Tortelier to explore ‘mécanisme’ of music at the Usher Hall with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Conducting is like being a detective,” says the 72-year-old French maestro Yan Pascal Tortelier as we converse over the early evening din of a lively Reykjavik hotel bar. He’s just finished a rehearsal with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, where, as outgoing chief conductor, he has dissected with scrupulous incisiveness the following night’s programme of Sibelius, Ravel, Bizet and Thorvaldsdottir.

Yan Pascal Tortelier
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Twenty-four hours later, he’s on the podium at the orchestra’s ultra-modern Harpa Hall, where the evidence of Tortelier’s rapport with his Icelandic musicians unfolds before a packed audience. The playing is warm and fruity. The ebullient Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a pianist whose physical flamboyance requires more air space around him than most, strikes up a brilliantly pumped-up version of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand.

Tortelier’s forensic restructuring of selected numbers from Suites 1 & 2 of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne espouses inexorable logic; the microscopic sound world of Aireality, by contemporary Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, dissipates ethereal magic within the hall’s burnished acoustics; Sibelius’ First Symphony is raw Nordic granite with a hint of garlic seasoning.

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These are works that will feature in the orchestra’s Edinburgh concert in a couple of weeks’ time (Yeol Eum Son replacing Bavouzet in the Ravel), which is the final leg in its first ever UK tour, opening in Nottingham this week, and part of this year’s ISO 70th birthday celebrations. It also prefaces this summer’s handover of directorship from Tortelier, who has stayed on this season in an interim capacity, to its first ever female chief conductor and artistic director, Eva Ollikainen, who takes over in September.

Meanwhile, the Frenchman expands on his detective analogy. What he’s getting at is the rigorous French musical education he received from the age of four, encouraged by his world-famous father, the cellist Paul Tortelier, which enabled him to master scores at the drop of a hat, and to nurture an intuitive understanding of “le mécanisme” underpinning the written page.

Tortelier first made musical headlines as a violinist, winning honours at the Paris Conservatoire aged just 14. But it was the insistence by his father that he should master, early on, the French art of solfège (a version of sol-fa that hones sight reading prowess in every conceivable clef), and take harmony lessons from the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger (teacher of Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, even Quincy Jones among others), that instilled in him a desire to explore music’s inner workings.

“Yes, of course you have to have feelings as a conductor, but that’s not enough,” he argues. “You have to confront these against the ‘mécanisme’ of music, in order to check you are not going wrong. You like to be comforted in your musical feelings and the best way to comfort yourself is to find, not the truth – because who can pretend he has got the truth? – but the evidence.”

Tortelier, though, has the added advantage of extensive experience – almost 60 years as a practising musician, most of these as chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra (1989-92), BBC Philharmonic (1992-2003), Sao Paulo Symphony (2009-11) and Iceland Symphony (2016-19) and as principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (2005-08), among countless other guest appearances.

Scotland hasn’t featured so prominently in his career. “I played with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra many years ago on several of its Highland Tours and conducted the RSNO on a few occasions,”he says. He also teamed up with Scottish Opera in the 1990s for Mozart’s Seraglio, and last year conducted the BBC SSO. “This is a treat to be coming back,” he says.

As Tortelier prepares to depart, a new ISO team is emerging. For alongside Ollikainen, and already in place, is new managing director Lára Sóley Jóhannsdóttir. She’ll be working with Ollikainen to broaden the orchestra’s reach around all of Iceland, but also capitalise on its current international presence.

“This anniversary year has encouraged us to visit Austria and Germany [last November] and now Britain,” says Jóhannsdóttir. “I was so surprised to hear we had never toured there before, yet so many Icelandic musicians studied there. This is such an important change for us. Agents are now actively seeking us out.”

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For the out-going Tortelier, the world is also his oyster, even at 72. “Retirement is out of the question,” he insists. “I guess I’ll be doing my usual visits to different places around the world. Music has been my whole life. Without it I would be finished.” Ken Walton

Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on 16 February at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh,