It’s difficult to find your way round the corridors of Maison de la Radio, but after some convoluted twists and turns, I finally arrive at her dressing room: “Sofi Jeannin, Music Director of the Maîtrise de Radio France.” She answers my knock on the door straight away, impeccably punctual, with an authentic smile on her face, despite some bad news which has arrived that morning; a soloist is unwell, has lost their voice and will have to cancel tomorrow’s concert. “We’ll find a solution” she says, with a shrug. For Sofi Jeannin, this isn’t the first time. You don’t juggle a position at Radio France with another at BBC Singers and invitations pretty much anywhere on the planet (she was in Tokyo 48 hours earlier, conducting the New Japan Philharmonic) if you can’t handle a challenge. The conductor hasn’t chosen an easy life: “a few years ago, I gave myself the challenge of not creating a public persona, of being the same person on the podium as I am at home. I want to be respected without having to speak loudly or change my accent!”, she exclaimed, making reference to Stokowski… at the same time as her melodious voice reveals her nordic origins.

Sofi Jeannin © Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz
Sofi Jeannin
© Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz

Born in Sweden 42 years ago, Sofi Jeannin has travelled through Europe on an unusual route, from Stockholm to London via the Conservatoire de Nice. Today she is an internationally renowned choirmaster and orchestral conductor, but she has always been humble about everything she does, impressed by what she had to learn. Starting with the French discipline of composition: “when I started my harmony classes at Nice, I was blown away by the expertise! My teacher had come from Olivier Messiaen’s class, he knew how to write in any style. As for me, I’d never been to a single music class in my life!” She’d come across stark differences in music education between Sweden and France. “In Sweden, there is very little composition. Instead, I learnt to sing in a group. The legacy of the great Swedish choirmaster Ericson remains in Sweden’s choirs. I had been surrounded by it since I was a child, everyone sings there! Whether they’re good or not is irrelevant. In France, I was a bit sad about the vocal and choral standard amongst school children. They don’t sing and are even afraid of singing…”

Paradoxically, the lack of choral culture in France was a driving force for her, as well as for her elders: “When I was a student, I saw what Bernard Têtu, Pierre Cao, Laurence Equilbey did… there was a desire to accomplish things, an excitement which was terrific!”. The word “terrific” comes up several times, a sign of her open enthusiasm; a key trait of the conductor. It was “terrific” to discover that she had borrowed the same score as Janet Baker and Gerald Finley from the library at the Royal College of Music, where she landed a few years later. It was here, in “the birthplace of English choral music” that she became more specialised and confident in her skills. “They accepted me as I was. No one tried to erase what I had already learnt and replace it with a different teaching or technique. It was a very competitive environment but no one was looking to intimidate me or put me off balance. Unfortunately, that’s something you come across in France. It’s as if you have to pass through fire to deserve being there. It’s not in the spirit of music… it’s changed since then, but before the tests to get into conducting at the Conservatoire de Paris… I know a lot of good conductors who would never have passed the preliminary rounds!” Sofi Jeannin was amongst many young French musicians who crossed the Channel for such reasons.

Jeannin completes her education under English specialists. The “remarkably generous” Paul Spicer, who was very thorough, from his technique and to the way he addressed the choir. He taught her the basics by testing her continuously: “You have fifteen minutes to put together A study of Gesualdo by Peter Warlock, where do you start?”. Neil Thompson, a professor of orchestral conducting, renowned for his skill in transforming his students: “I saw his students as they arrived and then what they became after a year or two. It was incredible. He was very encouraging, but you had to work hard, he was very demanding when it came to technique.” The last of this London trinity: David Willcocks, who marked her for life by the way he engaged with every moment: “He was a choir boy at Westminster Abbey when he was little. He lives and breathes choral music! He is a former director of the Royal College of Music and he inspired me with the way he was very hands-on and not afraid to get stuck in. If a student didn’t come to class, he would get in his car and knock on his door! The next day, the student’s teacher would receive a note in his mailbox from him. He was at every concert, every rehearsal… That level of engagement in teaching, kept up throughout his whole life… I think it’s just terrific.”

