Artie’s is not what you would call a typical classical chamber group. For a start, there is no consistent line-up or instrumental configuration to this French ensemble – in concert, you might catch between two and 10 musicians on stage.
And this loose collective – or as they prefer to call it, “famille” – of soloists prioritises moving away from the established and well-paying concert halls of Europe to perform in far-flung corners of the globe, while also advertising their services to perform in “your living room”.
Naturally, the musicians exercise a similarly daring approach to their art, overturning tired norms and ploughing the classical repertoire for fresh material, musical juxtapositions and surfaces. In short, Artie’s is the conceptual antithesis of snobby classical stereotypes.
Tomorrow, three of the group’s core members will perform at Dubai’s One&Only Royal Mirage, a commemorative concert, contrasting the tonal textures of strings, woodwind and keys, presented by Alliance Francaise Dubai as part of the World Classical Music Series.
Making their UAE debut as Artie’s Trio, the ensemble will star Olivier Patey, the principal clarinettist with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, alongside celebrated pianist Emmanuel Christien, and the group’s founder and cellist, Gauthier Herrmann.
The concert might be timed to mark the continuing celebrations for International Francophonie Day, which was yesterday, but for the musicians it also chimes viscerally close to the date of their first concert together as Artie's, 10 years and 16 days earlier.
It could easily have been a one-off engagement. As a hotly tipped, award-winning young soloist, Herrmann was invited to host a musical festival across five cities in India. Shortly after the first concert, in Mumbai on March 6, 2008, he decided to bottle the same ethos he established with Artie’s Festival India and take it out into the world.
“The idea was, ‘OK, we will create this and we will keep some of these ideas forever’,” says Herrmann, 36.
The first principle was not just to perform simply as a trio, quartet, or any other conventional configuration, but to establish a loose, free-flowing base, fit for expansion and contraction according to the occasion and repertoire.
The second was to play in diverse, novel locations, cities starved of or unfamiliar with western classical music traditions. The third was to welcome a rolling catwalk of collaborators to the stage, deliberately including musicians of different backgrounds and sensibilities.
“I would say the first thing is, it’s quite a selfish project,” says Herrmann humbly. “We want to discover the international world. When we go to play the typical places – London, Berlin, Paris, Madrid – it’s very familiar to us and it’s always the same.
“We know the venues, they’re all the same, the people – we know they’re educated, a little bit wealthy – and we don’t want to play just to them. We always say music is universal, but when you do these kinds of concerts, you really understand why.”
Over the past decade, Artie’s Festival India has taken place twice every year. From Dubai, the musicians will travel to celebrate the 21st event with concerts in Pune and Mumbai this month, while the globetrotting, outreach concept has extended to tours of Asia and Europe. So far, Artie’s has clocked close to 500 concerts, to about 40,000 people, in locales from Bahrain to Beijing and Singapore to Switzerland.
The wanderlust will reach its apogee with a planned “Around the World in 80 Concerts” concept, which is expected to take the group to perform in 40 cities on five continents in 2020. First, they will be back in the region in April for concerts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and a private engagement in Dubai.
“Most of us play in the main orchestras [in Europe], but we all realised after 10 years playing the big venues and cities that one of the most exciting things as a musician is to travel,” Herrmann says. “What is most fun is to go to a country where western classical music is not so familiar. Like I said, it’s a bit selfish, but hopefully everyone benefits.”
The open-door policy means as many as 20 musicians might perform as part of Artie’s over the course of an annual concert season, with players aged anywhere between 18 and 70.
Yet the group is not lacking in foundations. The trio who will perform in Dubai are musicians who have been part of Artie’s since the beginning. Born within four months of each other, Herrmann, Christien and Patey met as colleagues and contemporaries studying at the Conservatoire de Paris and have been playing together ever since.
To Dubai they will bring the familiar and the fresh, presenting Beethoven's uncharacteristically whimsical early Piano Trio (opus 11), a piece Herrmann reckons they must have played 1,000 times, alongside Brahms' Clarinet Trio in A Minor (opus 114), which the ensemble has never performed.
"It's something we wanted to play for a long time and we're really happy to share it for the first time in Dubai," Herrmann says.
“When Brahms was not 100 per cent satisfied with a piece it was destroyed, so every single note he left behind is absolutely perfect. What is very clever is the way he wrote for woodwind and strings. In my opinion, he is the one who most clearly achieved that magic fusion between the clarinet and the cello.”
That clash between the known and the novel is equally evident in Artie’s diverse discography. In 2011 the spin-off Artie’s Records was established, allowing the group’s musicians and associates to pursue projects of passion.
Alongside typical collections of Mozart chamber works are albums such as The Ear of Proust, a "four-handed" cycle by pianists Anne-Lise Gastaldi and David Saudubray evoking the salon music the writer adored so much, and Bestiaire, a programme of French songs inspired by animals, based on poems by literary greats including Hugo and Baudelaire, and sung by soprano Sabine Revault d'Allonnes alongside pianist Stephanie Humeau. It will be released on March 30.
But to Herrmann’s ears it is neither the repertoire Artie’s presents, nor how they present it, that sets its players apart. Asked what makes the group he founded special, he doesn’t miss a beat before replying.
“Energy,” Herrmann says. “All the musicians performing in Artie’s are, not to boast, part of the best orchestras and international groups in the world. But this project is a question of love.
“There are many good musicians in the world but when we perform we really take care of the audience. Whoever we’re playing for and whatever is in front of us, we always bring 1,000 per cent in terms of energy. It’s never boring. Well, that’s what I think – you can tell me otherwise on March 22 in Dubai.”
Artie’s Trio perform at One&Only Royal Mirage, Dubai, Thursday, at 8pm. Tickets from Dh210 on http://platinumlist.ae