More than Yesterday
French Spirit comes to Nanaimo
By Jen Holstein

SPEAKING WITH PIERRE SIMARD , artistic director of Vancouver Island Symphony for the past eight years, one cannot help but be charmed. Pierre was meant to be discussing “French Spirit,” the inaugural production of the new Symphony SoundBites series. However, in our short conversation I was also treated to lessons in music history, 100-year-old Parisian gossip, musings on the nature of love and loss, and a sense of the deep respect and admiration he has for the performers under his charge.

A new style of show “French Spirit,” which premieres Thursday October 27th at the Port Theatre, promises both traditional and unique arrangements of shorter pieces by Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel as well as two original works composed by Simard himself. The music is performed by a 15-member chamber orchestra and a guest soprano, allowing for a more intimate audience experience. With the performance coming in at just an hour long, and incorporating delicious food from Nanoose’s celebrated Smoke ‘N Water Restaurant—tantalizing appetizers before the early performance and decadent desserts following the later showing—this marks a departure from the Symphony’s usual format. And Pierre is excited to premiere this new style of show.

The SoundBites Series “was a long time in the making,” Simard says in his lilting French accent. “Our season is shorter compared to other symphonies and it can be difficult to build a sense of style. By using this format to feature our Principal Players, our musicians rehearse together in a smaller setting and get to create the program together. The musicians don’t only rely on the conductor but have to listen to each other.”

Uniquely French So what makes this program so uniquely French, beyond the shared heritage of three of the composers, and just how the heck did a Russian composer make the cut?

"I'm very excited to have Catherine Fern Lewis on board," enthuses Simard, "She is the perfect artist for this program."

Pierre laughs, “I figured you would ask about Stravinsky. What many people may not know is that, although he was born a Russian, he became a naturalized French citizen while living there and composing some of his greatest works.” With so many French composers to choose from, Simard decided to pinpoint a specific period in time. “That’s why we have these three intertwined composers—Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. They knew each other, worked alongside each other, were intimate with each other. It just made sense to build the program around that.” The performance opens with Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun;’ “a wonderful challenge for our Principal Players,” says Simard. The music is inspired by a classical poem that tells the story of a faun—half-man, half-goat—who whiles away his afternoon in sensuous dreams of nymphs and dryads.Stravinsky’s Pribaoutki follows, which Pierre describes as “very funny little miniatures”. The accompanying vocals will be sung in French by Victoria’s own Catherine Fern Lewis. “I’m very excited to have Cathy on board” enthuses Simard. “She is the perfect artist for this program. She performs modern and contemporary music but is well versed in French repertoire and studied French song in Paris.” According to Simard, Stravinsky wrote the piece soon after cementing his reputation as a revolutionary composer. “There were actually riots in Paris during the performance of his works.” Pierre says with wonder, “Fights broke out in the concert halls; the police were called in.” One hopes that Nanaimo audiences won’t be similarly inclined.

His own music Simard’s own compositions will also be featured. In fact, he is still working on finalizing the two pieces which will combine voice and orchestra. Pierre has a background as a choral director and is married to a soprano “so I love setting words to music—it is challenging and satisfying.” The pieces promise to be emotional and heartfelt with a focus on love and aspects of aging. The first is based on a poem by Rosemonde Gérard in which one lover is asking the other questions about how their love will change as they grow old together. “There is one particular line in the poem that speaks to me. In fact, I have it engraved on my wedding ring: ‘Plus qu’hier, moins que demain’ or basically ‘I will love you more today than yesterday, but less than I will tomorrow’.” The evening finishes with “Gaspard de la Nuit” by Ravel. Pierre is still working on arranging the Ravel piece, and is reworking it for woodwinds, percussion, piano and strings. “It is one of the most difficult pieces for piano ever written—pianists freeze in fear at the mention of it,” he chuckles.

Pierre admits that much has been made about the supposed rivalry between Debussy and Ravel. “I think it was just a healthy competition. Ravel was a hotshot up-and-comer and facing this tower of a composer and trying to make his own mark.” While not one to gossip, Pierre makes a momentary exception. “There has been some speculation that the two had a falling out over romantic interests. Debussy was known to be a bit of a ladies’ man.”With a fun but challenging program tied together with the terribly French themes of love, revolution and loss, the evening presents an incredible cross-section of music—both classic and contemporary. Ultimately, Pierre is excited for the opportunity for audiences to see and connect with these musicians “that I know and love and work with. This show really features the virtuosity, expertise and excellence of our musicians in a fun and intimate environment.”

A wide appeal From Franco­philes craving a selection of music performed in the original French, to seasoned symphony-goers seeking a closer connection with the performers, to new fans looking to dip a toe in the ocean of classical music without having to suit up and submerge themselves, French Spirit will appeal to a variety of audiences.