Alexandre Bloch has been Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lille since the start of the 2016–17 season. He has been highly praised in French repertoire, his Ravel “polished and graceful”, his Bizet full of “heady lyricism”. Next Winter, he takes them on five-city tour to the United Kingdom to perform Debussy and Ravel, along with Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, collaborating with Eric Lu. We caught up with the French maestro to talk about his orchestra, the tour and concert performances of opera.

Alexandre Bloch © Ugo Ponte | OnL
Alexandre Bloch
© Ugo Ponte | OnL

What are the qualities of your Lille orchestra? Describe its typical sound/ characteristics.

The musicians of the Orchestre National de Lille are always very dedicated, enthusiastic, warm and welcoming. It’s a great pleasure for me to work with them as every concert is 200% high on energy. Every single musician is at a high artistic and technical level. Since I arrived, we have begun building our signature sound based on clarity, precision and balance. I am very happy our Mahler cycle thus far has been streamed, as I think it demonstrates a very high quality, up to the level of the big international orchestras.

Why did you select this repertoire for when you bring the orchestra on tour to the United Kingdom next season?

It has become quite important to us to make a UK tour in the face of the current Brexit question. I am happy that the Orchestre National de Lille will be the only French orchestra to tour in the UK during this period and, of course, it is important for us to bring our own culture, especially French music from the beginning of the 20th century, in which the orchestra excels.

The Beethoven is a chance for us to be able to tour with Eric Lu, who won the Leeds Piano Competition, and it will be our privilege to perform the Fourth Piano Concerto with him. This French repertoire – Debussy’s La Mer, Iberia and Ravel’s La Valse – is repertoire that I have conducted a lot in the UK with British orchestras, like the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, but also the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, so it was important for me to come with a band that shares my same musical culture, not to show to the English how it is supposed to be done, but to show what French musicians can bring to this music. I think it will be interesting for English audiences to hear what we have to say.

What differences should audiences listen out for when hearing a French orchestra play Ravel or Debussy?

The Orchestre National de Lille © Ugo Ponte | OnL
The Orchestre National de Lille
© Ugo Ponte | OnL

It depends on the orchestra, but what I have felt so far, conducting Debussy’s music, is that when returning to a French orchestra it is always easier and faster to create the sound I want, which is for me very, very, very precise. I look for precision in everything, in rhythm and dynamics, but always in a fluctuant, floating tempo – never static – which also has the blurring effect of cloudy Impressionism. It is, of course, possible to do this with an English orchestra and I always try to manage this when I perform abroad. But with a French orchestra which is more used to this music, since it just sinks into their veins and blood, it is also easier to go on tour, from hall to hall, and quickly adapt to the new acoustics without losing this specific style.

Also, I have to say that the Orchestre National de Lille is used to touring, sharing our art, our culture and our music to the most people possible, so we are experienced in adapting to new acoustics. I think it is going to be a big pleasure for us to adapt each night but still perform in very great concert halls in the UK.

Have you had the chance to work with Eric Lu yet? When you conduct a concerto, how much does the soloist take the lead and how much should a conductor intervene?

I am very much looking forward to meeting Eric, and I am sure it will be a great collaboration. It helps if there is a natural rapport between soloist and conductor, so I usually like to hang out with the soloist and get to know him or her personally. When this is the case, and with great musicians, of which I am sure he is one, we always find our feet to who takes which role at which moment; sometimes it will definitely be him leading, but sometimes, because it is still a concerto, it will need my input to set up a stable tempo for some passages. It is an ever changing relationship. As conductors, we are always switching between active–passive, active–passive, but it’s a challenge I usually love in that concerto.

This summer, you are conducting that most French of operas – Carmen – in Lille, with animations by Grégoire Pont. How are you presenting it?

Alexandre Bloch takes a selfie with the Orchestre National de Lille © Ugo Ponte | OnL
Alexandre Bloch takes a selfie with the Orchestre National de Lille
© Ugo Ponte | OnL

Our new production of Carmen will be quite special, as there will be a lot of focus on the orchestra and the singers as it is a concert performance, but there will still be a lot of movement, as it is semi-staged. I have decided to add two more parameters: the first is animated drawings from Grégoire Pont, that will form the background of the stage; the second will be to collaborate with a very famous Belgian comedian, Alex Vizorek, who is going to share his view of the story in between the arias, so we won’t do any of the dialogues by Bizet, nor any of the recitatives by Guiraud.

You performed Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles in concert with the orchestra in 2017. Why do you enjoy presenting opera in concert format?

I love presenting opera in concert because it gives the audience much more focus on the music itself. The orchestra has a big role in opera, and with both singers and orchestra closer to me, there is a different tension than we can build in any opera house. It also helps us achieve more, musically and artistically, in our interpretations, because we have less to do in the staging.

Tell us about particular composers you’d love to champion with your Lille orchestra. Are there any particular works you would love to conduct with them?

I am already lucky to perform everything that I dreamed of so far: our Mahler cycle, Stravinsky’s three famous ballets Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring; and a lot of Ravel and Debussy. I am looking forward in the next few seasons to conduct more Bartók with them and also to explore the chamber orchestra side, playing more Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

This interview was sponsored by the Orchestre National de Lille.