With such role models, it’s easier to understand why Sofi Jeannin refuses to give herself the airs of a diva. “I don’t like solitude. I love people, I love working with people. Maybe even more than music!” No need then to run from airport to airport or to the next invitation to conduct orchestras and choirs. “Going to one hotel room, then another, always jetlagged… it comes back to loneliness. It’s great to meet people, so it’s important to me to do a few “freelance” projects, with the New Japan Philharmonic, the National Choir of Ireland, the Swedish Radio Choir, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the start of next year… but I love coming back home to La Maîtrise!”

Sofi Jeannin conducting the Maîtrise de Radio France in the Maison de la Radio auditorium © Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz
Sofi Jeannin conducting the Maîtrise de Radio France in the Maison de la Radio auditorium
© Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz

She would love to travel with her choir. There is a project to start a children’s choir with the children from refugee camps, with El Sistema in Greece, where Sofi Jeannin has already been. “I haven’t done much. We have just tried to give some moments of normality to the children. They don’t go to school, they live in a unstable situation where there is no play time or friendship. Starting a music group, building something for good, without violence – you really see the difference it makes…” Anis Barnat, the founder of El Sistema Greece, is also a former administrator of the Maîtrise. “We really want to take the Maîtrise over there with him. Just so the children can meet other children who will just hold their hands and make music with them. I hope we can do it!”

Perhaps Sofi Jeannin is so sensitive about these situations because she too, to a certain extent, has experienced being uprooted. The expatriate who once sought out her musical route through Europe now wants to create links between people and cultures. That’s what she does when she goes to Kinshasa to work Poulenc and the Kimbanguiste Orchestra “where some instruments are held together with string”. She does not hide the political dimension of her work and supports doing public service: “We should reach audiences that do not know us. That’s what Bondy did on the outskirts of Paris where the Maîtrise has had a second site for ten years. It’s not an option: we have to do it, that’s why we’re here.”

We return to the mentor who went to knock on the doors of his absent students. There’s a bit of Willcocks in Sofi Jeannin: she has a fierce generosity, determined to overcome all obstacles and eliminate boundaries. Geographical ones as well as musical ones. “This year in England, I did a concert with an Indian dance company as part of a programme of Lully and Rameau. The grace of these two styles and the measured movements responding to precise formulae on both sides was a great match!” Another example, from Radio France; “We did a concert with Rone with an electronic musician where the Maîtrise sung works by Britten… that was a real discovery for both sides!” However, Sofi Jeannin hasn’t forgot the duties of Radio France: “I have a responsibility to continue the tradition of new work and meet the demands of being an institution. If the Maîtrise stop singing Xenakis or Messiaen, then there are not many others who will sing them in our place… and we have a duty with very demanding contemporary compositions also. It’s an opportunity but also a responsibility.”

Sofi Jeannin © Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz
Sofi Jeannin
© Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz

She makes the remark without severity, as a leader accustomed to having authority. As the first woman to be at the head at BBC singers, she must surely have suffered a large dose of sexist comments, before arriving where she has, like most of her female counterparts. She elaborates: “During my studies, it was never a problem. It was during my first experience as a professional that I realised it was difficult to be a female conductor. For some, the word authority is synonymous with a gentleman of a certain age. I have never thought like that! There’s still a lot of work to do… but it’s changing a lot at the moment.” The proof? She remembered that recently, on France Musique, there was a report on the Maîtrise and they spoke to some young singers. Over the microphone, one choral singer revealed her desire to become a conductor. The journalist asked: “do you think that’s harder for a woman to do than for a man?” The girl shrugs her shoulders: “I don’t see why! Sofi Jeannin does it just fine!” In a few years, perhaps this young choral singer will be on her way to the Royal College of Music, and there she’ll find Janet Baker and Sofi Jeannin’s names on a score from the library. Now that would be “terrific”.


This article was translated into English by Melanie Webb