By Anne Nickoloff, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Bryce Dessner has been living in France for the better part of a decade, making him a good fit for the Cleveland Orchestra’s weekend “French Perspectives” showcase, also featuring works by Ravel and Franck.
The Grammy-winning composer and musician said he’s excited for his Concerto for Two Pianos to be performed with the Cleveland Orchestra -- “one of the great orchestras of the world,” he said. The piece was written for sisters and piano duo Katia and Marielle Labèque, who will be performing with the orchestra, along with conductor Gustavo Gimeno on Friday, Nov. 26, and Saturday, Nov. 27.
Though he’s now living in France, Dessner said Ohio played a big role in his life and music. He and his twin brother Aaron Dessner grew up in Cincinnati, eventually forming The National with other Cincy natives Matt Berninger, Scott Devendorf and Bryan Devendorf. The Southwest Ohio city is also where he hosts his annual MusicNOW festival, which last took place in September 2021.
Though Cleveland is a few hours away from Cincinnati, in some ways the orchestra show feels like a “hometown show” of sorts.
We caught up with Dessner, who spoke from his home in France, to hear more about the upcoming performances:
This weekend’s performances will feature your piece with Katia and Marielle. Are you excited for the concerto to be shared up here?
The double piano concerto is one of the pieces I’m most proud of, that I wrote a few years ago now for Katia and Marielle Labeque who are these incredible pianists, really unbelievably talented. They’ve become close friends of mine. It’s a piece that feels like a big statement. I’m really happy. The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the great orchestras in the world, and it’s really quite rare for a living composer to have work performed by them, and the extra added thing of having grown up in Ohio. For me, in a way, it’s like a hometown kind of show -- not quite, but it is a big honor.
Have you ever seen the Cleveland Orchestra perform? I was just curious, having grown up in Ohio.
I have not seen the Cleveland Orchestra perform live. I used to listen to the recordings; the George Szell recordings are so classic and kind of the standard for so many great pieces. I’m very aware of the sound of the orchestra, the tradition. I grew up in Cincinnati, so in my early days I always heard the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
I know it’s been a few years, but I’d love to hear more about how this piece came together and about your friendship with Katia and Marielle.
We shared a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2013 or 2014, around the time that I had moved to France. My wife is French and we have a four-year-old son here now. I had moved to France, I had of course heard of Katia and Marielle but I’d never met them. Katia was aware of my music. We had the concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it was for a new piece of mine called “Quilting” that I wrote for Gustavo Dudamel. It’s an orchestral piece inspired by the American tradition of quiltmaking. At the same concert, Katia and Marielle were premiering a double concerto by Philip Glass that was written for them.
We shared this big event and during rehearsals, Katia really responded to my music and asked me if I ‘d ever consider writing something for two pianos. Then I figured out they’re also French -- they’re French-Italian, they spend a lot of time in Paris. In the years since they’ve become an adopted family. We’re really close. I now live in the southwest corner of France, which is the Basque country, which is where they’re from. They also live down here. It’s where Ravel is from, actually. I see them a lot, they’re in my life as is Marielle’s husband, Semyon Bychkov, a conductor I’ve worked with a few times. Katia’s husband is David Chalmin, he’s a beautiful composer and engineer and just does really beautiful electronic music. It’s a whole community of really interesting artists.
This piece, in a way, was this amazing journey of learning about their history. They’ve worked with everyone. They were discovered in the Paris Conservatory as teenagers by Olivier Messiaen, and they worked directly with him. Luciano Berio, the Italian composer, was very close to them and wrote music for them. They’ve kind of come through every era of all this important music.
They bring a level of attention and dedication to music that I’ve not witnessed before. I’ve worked with incredible ensembles and soloists, but it’s a whole other level of intensity and dedication where, with this piece, I think they dedicated three months to only rehearsing this. They clear their schedule and really dedicate themselves to the repertoire; that’s why they’re so good. They almost have this sibling telepathy. There’s a shared soul in their music, it’s so powerful. The piece is really written for each of them.
Two pianos are more like one giant instrument than two contrasting voices in a way. It’s this big, powerful sound with so many colors you can play with. They play differently. Marielle does these amazing low basslines in the concerto, and she has a beautiful lyrical sense. Katia has this laser-fast right hand and has been very influenced by jazz and rock and roll. There are things in each of their parts that call out the things they like doing. In a way, it’s a very personal piece.
It’s being paired with pieces by Ravel and Franck. What do you think of the full program it’s being presented in, and the concerto’s place in the middle of it?
Katia’s always the first to say that my music sounds very French, which I take as a compliment. I’m in awe of that music, especially Ravel but also composers like Gautier or even Boulez, there’s this sort of movement, this light translucent vertical, in the orchestrations. The verticality is the musical equivalent to the Impressionist painters. You can hear French music really quickly. I hear it in Debussy, I hear it in Ravel, I hear it in Gautier, and so I’m definitely influenced by that.
I think I’m quite American but I’ve been living in France for many years now. Certainly in [Katia and Marielle’s] hands, my music, they bring out all kinds of things. The piece is influenced by some of their repertoire. One of their big pieces is Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the two-piano version that he arranged himself. The other piece they play the most is Poulenc’s Piano Concerto. My piece calls out those pieces for sure. But then, there are moments where the piano is played like the banjo, lines that sound a little more like American folk music.
