Canada has produced a healthy share of classical music talent over the last few decades, including singers Maureen Forrester, Teresa Stratas, Jon Vickers and Ben Heppner, pianist Glenn Gould and guitarist Leona Boyd.
This week, the Pacific Symphony hosts two hugely talented French Canadians of different generations, rising-star conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni and celebrated pianist Louis Lortie, in a program with a decidedly French twist. Two ravishing orchestral masterpieces, Ravel’s “La Valse” and Debussy’s “Ibéria,” share the program with Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Mozart’s Symphony No. 31.
The inspiration for the program came partly from the last time Zeitouni conducted the Pacific Symphony.
“On my first visit three years ago, we did the Debussy Nocturnes together,” the conductor said. “I had such a great time, and the women’s chorus was fabulous.” Naturally, the possibility of more French music came up when the current program was hammered out. “While discussing it with the people at the Pacific Symphony, it was clear to everyone that we all wanted to do more Debussy and maybe some Ravel,” Zeitouni said.
Zeitouni, 43, is a Montreal native; his father immigrated from Egypt and his mother from Belgium. His 2nd grade teacher noticed he had perfect pitch, and soon he was distinguishing himself as a multi-talented musician. He graduated from the Montreal Conservatory with specialties in conducting, percussion and composition. His many stints as an opera and symphony conductor include a long association with Quebec City’s Les Violons du Roy, music director of the Columbus Symphony, and dozens of guest appearances in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Zeitouni’s style has been described as cerebral yet fiery, which matches the quick, roving intellect he displays in conversation. Clearly, he studies his music deeply and contextually. He acknowledges Ravel’s “La Valse” might reflect the turbulent time it was written, right after World War I.
“There is sarcasm and a bit of cynicism. Ravel was extremely political in a way and very critical of society and aristocracy. The waltz goes through many transformations.” But while he admits it could be a considered a comment on the sorry state of the postwar world, “above everything there is an homage to the sensuality of Viennese music and the waltz.”
Zeitouni will also conduct Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Lortie at the piano. The two have never collaborated on this work before, but Zeitouni isn’t concerned. “I had the pleasure of doing Chopin’s other (piano) concerto with him in Hong Kong a few years ago, and I have a certain understanding of his approach.” Zeitouni described his role modestly: “The orchestra and I are there to be the extension of (Lortie’s) musical gestures. (My job) is like driving a big bus with many people on board and following someone else’s directions.”
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