Preserving Excellence

Philippe Thanh 15/02/2016
"We have the world’s best school of cello playing, the best school of wind instruments... Take a look at the major orchestras in Europe; all the principal positions are occupied by French musicians. And yet, we continue flagellating ourselves. It’s unbelievable that politicians don’t realize that this is the future." This is what René Martin, founder of La Folle Journée de Nantes, recently declared (Le Courrier de l’Ouest, January 31st). How can one not share in his exasperation?
Principal player’s names immediately come to mind, supporting this statement: the cellists Bruno Delepelaire in Berlin and Leonard Frey-Malbach in Leipzig; flutists Mathieu Dufour in Berlin, Juliette Hurel and Adriana Ferreira in Rotterdam; oboists Olivier Stankiewicz in London, Alexei Ogrintchouk (born in Russia but trained at the Paris Conservatory) in Amsterdam; clarinettists Olivier Patey in Amsterdam and Bruno Bonansea in Rotterdam; bassoonist Sophie Dartigalongue in Vienna; hornist Felix Delvaux in Amsterdam...

What applies to instrumentalists also applies to conductors. Many of them lead successful careers abroad (Lionel Bringuier, Stéphane Denève and others). It is certainly regrettable that French conductors direct so few great orchestras at home, but in this time of international commerce, we must also be pleased that the French batons are recognized beyond our borders.

Singers are probably worse off still; even if some of them are celebrated worldwide, they face invisible quotas when at home, facing all-out competition that leads to such situations as a French theatre presenting such a highly iconic a work like Gounod’s Faust - without even a single French singer in the cast.

But in order to train all these musicians who will carry French excellence throughout the world, our conservatoires to must continue training professionals and not just amateurs. Certainly, things have not yet deteriorated quite that far, but the danger is lurking. In some institutions, great teachers have been asked to leave as soon as they reached the age limit, while legally they were entitled to an extension. And for what reason? "Make way for the young!" As if in the field of transmission of knowledge, concert experience or stage experience, with a full career behind them, they were nothing in the face of this supreme dogma of " Make way for the young!"

On another front, the city of Paris is very seriously considering the removal of individual lessons in its leisure centres (see conservatories). Learning piano or flute in a group lesson ... this decision is not supported by any pedagogical argument, as François Frémeau, founder of the National Association of teachers of artistic disciplines, rightly says: "Group activities are important, but they should not replace individual lessons which are essential to serious learning. This is confirmed in all good teaching manuals."

By dint of diehard anti-elitism, we’ll end up destroying an educational system that furnishes the world with exceptional musicians. Do those who govern us even think about this?

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