Living in France -- does that affect your composition work? How does living there affect your writing?
I lived in France when I finished graduate school, I studied at the Conservatory in Paris in the late ‘90s. That kind of marked me, I would say. Just like Ohio. You never leave Ohio in a way, it’s part of who I am. It’s in our blood, in our roots. My family, my mom’s family, has been in Ohio since the early 19th century. But I think Paris, there’s something about the art and culture there where you’re just closer to the fire. If you’re making poetry or philosophy or ballet or classical music, these are things that Paris played a significant role in different moments in the evolution of those art forms.
Especially now, I think Paris is experiencing a kind of cultural revival, or maybe it sounds a little cliche to say “renaissance” in Paris, but there are so many new venues and exciting programs going on. Where New York has one major orchestra, Paris has four or even five. There are a lot of things happening there that make it just quite exciting and for me after 20 years of living in New York.
We grew up in Ohio but the band [The National] grew up in New York. We were very much a part of that early 2000s rock and roll scene in downtown New York. I was also very involved with composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, working with iconic New York composers that I performed with and toured with. It was interesting to go from being very New York to living abroad. It was a big shift, a bit disorienting at first.
But, it’s been healthy for me to work with European musicians, to work with European orchestras. There are certain aspects of that culture that feel more open, to be honest. I think their relationship to tradition is a little bit different because it’s all around them -- it’s right there, you can put your hand on it at any time. In a way, I’ve benefited a little bit from institutions wanting to try new things and take risks. I’ve written for Orchestra de Paris several times, and Ensemble Intercontemporain, and composed for some of the great French soloists like Katia and Marielle Labèque, Gautier Capuçon. These are all fantastic musicians I’ve been lucky to meet.
In addition to that, as an Ohioan I know your work continues to take place here. I saw the MusicNOW festival took place this past year, and I went to Homecoming festival a few years ago. I was wondering, when’s the last time you were in Ohio? What’s it like to stay involved in your hometown while living in France?
I grew up in Ohio, my mom grew up in Ohio, her grandparents grew up in Ohio; so many generations there. There’s a sweetness about the place that we’re always drawn back to. I think it’s a complicated place; we all have political divisions in our families. That’s part of the crucible of growing up there.
I started the MusicNOW festival over 15 years ago and through that I met all kinds of new people, and new arts organizations, new venues. That’s brought me great joy and also been a punctuation for many years in my professional life. I was coming back every year to try new things, new collaborations, new residencies. It was all very much a part of my identity.
To be honest, I miss it. Living abroad now, especially with COVID the last two years, has created a bigger gap to all that shared experience, where suddenly these things that were quite regular are now quite irregular or even uncommon. Even the simple thing of playing a show with my band, we haven’t done that in two years, it’s the longest time in 20 years. I’m a bit homesick, I have to say.
You’re a very busy person. Are there any other projects in the works that you can share anything you’re working on right now?
I’m continuing to write. Katia and Marielle and I and David Chalmin, the other guitarist, we have a quartet, two pianos and two guitars. There’s a piece called “Haven” on the record we did that includes the concerto. That piece is emblematic of the repertoire that we’ve been developing quite a bit. We’ve done a series of tours and concerts. Next year we have several concerts, the four of us. I really enjoy just being with them as musicians and playing chamber music again.
We are working on a new album with the band, I can say that and that’s quite exciting. Hopefully that will see the light of day sooner rather than later. That’s going on.
A couple of big films are coming out with scores that I did. One is, with my brother Aaron, “Cyrano,” is the big MGM film with Peter Dinklage. We did the music and songs for that. Then there’s a movie called “C’mon C’mon” by Mike Mills, that has Joaquin Phoenix and we did the score for that. Doing music for cinema is something I’ve really been enjoying lately, so I’ll be doing a bit more of that.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
I can say that during COVID, the orchestras were shut and performance in large numbers onstage was one of the first things to go and last things to come back. It’s interesting because in a way, the orchestra and especially more classical repertoire are these major pillars of human culture. We think of the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we go see a Renaissance painting or classic sculpture. In classical music, it’s these big works of Beethoven or Mahler or Strauss or Schubert or whatever it is, all these incredible pieces of music. I am a tiny little fly in that sphere of these giants. But I think that the kind of fragility of this humanity, of thinking that something that was such a regular for so many years: a city has an orchestra and a baseball team. It was this thing that you could go to, and it could be this incredible testament to humanity. Where else do you see 50 people making art together, breathing, phrasing, together?
The culture of an orchestra is endlessly fascinating. During COVID, suddenly those concert halls were quiet. It was this powerful sense of longing that I had to hear it again. The couple of concerts I’ve been able to go to since that world has been back have been very moving and very emotional. I hope especially over Thanksgiving weekend, we’re giving thanks for these beautiful organizations we have. Hopefully, people will come and hear this music, and hear these incredible artists: Katia and Marielle Labeque but also Gustavo Gimeno, who’s directing the orchestra, is an unbelievable artist. And then the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra which really is one of the great orchestras of the world. I’m very proud to come from Ohio, where they’re from.