Shadowy figures are incubated in an aquarium; later, a nine-metre crane emerges from the darkness. Such images wouldn’t seem out of place in an avant-garde opera. It’s more unusual, though, for them to crop up in Haydn’s 200-year-old oratorio The Creation, alongside the sounds of period instruments. That, however, is what happened last year, when Laurence Equilbey staged the work at Paris’s new concert hall, La Seine Musicale. Many people loved it, although some complained that the digitally spectacular conceits distracted from the polished sound of the Insula Orchestra.
Such is the way when Equilbey is in charge. The French conductor founded Insula in 2012, as a period instrument ensemble focusing mainly on late 18th- and early 19th-century repertoire. Since then she has made it her business to sidestep categorisation. Yes, she likes to enhance her performances with technological wizardry. Yes, La Seine Musicale, where Insula is now orchestra-in-residence, looks like a futuristic hybrid of beehive and space station. But Equilbey offers up the best in historically informed performance: energy, lightness, attention to detail — qualities that should be on display when she and her orchestra celebrate International Women’s Day with a performance at the Barbican in London in March.
Off the podium, Equilbey doesn’t flaunt her dynamism. When we meet at her chic apartment in Montmartre, she is self-contained, stubbornly guarding the personality behind her professional exterior. But one quality does leap out: a sense of steely focus. She seems to have devoted her life to music, without the distractions of a husband or children. Even as a girl, learning the flute and piano, she had a clear sense of where she was heading.
“Music for me was my secret garden,” she says in hesitant English. “So my parents put me into music school. Then I discovered conducting and I loved it.” Now, at 55, she has fully established herself as one of the few women conductors in France of international standing.
She studied in Paris, Vienna, London and Scandinavia, learning her trade from some of the best. Guidance from Claudio Abbado, for example, helped to give her a firm grounding in mainstream symphonic repertoire. And after founding the Accentus Chamber Choir in 1991, she became known, above all, as a conductor of choral music. So it was something of a surprise when, six years ago, she set herself up as the director of a period instrument ensemble.
“I studied a lot with Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Vienna,” she explains. “He was a pioneer of the period instrument performance movement, and I was very impressed with his Concentus Musicus Wien. I loved the flexibility and the balance you can achieve with old instruments. It is much easier to mix the colours of historical brass and woodwind, as you would in a painting, than it is with their modern equivalents. I think these kinds of sonorities are appropriate especially for music of the classical period.”
We have come a long way since the 1950s, when the early music revival took off. There are now several period instrument ensembles of a high standard and it takes a lot more than it once did to make an impact. But Equilbey insists that in fusing modernity with historically informed musical practice, Insula has landed on an illuminating formula.
“Soon we will play Beethoven’s fourth and fifth symphonies with a big orchestra, which some people may believe is not an authentic way of performing them. In fact, orchestras of the classical period could be almost the same size as ours; Haydn often put on The Creation with 200 musicians, so it’s important to do these projects to change people’s perception of what is historically correct.”
Yet it’s one thing to programme 18th- and 19th-century music with a large ensemble; quite another to turn it, as Equilbey does, into the kind of live spectacle you might expect at a pop concert.
“My feeling is that historical musical practice has a lot of relevance to our time — in its focus on rhythmic incisiveness, directness and transparency,” says Equilbey. “I want to underline that relevance.” Evidently, she has succeeded. Despite La Seine Musicale’s somewhat removed location, to the south-west of central Paris, she insists that “these kinds of technologically innovative projects have enlarged my audience.”
Is there a danger, though, that the music might disappear behind all the gadgetry and visual displays? “No,” comes her answer. “It should work like opera, in that you search for the resonance between what you see and what you hear.” She cites last year’s production of The Creation, a spectacle whose sheer visual novelty cut to the core of what Haydn’s work is about: the wonder of creating something new.
“When something works in this way, it feels like you are opening up a fresh angle on the work.” She continues: “You do not always want to be telling the same stories.”
This philosophy helps to explain why Equilbey peppers her programmes with neglected repertoire, particularly the work of female composers. When her troops celebrate International Women’s Day at the Barbican, they will perform the Third Symphony by the French 19th-century composer-pianist Louise Farrenc who, according to Equilbey, deserves much more acclaim.
“Her music is a beautiful mixture: Germanic in construction, more like Chopin in its melodic inspiration. But to be famous in her time you had to write operas, which she didn’t. And nowadays we are neglectful of the female heritage.”
Which clearly rankles with Equilbey, who has seen female colleagues — conductors and soloists alike — struggle to compete with male counterparts, at least in her own country. “Although we have more than 100 great women conductors in the world, in France the situation is difficult: opera is very closed [to women conductors], as are the great French orchestras.”
Period instrument ensembles are, by and large, known for being more open and Equilbey suggests that this might come down to the desire for authentic historical practice: “There were a lot more female instrumentalists in the Renaissance and the 17th century than there were after the rise of the bourgeoisie.” Even in this sphere, she says, a woman’s fight is a long one: “To arrive at my level, it was not so easy.”
Barbican Centre, London, March 8; barbican.org.uk
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published