Adapting Amadeus: Guillaume Tourniaire

The French maestro Guillaume Tourniaire, who will be conducting his adaptation of Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera for the Al Ain Classics Festival next week, talks about his career.

For Guillaume Tourniaire, a young French conductor with an impressive international reputation, home is wherever he lays his baton. "I don't have a particular sense of belonging to any one place. I tend to feel comfortable wherever I am. Like many musicians, I'm lucky enough to meet fascinating people and to visit and work in some very beautiful places, whether I'm in Japan or Europe, America or Australia."

Right now, he is preparing for the Al Ain Classics Festival, which starts tonight with a ladies-only performance by Majida al Roumi at Al Jahili Fort. Next week, Tourniaire will conduct the premiere of his adaptation of Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera. This opera buffa, or Italian comic opera, was written by Mozart in 1775, when he was 18 years old. In Al Ain it will be performed in Italian with Arabic subtitles.

For Tourniaire, the experience of slipping into Mozart's shoes was both daunting and inspiring. "When I was first approached to do the adaptation for this festival, I felt humbled and rather intimidated. It's a real challenge to try and put yourself in the position of a composer and how could I be presumptuous enough to try to change the work of Mozart? But then I started working and I really threw myself into it.

"La Finta Giardiniera was written when Mozart was a very young man and he wrote it very quickly. But importantly, this is one of the early works in which we can really see everything that will come to typify Mozart's great characters later in life." One of Tourniaire's major challenges was to edit the work to bring it into line with the expectations of a contemporary audience. "Of course, in Mozart's day opera audiences weren't what they are today. This opera would normally last around three hours and back then, during that time, people would have wandered in and out of the audience, had a meal, continued conversations. There wasn't the atmosphere of hushed reverence there is today.

"When he wrote it, Mozart didn't really have a fully developed sense of dramaturgy and, although the score is sublime, the plot itself has so many twists and turns that it's almost impossibly convoluted. So when I was editing it, I had to think about where to put the emphasis and I chose to highlight the action of the drama rather than the details of the characters' psychology. It now lasts around two hours.

"The orchestra I'm working with, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, have played and recorded the original opera and now they've played my version - and they've given me their approval. So I hope I've done a good job." At 40 years old, Tourniaire is still considered a youngster in his chosen discipline. "This is a profession which demands much patience and psychology. It's a profession in which you really have to think, to be given to reflection. How to observe the psychology of an orchestra or a choir is something you learn with experience over the course of a lifetime.

"When I finished my studies at the Conservatoire in Geneva at the age of 21, I considered myself too young to conduct, ridiculously young. It's great if people are capable of conducting at that young an age, but in my opinion I was way too young. I was capable of learning scores, learning them quickly and efficiently, but on a human level or even an artistic level I don't think I was capable of nourishing an orchestra.

"I mean, when you find yourself in front of an orchestra, there are musicians there who have played with many conductors of different generations and who are greatly experienced. That deserves a lot of respect. You have to ask yourself, what else can I offer them? "Today I'd say that I've covered enough ground, not just musically but also in life, to be able to say with confidence that I have something to offer. I have baggage."

This isn't the first time Tourniaire has turned his talent to adapting scores, while his experience as a conductor has included working with some of the world's most respected orchestras. After studying the piano and conducting at the Geneva Conservatoire - during which time he won first prize at the International Gabriel Fauré Piano Competition - Tourniaire began his professional career in 1993 as artistic director of the vocal ensemble Le Motet de Genève before serving as chorus master at the Grand Théâtre of Geneva from 1996, and chorus director of Teatro la Fenice in Venice from 2001 to 2002.

He explains: "I came to opera rather by accident. In Geneva it was suggested that I go to play at the Grand Théâtre as the pianist and it was there that I became the chorus director and had a chance to conduct." He made his conducting debut in 1998 at the Grand Théâtre with Prokofiev's opera Betrothal in a Monastery and then appeared at the Paris Opéra conducting Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. He subsequently established an intensive collaboration with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, with which he has conducted such works as the world premiere of his own reconstruction of Prokofiev's complete original score for Sergei Eisenstein's film Ivan the Terrible, Mozart's incidental music to Thamos, King of Egypt, Prokofiev's cantata Alexander Nevsky, Martinu's oratorio Gilgamesh and Janácek's Amarus.

These days as a guest conductor, he has worked with orchestras ranging from the Orchestra dell'Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome to the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne and the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, the Orchestre National de France in Paris, and the Teatro Sao Carlos of Lisbon. From 2007 to 2008 he was also music director of the State Opera in Prague. Born in French Provence, Tourniaire knew from a very early age that he wanted to become a conductor.

"I don't know where I got the idea from that I wanted to be a chef d'orchestre. It wasn't as if there were many orchestras to be seen in Provence, then as now. And my family wasn't at all musical. I started learning the piano and proved myself to be pretty talented but for me the piano was only ever a tool - a means by which to read scores and enter into the music. "I never wanted to pursue the solitary career of a concert pianist. As a young boy, I used to sing in a children's choir and for me that was the best part of the week - this moment of making music together. One of the aspects of my job that I still enjoy the most is the collaboration with other people and my involvement with musicians."

Today one of the projects closest to Tourniaire's heart is that of resuscitating neglected and sometimes forgotten pieces of music. He has conducted the world-premiere recordings of Saint-Saëns' Hélène and Nuit Persane with the Australian company Melba Records. "I first started to look out lesser-known pieces of music because as a young pianist I felt very humbled by the major repertoire and other interpreters. I thought why would people come to hear me play that? So I began to look for forgotten scores and then it became a passion. I realised that there are very many pieces of beautiful music that are never heard.

"Now it's become a habit of mine to go and rummage in libraries in search of these works. It takes time and passion to uncover and revive these pieces, so it's not something that everyone has the inclination to do. I'm very lucky to be able to collaborate with Melba Records. "The market for classical music recordings today is very difficult to crack and people tend to want to buy only the well-known works by well-known artists, so it's very courageous of Melba Records to take on this project but as all the reviews and critics have remarked, so far it's been a big success. I was lucky to find a recording company who weren't solely interested in profit but who also wanted to involved themselves in a real project of musical research."

With all this experience now behind him, will Tourniaire still suffer stage fright on the big night at Al Ain? "Oh yes, I always get stage fright and not just before a premiere. The most nerve-racking part of the job is often when you meet the musicians for the first time. The musicians know the score, they are often very experienced and they're likely to be much more attentive and critical of your work than the public who for the most part come to be entertained.

"I'd say that a form of stage fright, before performances, encounters and premieres, is a form of sensibility and it's pretty much a permanent state of being for a conductor." Guillaume Tourniaire will conduct La Finta Giardiniera at Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain on March 12 and 13. Tickets: or call 800 4669.

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