An instrumentalist, conductor and composer, Québec musician Mathieu Lussier is also a master juggler.
In one hand is the elongated double-reed woodwind instrument known as the bassoon. In the other is a baton, which he uses to conduct one of Canada’s most preeminent string ensembles, Les Violons du Roy. Then there is a pen, which the 41-year-old uses to compose works primarily for the bassoon.
About to lead Les Violons du Roy to Penticton Wednesday, Nov. 19, Lussier said it may be unusual for a bassoonist to direct a string ensemble, but for him it’s old hand.
He has been the bassoon player for Les Violons since 1998 and before that played for several years with Orchestre Baroque de Montréal, which he said trained him to play the bassoon with string instruments.
“It helped in imitating their bowings, shaping the lines the same way, so even though I am not a string player, I have a good idea of the sound I want to have,” said Lussier.
Not the only bassoonist to take up the baton (Lussier cites French baroque conductor Marc Minkovski, as well as Canadians Jesse Read and Richard Hoenich as colleagues), Lussier first started conducting in 2008 and was first invited to conduct les Violons du Roy in 2012. Soon after, he became the ensemble’s conductor in residence and this past summer, his title changed to associate conductor. Since then, his time has been shared between conducting and playing.
“It is challenging but also really important to me to be able to do both,” said Lussier. “Playing in the group, producing sound, energy together, aiming all for a same goal is a thrilling sensation. Initiating it, shaping it, sculpting it is just magic: two very different sensations but they are linked.”
Lussier’s conducting style is not to be over directive. He’d rather explain what he wants and ask for input rather than impose a solution that might not be the best one for the group.
“The best results are achieved when everyone is in the mood to give their best,” he said.
As for his other talent, Lussier calls composing a sideline.
“I do it for fun, or when I get commissions. I write two-to-three pieces a year. I like to vary my activities but performing/conducting is really the core, the centre of what I do.”
With Les Violons du Roy, Lussier and the players continue to explore the baroque repertoire as well as music from the late-18th and 19th centuries. Despite the fact the orchestra does not wear the wigs or costumes of the day, Lussier said the feeling instilled by the music (love, despair, passion) continues to engage the imagination.
“There is a sense of eternity, of grandeur, in that music and somehow, it is something we, secretly or not, all aspire to,” he said. “Baroque music was meant to be received immediately, with a lot of impact, contrast, moods. No need to have previous preparation. Baroque means contrast, bizarre even. So I think today audiences still respond to this.”
This fall has been a busy one for the orchestra. Members just came back from Europe, where they toured with French pianist Alexandre Tharaud and British conductor Jonathan Cohen.
“It was a blast despite the very challenging schedule,” said Lussier, adding the orchestra played five back-to-back concerts for a total of 10. “In a way, this tour has also prepared us well for this coming one since we will do two stretches of four concerts in a row. We normally don’t do that much without a break.”
This wasn’t Les Violons first visit to Europe this year. In January, they reunited with mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, whom they have worked with three times prior, and performed with the Berlin Philharmonic.
“(Kozena) throws herself in the music at the moment she sings and this is very inspiring coming from such an established artist,” said Lussier. “Having (Berlin Philharmonic’s artistic director) Sir Simon Rattle in the audience as well as members of this fantastic orchestra, getting applause after the minuet of a Haydn symphony, was some kind of a reconnaissance, like being for one night at the top of the world.”
After its current tour of western Canada, les Violons will perform Messiah, a signature work of its founder Bernard Labadie, with Trevor Pinnock.
“We are looking forward to this. We will also welcome several new guest conductors this season, Raphaël Pichon, Jean-Christophe Spinosi and Reinhard Goebel. We also have a great tour in the U.S. in March with fantastic pianist Marc-André Hamelin, with works by Haydn and Mozart. I will have the opportunity to conduct this tour as well,” said Lussier.
Some of that music will be making its way to recordings.
“The European tour we did was a continuation of the Alexandre Tharaud CD and the March U.S. tour will be linked to the Hyperion release with Hamelin,” said Lussier.
For this tour, the orchestra is performing without a big wind section, mainly for financial and logistical reasons, and will perform music from the romantic period, with horn soloist Louis-Philippe Marsolais, of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, playing Haydn and Schumann. The 15 string players will perform Mendelssohn’s String Symphony in B minor and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.
“It’s a new arrangement I made, more appropriate to the kind of ensemble we are,” said Lussier. “Romantic music is very close to the musicians heart. It is a beautiful program and I am sure the audience will feel how much passion and care for details we put in this music.”