When interviewing classical musicians, I often open with a deliberately undemanding gambit, and ask about the repertoire to be performed at a coming concert. Such queries serve as a ready-made icebreaker, an opportunity for my interlocutor to start on familiar territory. They can discuss something they know and love, and I can judge their tone, enthusiasm and linguistic flair for the conversation ahead.
But unless my interviewee offers some revelatory insight into a composer or their works, these opening remarks rarely make their way into my final piece.
This approach was flipped on its head the day I called Pascal Gallet. The famed French pianist is a world-class virtuoso, known for his brave interpretations of challenging contemporary compositions. He is the only person on the planet to have recorded the complete piano works of atonally inclined 20th century maverick Andre Jolivet. Once championed by renowned composer Olivier Messiaen, Gallet's latest release, the misleadingly named A Road to Europe, is a collection of modern Chinese chamber music.
This already makes for a more engaging introductory spiel than the average Bach scholar or Chopin specialist. But Gallet recently made a startling about-face when he revealed a new concert programme built around the perpetual scourge of highbrow classical communities – film music. And after debuting the cycle over three performances in his native Paris, Gallet is bringing the show to the UAE – arriving at the Alliance Francaise Dubai's theatre on October 24 to perform the hummable theme music to Titanic, Inception and Shrek. It's an inclusive stunt sure to enrage certain segments of the notoriously snobbish classical establishment.
"For me it's not a problem," says Gallet with the theatrical flourish of someone who turned 50 just days before we speak, and has decided things need to change. "I am a specialist in contemporary music, I am specialist in Romantic music – I have played many, many concerts in many different countries – and now I want to try to do something new.
“Because sometimes the classical recital is cold – very cold – and our jobs as classical musicians is to touch a different public. It’s so, so important.”
After opening with some undefined Bach, Gallet's Dubai programme dives into Leonard Cohen's cover-friendly staple Hallelujah – because, he tells me, it's in Shrek – before moving on to Baby Alone in Babylone, written by Serge Gainsbourg for ex-partner Jane Birkin. "It's a Brahms symphony," yells Gallet when I query the piece, loudly humming the theme with blissful abandon. He's right, Google later confirms – Gainsbourg's work is based on the third movement of Brahms's third symphony. So there.
From here, Gallet teases his audience with some Chopin and – yes – Brahms, before a "Walt Disney surprise" he fails to elucidate on. Next comes Playing Love from The Legend of 1900, scored by Oscar-winning film music legend Ennio Morricone, before some sore-thumbed Debussy Preludes.
And that's just the first half – rather than a tidy ice breaker, talking about Gallet's brazen programming inevitably became the main event. "My programme is very elective, because I feel it's so important right now to mix the repertoire, to touch a bigger public – many people know John Williams' Star Wars, and many people know Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin," he adds. "This programme is a little bit pedagogic."
It's fitting that Gallet is something of an educator, a long-term broadcaster on French radio. But instructive or otherwise, the evening's second half is even more brashly commercial, showcasing music from modern blockbusters La La Land (Justin Hurwitz), Twilight (Carter Burwell), Pirates of the Caribbean (Klaus Badelt) and Inception (Hans Zimmer), alongside classics from Titanic (James Horner), The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Vladimir Cosma) and Dances with Wolves (by none other than John Barry – who scored 11 Bond films and first performed the timeless 007 theme).
Naturally, Gallet still finds space to sandwich in works by Mozart and Beethoven. I can’t help but ask if all this film music carries the same weight as those masters – if there’s any chance we’ll be listening to Hollywood soundtracks hundreds of years from now. Gallet dodges the question – more than once – instead emphasising the egalitarian seriousness with which he approaches the repertoire. “When I play classical and movie music themes, it’s the same concentration, the same difficulty,” he says. “For me the most important thing is the quality – whether I’m playing Bach, Mozart and Chopin, or John Williams, Vladimir Cosma and Leonard Cohen. When I am on the piano it’s the same energy, the same determination to play well and give my passion to the public, and there is no difference.”
Eventually, our eccentric conversation moves to Messiaen, the heavyweight French composer known as one of the 20th century's most important voices. Prior to his death in 1992, Messiaen endorsed Gallet by dedicating two excerpts from his Catalogue d'oiseaux to the young pianist – after we speak, Gallet proudly sends me a photo of one of these handwritten dedications via WhatsApp, as if to validate this unlikely claim to fame.
It was unnecessary – Messiaen's second wife and former student Yvonne Loriod would serve as Gallet's tutor. He recalls staying in their home as a teenager, the pair crowding him at the piano to critique his reading of Messiaen's masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jesus. "They were like my parents," he remembers. "There was a lesson with Olivier Messiaen on my right and Yvonne Loriod on my left – and Olivier said: 'Pascal, you must play more strong – more strong,' and Yvonne says: 'No, no, no – please Pascal, control your quality about the sound'. I will never forget this my whole life."
Messiaen's blessing helped ensure Gallet's growing renown, and in the mid-2000s the pianist embarked on his greatest achievement to date, an intense five-year project to record all of Jolivet's piano works over three volumes – including a final instalment capturing a rare live performance of the composer's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1951) alongside the Duisburg Philharmonic. It is the only CD recording of the work I could find in print today. "Because it's hard, it's too hard," he barks in explanation. His dream, Gallet says, is to bring the concerto to fans in China – where he will return for a third time this year only two days after playing Dubai. "There would be a big success about that," he adds, "big, big, big."
Later he sends me a video of his 2009 performance of the concerto in Brazil – a dense, demanding onslaught, which makes it clear Gallet was not overselling his achievements. His passion for the meaty and highbrow shines as brightly as his virtuosity – which just makes his swerve into film music all the more perplexing.
Before hanging the phone up, I brashly ask what he thinks his former mentor Messiaen would make of his latest career move. "For him, it would no problem," he answers. "It all depends on the quality. When I play Hans Zimmer, John Williams – when you listen to Star Wars or ET – it's amazing music. It's like Bruckner or a Mahler symphony," Gallet continues, pausing to enthusiastically hum the Star Wars theme in a peculiarly Mahlerian manner.
“A few years ago we thought about movie music as a second art, not very important, but now … I think now the future of music is in movie themes – maybe, maybe – and that’s the reason I put this movie music in my recital,” he adds, closing the debate for good.
Pascal Gallet will perform at Theatre Alliance Francaise Dubai, Oud Metha, on Wednesday, October 24 at 8pm. Tickets for non-members cost Dh120. For more information go to www.afdubai.org/concertpascalgallet