Interview of the conductor Christophe Rousset

At the head of the ensemble “Les Talens Lyrique” for thirty years, the harpsichordist and conductor Christophe Rousset supports the French and Italian baroque repertoire, sheds light on little-known composers, and sets up ambitious cultural initiatives dedicated to secondary school students. Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset are partners of the Societe Generale corporate foundation since 2019. Interview.


How did Les Talens Lyrique evolve through the last 30 years?

Not so much, except for the form of the concerts, the fame, the audience! Les Talens Lyriques kept the same base: we started with Neapolitan tunes, and we opened season 2020/21 at La Scala in Milan with La Calisto (1651), an Italian opera by Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676). The focus on a “French-Italian” baroque line is still here! Of course, when we began with cantatas and small motets, I didn’t imagine that one day, we would have the means to stage operas by Gluck, Salieri, Rameau. On this path were some surprises: Gounod’s Faust, some Saint-Saëns, the three records Tragédiennes with Véronique Gens… but when this happens to you, you can’t resist!

How important it is for Les Talens Lyrique to play at La Scala?

La Scala of Milan, a mythical opera venue for the whole world, welcomes very few concerts of baroque music played on period instruments. I will start there as a conductor at La Scala. It is both an incredible privilege and an immense honour. La Calisto is a beautiful work that tackles very contemporary subjects, even though it has been composed in 1651: sexual violence, abuse, infidelity. For this program, we put together a beautiful vocal casting up to the standards of this prestigious theatre and of the demanding public of Milan.

Education has always been crucial in the history of Les Talens Lyriques. Why?

I love to teach, both at the Conservatoire de Paris and during academies in European musical institutions. I like passing down my skill. The idea of sharing music with secondary school students came to me when we were backed into a corner without any rehearsal rooms. I offered the municipality of Paris a deal: the rehearsals of Les Talens Lyriques are interesting, they can bring beauty to a gymnasium or a school that may lack it! The students quickly took hold of the thing, as well as the teachers of music, history, French, and the parents. It was extremely touching.

Why did you create the T@lenschool application?

To solve a problem: the practice of music has a phase that is difficult, off-putting, there is nothing to be done about it! Nowadays, it seems important to spend as little time learning as possible: how make music accessible without musical practice? We recorded the sound of the orchestra in separate tracks, and we’re offering it in the application. Half of the public doesn’t understand how an orchestra works, and doesn’t realize what a basso continuo, a viola, or a lute can do. The three applications that we created are available for free. They are very intuitive, and can even be used in workshops with non-French speaking students. One of them gives the opportunity to play the harpsichord “like Christophe Rousset”! You can get to grips with the gestures, even on a tablet.

Giving a chance to connect with beauty is never pointless

Christophe Rousset, founder and conductor of the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques

Why are these cultural initiatives important?

What the employees from Societe Generale can experience with the “Playing for Philharmonie” project, we felt with the secondary school students. At first, there is some opposition, but at the end of the day, music brings peace. I could notice how it stimulates togetherness in a collective dealing with security issues. It was during a dance workshop revolving around Alcina. A choreographer was coming to dance a minuet with one of the students. We saw the teenager come, obviously nervous, bumping into the others. As soon as the music started, they started to dance. It was very strong… I started to dance with them! Afterwards, they go on YouTube to listen to “stuff” and tell me, “I’m not ashamed to say that I like classical music anymore.” My goal is not to turn them into musicians, or even into music lovers, but to allow them to connect with beauty. It is never pointless.

What does the support of the Societe Generale corporate foundation bring?

We are very proud to have the Societe Generale corporate foundation by our side. The economy of The Talens Lyriques is fragile as soon as we step out of the institutions. We often lack the funds to go to big festivals. Thanks to the musical patronage of the Societe Generale corporate foundation, we will now be able to do it. This patronage applies to the totality of our activities, to bring more diversity to the production. I want to keep my “baroque researcher”, defender of hopeless cases label! Remember our work on Lully. People were saying about him, “He’s boring.” I always thought, “He’s a genius.” And our recording of Alceste was nominated at the Grammy Awards!