Emmanuel Villaume is a highly accomplished, internationally-known conductor with a track record of Spoletos that dates back to 1990. A far cry from the stereotypical baton-waver, he's not stern or stuffy. Instead, he enjoys his work and hopes that rubs off on his audiences; he doesn't just want them to appreciate a concert, he wants them to take pleasure in the experience as well.
That makes him the perfect candidate to add flair to this year's most accessible musical threesome at the Sottile, and his reputation has helped draw enough box office interest to warrant a double helping of the classical pick'n'mix. That means two nights of excerpts from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (opening the concert with the gentle Prelude and Liebestod), Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 (the climactic closer).
All three pieces are well within the talents of Villaume and the Festival Orchestra, so why does the Maestro find Beethoven scary?
"He's terrifying," says Villaume in his smooth French accent. "His work is very fine for any musician to play, but you always feel you're missing one dimension. His writing is absolutely perfect in its intellectual portion. When you interpret it, to achieve that perfection you almost have to make a pact with the devil."
Villaume believes this fear factor helps add an edge to all of Beethoven's piano concerts and symphonies, including the 5th. "With its structure and climactic content, it has a most striking and innate energy within itself that corresponds to the Festival Orchestra's own vitality."
Villaume certainly has no concerns about the younger musicians' aptness for the task. "There's a commitment that the young orchestra can bring that sometimes you don't find in older musicians," he says. "With a symphony orchestra that's played it so many times, there's a resistance to approaching it in a fresh way. Our musicians are full of faith."
Good ol' Symphony No. 5 will be in good company. Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod captures the aching pangs that are love's downside. Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette "Love Scene" cranks up the passion before Beethoven's music packs a final, dramatic wallop.
The three pieces haven't been thrown together willy-nilly. "Berlioz influenced Wagner much more than he'd like to admit." Villaume cites the great influence of Romeo et Juliette on Tristan und Isolde. "And Berlioz was influenced by Beethoven. The genealogy of the music that's been put together is fascinating." Thus the works will share thematic links and echo other Spoleto concerts. "They'll remind audience members of things they've just seen a few days before."
On top of that will be the familiarity of the pieces themselves. Villaume's taking steps to keep the music relevant for jaded attendees.
"We're taking a stylistic approach that will be very well thought out. I'm from a generation that's interested in research and also the spiritual and more emotional content of music. I'm very moved by some interpretations of Beethoven's symphonies. We're trying to reconstruct all that, keeping the piece alive with all of its philosophical and metaphysical impact. Balancing all these implications is hard to achieve."
If anyone's up to the job, it's Emmanuel Villaume.
VILLAUME: WAGNER/BEETHOVEN/BERLIOZ • Spoleto Festival USA • June 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. • $35-$60 • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. • 579-3100