonie?

I have a position in residence there for two years, ending in June 2019. This allows us to do things we would never do otherwise. We will play a concert with the brass ensemble, Phil Blech of the Vienna Philharmonic, and they play wonderfully. We will also perform the same concert at the Musikverein in Vienna. Concert halls are important because some people don’t want to go into a church. Hearing an organ concert in a concert hall shouldn’t be a problem. In Paris we fight a lot to have organs in the concert halls. I just did a recording of transcriptions on the new organ at the Paris Philharmonie. It is an incredible organ. The CD Voyages is now available.

What would you like to say to American organists? Most of the readers are practicing organists or organ enthusiasts.

It is difficult to know, but what I would say is just hope and try to do our best. We need to convince people that the organ can really add to our life in many ways. I don’t know how it is in the United States with the relation to the clergy, but it can be complicated. I would say, at Notre-Dame, I only play the organ. I don’t have anything to do with the administration, with anything about running the cathedral. The organ is high, far away from everything. We are there, and if we don’t want to see the clergy, we can do that. It is better, though, to have a closer relationship.

The musicians go for an aperitif with the clergy after the Sunday Masses and we are all together. It is rather funny, because we talk about little details, and we can banter back and forth. We have mutual respect for each other, which allows us an easy rapport. It is a sort of communion between the priest, the choir, and the musicians. We rarely play written literature during the ritual action in the service. We cannot make the priest wait for two minutes because our chorale isn’t finished.

You time the organ music to the liturgical action?

Yes, so, for that, we usually improvise, and it is much better. We can improvise in the style of what we heard, in imitation of a motet by the choir, or the sermon. Sometimes the clergy react to what we do. After a prelude or a sermon, the priest might say he heard something from the organ and responds in the moment.

So the priests assume there is a dialogue going on with the music?

Yes, of course. It works both ways. It is not possible to do something against one another. We can do everything. The music isn’t something to just make people quiet; it can make them cry or be angry. Usually after the sermon we do something soft, on the Voix céleste or something similar. However it is not a problem to improvise for two minutes on the full organ, even clusters, if it is a response to what the priest said. We have never heard a priest comment that it is too loud. This can only happen with a kind of relationship that allows everything to be open for discussion.

We have an organ that has a lot of possibilities. We have to exploit all those possibilities rather than follow a prescribed response just because it’s the middle of the Mass. The context is not always the same. It is our job to create the atmosphere for the service.

One of my favorite times is the introit for the 10 a.m. Gregorian Mass. 11:30 is the polyphonic Mass, which is especially for tourists, and the evening Mass is the cardinal Mass, most like a parish Mass. Notre Dame is not a parish, but that is when the local people come. From the introit of the first Mass we have Gregorian texts and their interpretations. I read the texts before the improvisation. The texts will be the source for a ten-minute improvisation. It is like a symphonic poem. We can bring people to the subject of the day.

Let’s talk about memorization, because it is so important how to learn to learn. We try to do this with memorization, especially at the Conservatoire, because people are scared. We say that a memory slip is like playing a wrong note. Don’t be scared if you get lost. If you know how to come back to the music and learn the technique to do so, you won’t have a problem. It is also a question of confidence. If you are confident, there is no problem.

It is like riding a bike. One must know first how to memorize the technical way. For me the best way to memorize is to have all the connections together. Memorization is like a wall. When you see a wall, one sees that the stones are never the same size. In fact, the actual musical notes are one level of the stones. Another level is the harmony, another is the fingerings, and then the movements, the music. All combined makes the big wall. Then, if there is one step missing you are still OK. If you have too many holes, then the wall falls down. So it is important to be sure that everything is in place.

One must know what is the fingering there, without moving the fingers. Be able to copy the music down like it is in the score, to make sure it is the same as the score. What I do for the students, because they are so scared, is I say “stop” while they are playing. I ask if they know where they are, and ask them to pick up the music two bars later.

Then, finally I’d like to finish by talking about memorization with Litaize. We attended each other’s lessons with him because we were all friends. He didn’t require it but we wanted to. We were there at the same time. I listened to the lessons, and it was very nice. When he wanted to make an example to people, he could play, at the right tempo, the place in the music he wanted to demonstrate. It was like he had a film of the music going on in his mind, and he could play anywhere he wished. I do that with the students, and it is so effective. It is even better with a trio sonata. I ask the student to play, and then I turn one manual off and have them continue. This teaches them that they can go anywhere.

They have learned the music deeply.

Yes. Once you have the music in your head, then it is easy to practice all the time. You don’t need an organ to practice. Of course, you have to learn the notes on a piano or organ. Once it’s in your head you can practice while you’re walking, in the shower, sleeping. One can practice twenty-four hours a day.

It’s time we bring this to a close, and I think our readers will be interested in hearing what you have said today. I appreciate the time you have taken today to meet me the day before your recital. I look forward to hearing your recital tomorrow. Best wishes.

Thank you very much.

Editor’s note: On Monday, April 15, the world watched as Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris suffered a catastrophic fire that has damaged much of the historic building. Some of the edifice and its pipe organs have survived in a state that continues to be assessed for eventual restoration.

Mr. Latry recorded a compact disc on the cathedral organ in January, the last CD recorded before the fire. Released by La Dolce Vita, Bach to the Future features the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. For information, readers may visit: www.ladolcevita.com. The disc is also available from www.amazon.com, and other resources.

Various news media sources of the world have reported that numerous donations have been made already to rebuild the cathedral. However, Mr. Latry has pointed out that a very different and very real problem exists as the 67 employees of the cathedral are now without an income. Those who wish to make a contribution to the rebuilding of the cathedral and to assist those who work at the cathedral may visit: https://www.notredamedeparis.fr/participate-in-the-reconstruction-of-th…

Photo caption: Olivier Latry and Lorraine Brugh (photo credit: Gary Brugh)

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