Conduct becoming a conductor

Frederic Chaslin elicits the best music possible from the orchestras he leads.

Frederic Chaslin (photo credit: Courtesy)
Frederic Chaslin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the last 15 years, French conductor Frederic Chaslin has been a frequent guest on our shores. Since being discovered by Israeli Contemporary Players Ensemble artistic director Dan Yuhas, Chaslin has come to Israel to conduct most of the country’s major orchestras, as well as Israeli Opera productions.
In regard to his conducting skills, one of the opera singers said, “His hands are very musical, very singing, but at the same time commanding.
Under his baton, the opera orchestra produces the best sound it is able to.”
Last year, Chaslin was appointed artistic director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra: “This time, I came to the JSO almost by chance. I heard that the position was vacant and just submitted my name. After a six-hour rehearsal, we still liked each other, so I stayed,” he says. “It was like remarrying after 10 years of separation. Well, actually, I was never divorced from the orchestra – it was about the management, not the musicians.”
Born in Paris into a Jewish family with Russian roots (among other languages, he is fluent in Russian), he studied piano and originally wanted to be composer: “But I was so naïve! At 15 I realized that the music that was written at that time was not of the kind I wanted to write. So I switched to conducting and playing piano, occasionally composing music for theater and movies and writing songs for my friends. But 10 years ago I noticed that the world of contemporary music had changed; it had become nice to listen to, meaning that it would also be a pleasure for me to write it – and the audience would enjoy my pieces as well. I even decided to somehow limit my conducting career to concentrate on composing, so having an orchestra of my own only makes things easier,” hesays Conversation with Chaslin, who has an international career as an opera and symphony conductor, is never boring. He generates not-so-obvious ideas and expresses them in a few concise phrases. He recalls that as a student of the Paris Conservatory, he noticed that the hands of the conductors that he especially liked seemed to move in a medium that was much denser than air. “I started training in a swimming pool, underwater, and it worked!” he says.
“String players, who constitute the majority of an orchestra, translated the movements of the conductor’s hands into sound, and thus their sound was deeper, more intense.”
Chaslin has clear ideas about the future of the JSO and, above all, its identity. “First of all, a lot of technical work is demanded. For many years, true musical leadership was lacking.
The orchestra needs to return to the level where touring and recording will be possible,” he says.
Chaslin explains that although geographically Israel is a small country, its musical life is intense and diverse, and there is more than enough room for two major orchestras. “Granted, the JSO is not going to compete with the Israel Philharmonic, but Jerusalem is an entire world in itself, and this city’s symphony orchestra must have a clear musical identity.”
So does he see it? “The answer is not that simple,” says the conductor. “For example, there are many Russian-born musicians in the JSO who perform Russian music perfectly, but building a repertoire on that music would have been a wrong idea. As would performing only pieces by Israeli composers – because it is only contemporary music. But in conducting Israeli orchestras, I’ve noticed something very characteristic and special, which is called ‘Jewish soul.’ Bronislav Huberman once said that it is not by chance that Jews chose the violin. It is the only instrument that you can run away with, and they learned to express the entire world through violin playing.
So what I mean is that I see the Jerusalem Symphony as an orchestra that plays all types of music, from Bach to Yoseph Tal, with lyricism, warmth and intensity of Jewish soul.”
Being busy with his career, sociable and charismatic, Chaslin still finds time for hobbies. “In my youth, that was impossible. I was preoccupied with the idea of becoming a better musician. But some 15 years ago, when I felt that I had already achieved something, I developed some hobbies. But again, they all have to do with my music activities: I can’t afford the time to sit on the couch and watch football. For example, quite unexpectedly, I developed a fear of flying, which is quite a problem for a touring conductor. So a friend of mine advised me to get a light plane pilot’s license: ‘Once you understand how a plane flies, your fears will vanish,’ he told me. And indeed, I got hooked. And now I see a lot of similarity between flying a plane and conducting an orchestra: You have to keep many things under control but let it go smoothly in order not to crash,” he explains.
Cooking is his another one of his hobbies.
“Recently, in a New York kitchen, I befriended Woody Allen. It turns out that he is fond of cooking, too. And we were preparing a milkshake together. But while Woody’s approach is that of a director – for him, adding just another ingredient was like adding a new dramatic touch to a story – for me, as a composer and conductor, it was like enriching a piece with new sounds. So it’s all about music!” he laughs.
Later this month (May 29), within the framework of the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, Chaslin will lead the JSO in a captivating program that features Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring , as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Spanish Capriccio and Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand .
But before that, on May 8 in an open-air concert in Jerusalem’s Safra Square as a part of the Jerusalem Day festivities, the JSO under Chaslin will accompany singer Achinoam Nini, who will perform her most popular songs. The concert starts at 8:30 p.m. and the entrance fee is NIS 20.