By Jack Zimmerman
Lionel Bringuier is only 30 years old, but he has a decade and a half of conducting experience that he will bring to the podium on July 11, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra begins its 82nd annual residency at the festival. “I grew up in Nice, and my parents loved music,” he says, recalling his formative years as the youngest of four children. “My whole family and I used to go to concerts together. I was always amazed at seeing an entire orchestra onstage.”
Bringuier began cello and piano studies at age 5, and at 13 he entered the Paris Conservatory in the cello class of Philippe Muller. Among the conservatory’s many offerings was an introductory conducting class. “I always loved the orchestra and I loved to play in the orchestra. I love to share music with musicians. So I took some conducting lessons and auditioned for the class. The audition was with two pianos, but the following week we had the full orchestra. My very first piece was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I gave the downbeat and there was a full chord and 50 musicians were playing Beethoven! I’ll always remember that moment. I was 14. It was October of 2000.”
Four years later he graduated cum laude from the conservatory in both cello and conducting. “I got my first job as an assistant conductor with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. It was wonderful for me to be part of the daily life of an orchestra.” And his life has continued to be intertwined with orchestras ever since. In 2007, he became associate conductor of the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne, and that same year Esa-Pekka Salonen appointed him assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. From 2009 to 2012, Bringuier was music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León in Valladolid, Spain. Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchester named him music director beginning with its 2014–15 season.
“Things went very smoothly for me,” he laughs, looking back at his swift ascent in an extremely competitive profession. “I spent six years with the LA Philharmonic, and I still go back there as a guest conductor. This year we are celebrating 10 years of working together! I really love to work in the US. Even though I was born in Nice and I’m European, part of my training was here in the States. I feel very close to this country.”
Bringuier’s Ravinia program consists of two masterworks: Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1—Yuja Wang, a frequent collaborator of his and an alumna of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, as well as the reigning Musical America Artist of the Year, is the soloist—and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Both works have a closely held familiarity. “The Brahms was one of the first pieces I ever heard. My parents always loved it. I remember my family driving to Paris to see my grandmother—an eight-hour drive! In the car, we’d listen to Brahms’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 with Emil Gilels. I must have heard it a thousand times, but I’m never, ever bored with it! It’s quite unusual with a first movement of 25 minutes. What I love [is that] it’s much like a symphony, very orchestral. You need a good soloist and you need a good orchestra. You can imagine how happy I am to do it this summer with the CSO and Yuja. This will be my first time at Ravinia and my first time with the Chicago Symphony. I’m incredibly excited. It’s a dream come true.”
For many years, Pictures at an Exhibition was practically the theme song of the CSO, with recordings by such conducting giants as Reiner, Kubelik, Giulini, Solti, and Ozawa. Despite his youth, Bringuier has considerable experience with the stalwart. “I did this piece [Pictures] with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom. I did this piece in LA at the Hollywood Bowl, and I’ve done it a lot in Europe. It’s a piece that orchestras are always happy to play. It is full of color and this wonderful mixture of Russian and French sounds. I can feel within me the Russian core of the piece, the Russian sound. And at some very delicate moments, through the orchestration of Ravel, the French colors and the French transparency become evident. For me it is always important to find the right balance between the two.”
Bringuier’s mother and father will be in attendance for the young maestro’s Ravinia debut. “My parents love music,” he reiterates. “They are completely passionate about music!”
And, obviously, so is their son.
Jack Zimmerman is a Chicago writer who has spent his life in music.