The power of music

French musician Laurent Petitgirard conducts the JSO.

French musician Laurent Petitgirard (photo credit: JFR. LECLERCQ)
French musician Laurent Petitgirard
(photo credit: JFR. LECLERCQ)
Abuse of power is not a recent development, although with the expansive reach of the media these days, at least we are made more aware of it. It is a topic that has interested Laurent Petitgirard for some time.
The 67-year-old French pianist, conductor and composer will conduct the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra at the Jerusalem Theatre in a wide-ranging Gallic-based concert that takes in the “Guru et Marie” section of his monumental, and somewhat apocalyptic, opera Guru. Also on the program are Debussy‘s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Saint-Saens‘s Cello Concerto No. 1; and Ravel‘s Ma mère l’Oye suite. In addition to the JSO, Petitgirard will be joined by Dutch bass baritone Hubert Claessens; Petitgirard’s wife actress Sonia Petrovna; and cellist Hillel Zori.
This will be something of a homecoming for the conductor on several counts.
“I conducted the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra 15 years ago. It was a special recital of some French songs, and we had some Ravel. It was a good experience, but it was quite a long time ago,” he says.
Over the years, Petitgirard has also earned his crust by scoring for movies. His cinematic oeuvre includes a confluence with iconic Hollywood director Otto Preminger when they worked on Rosebud together in 1975. The film storyline follows a trail through the Middle East, including Israel, and the cast included some Israeli actors.
But Guru is an entirely different artistic kettle of fish. It depicts a dystopic state of affairs in which a nefarious spiritual leader exploits his exalted status to manipulate his followers for his own evil ends.
Guru is Petitgirard’s second operatic offering and complements a large body of symphonic works.
The composer says his first opera, Joseph Merrick The Elephant Man, which premiered in Prague in 2002, was ultimately about seeking to identify with the titular character.
“But this second opera is very much more about fighting against anarchism, against a monster,” he explains.
As befits its historical context, Guru is a highly dramatic piece that portrays the leader’s criminal shenanigans and the adulatory behavior of almost all his followers.
But one figure stands out from the obsequious crowd and uses a different vehicle of sonic expression.
“They are all mad, and there is more and more madness going through the collective society,” says Petitgirard about the general musical flow. “The singing is the madness. The only character that tries to stop him [the guru] and to resist speaks. The relationship between speaking a language and singing a language was very interesting for me.”
In fact, the divide between musical and oratory intonation is not entirely clear cut.
“Of course, the actor [Petrovna] speaks on a written score,” Petitgirard notes. “The character of Marie is totally written as a singing note, except that there are no notes. My wife is very well trained in speaking written pieces.”
The composer adds a jocular aside: “When I conduct and my wife is on stage, it is the only time in my life that she does what I ask,” he laughs.
Petitgirard says he got the idea for Guru from a tragic real life event – the mass suicide of more than 900 people, including 304 children, overseen by Jim Jones in 1978.
“Jim Jones was an absolute monster. I wasn’t interested in the violence of Jim Jones but by the faith of the followers,” he says.
Of course, Petitgirard is looking to convey some message through Guru.
“The message is ‘Take care,’” he declares. “Don’t let this kind of thing grow because it can be extremely dangerous. Everyone knows, for example, what is happening North Korea with the dictatorship. But I am speaking about more abstract things.
Someone can say that life is not that important but that death is the real life. This kind of thing can be tempting for people who are a little bit lost.”
Naturally, at the end of the day, Petitgirard would like us to appreciate the work on offer.
“The message is important; but for me, the music is the most important. It is the quality and the emotion of the music that I hope people will appreciate,” he says.
With the score and the power and emotiveness of the subtext, that should be a given.
The concert will be performed on March 14 at 8 p.m. at the Jerusalem Theatre. For tickets and more information: 1-700-704-000; (02) 561-1498/9; and