Stéphane Tétreault will be in Peterborough February 2, 2019 to perform Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra at their Classical Roots concert at Showplace Performance Centre. On November 27, Susan Oliver had the opportunity to interview Stéphane on behalf of the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra. Below is a transcription of her interview.
As a musician…
Susan Oliver: As a musician you have been repeatedly described in a threefold manner. In no order, these are: mature, skillful and sensitive. My question is also threefold: 1. how do you feel that you came to possess this early maturity? 2. What has always been important to you as a musician beyond the technical – How did you develop your “musical personality?” 3. Is your musical sensitivity innate, or is it developed and what does that encompass?
Stéphane Tétreault: The maturity is in part innate, but also came about by being well surrounded and well supported. I was lucky to have parents that encouraged me to practice music, encouraged me in school and in tasks, without forcing. That is key, plus having a mentor [late cellist and conductor Yuli Turovsky] who I studied with at the age of nine. His teaching was focused on the technical development of the instrument but also the expression of emotion and how to build technique in order to express yourself and mature. Maturing came with practicing and thinking about what you wanted to do, finding a metaphor to describe the music.
Musical personality is intrinsically linked to people at an early age. For artists, like musicians or actors, he or she must have an old soul, have lived 30 lives. There is something to that; the talent is there, but without proper surroundings and support it is impossible to develop.
Expressing emotion was one of the most precious lessons from my mentor. At one point he was not satisfied with the way I was performing, everyone loved it, but he said “So I didn’t love it tonight, the emotion was trademark.” He told me that the music that night did not have anything to say, that you must play each note as if it were your last. It was a melodramatic, but valuable, lesson: it is an urgency that makes the music moving.
SO: In a 2014 article in La Scena Musicale you stated that “What I want is to be an international soloist.” You said that your career made an important gain when you received the Stradivarius, but you wanted to go even further, to “keep working on it.” You have had many projects and many awards since then. Where do you feel you are on your journey and what is the next part of your journey?
ST: It has always been my dream to go around the world with my cello on my back and play concerts and try to play for the greatest amount of people possible and to work with colleagues who are inspiring and a pleasure to work with every day; to work with different orchestras and different artists. There has been lots of interest in my career since 2012; receiving the Stradivarius was a boost and thereafter you have to keep working hard: making contacts, travelling, giving the best performance you can. I want to do more of that, abroad and in the States. I am very attached to Canada, but I want to reach the most people possible. Canada is a wonderful country and I will always have it as a home base. It is an honour to represent Canada on the different world stages.
To that cello… (known as the 1707 “Countess of Stainlein, Ex-Paganini” Stradivarius cello)
SO: You received the “Countess” in 2012, so have been in possession it for six years, and we know that it is considered one of the greatest cellos in the world, a beautifully preserved product of Antonio Stradivari and worth $6+ million, but tell me about the character of the instrument (how it plays, the sound, the consistency in voice, etc.).
ST: There is so much myth and legend that surrounds the Strad. It is a beautiful instrument that I learn from every day. It has its own soul; at some point they develop that, it has been in the hands of many great cellists. I am thankful that it is not temperamental. It’s very understanding, because it can be hard to get them to answer or react to temperature or humidity. It is not a difficult cello to play; the key is to get it to sound as naturally as possible. Its open rich tone projects really well in a hall, so there is no need to force out the sound; it sounds pretty, naturally. At 18 I would blame the instrument if I was playing badly, but my teacher always said it is never the instrument, always the student. Now I can’t blame the instrument.
SO: What does the cello mean to you?
ST: At the beginning it was a huge load to live up to the cello and the expectations, but those feelings have transformed into my feeling I am the luckiest boy in the world.
On the program: Classical Roots…
SO: Maestro Newnham describes Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme as one of the gems of the Romantic cello repertoire. It has been described as elegant, irrepressible, alternating between lively and graceful, brazen, and melancholy. But, Tchaikovsky was greatly inspired by Mozart. What did he bring to the work’s style/theme based on this inspiration?
ST: The title in of itself. When you hear the theme played you get the impression, not in Mozart’s time, in Tchaikovsky’s time. A rococo tapestry is extremely detailed, a rococo carving is defined, and that is translated itself to the music: phrases are shorter, they round up as a rococo detail would. Thereafter, as the variations progress, we get more and more into what Tchaikovsky’s voice was (still with a Classical influence): heart on sleeve, openly expressing emotion, extremely dramatic, touching, moving. Especially with the slower melancholic variations which are typically Tchaikovsky – it is further into that world.
SO: The piece is notable for its blazing speed and demand on the soloist as there is no break to allow the soloist to rest for a few moments. The soloist is also challenged by mostly having to play in the high register (using the thumb position). What do you see as the challenges of the work?
ST: It is definitely technically difficult. It is an amazing work and one of the challenges would be to express the emotion that exists in the score adequately in a performance while still being cognizant of the technical. Some people in the classical world believe it is a rather secondary work by Tchaikovsky compared to a concerto or his symphonic works. It is on a smaller scale, shorter, so sometimes there is the preconceived perception Rococo Variations is a “cute” piece, but if you delve deeper you can get to an emotional depth that can be almost as moving, touching, as transcending as his longer, considered greater works.
SO: The orchestra comes in with a somewhat brief introduction, and the solo cello states the simple, elegant theme. Is there a particular intention of this statement?
ST: Yes, I think it is to find the right balance between Mozart and Tchaikovsky; it is not easy. For me the most difficult part of the piece is the theme: simple, pure, but more difficult than fast technical pieces; finding the right balance, Classical to Romantic; respecting both styles, every phrase to the theme.
SO: Tchaikovsky wrote this piece for and with the help of Wilhelm Fitzenhagen and Fitzenhagen subsequently chose to alter the sequence of variations (the D minor variation which had been third in Tchaikovsky’s original order was switched with the seventh and an eighth variation dropped altogether). Tell me how far you go in interpreting the music.
ST: It is reported that he changed it without Tchaikovsky’s s knowledge – not kosher there – it was bold to completely re-order. The last variation is almost 80% chopped; he was convinced it would make it a better work. I agree with Fitzenhagen. I have played the original by Tchaikovsky, but I have been badly influenced in that it was too different to my ears. In retrospect, the emotional development in the Fitzenhagen version is more dramatic than the Tchaikovsky version. In Fitzenhagen’s version the third variation is last; in Tchaikovsky’s version it is at the beginning and there is not the same impact. There is a difference in emotional trajectory, interpretation. But maybe in 20 years I will change my mind.
SO: Tchaikovsky’s piece will be paired with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, which Brahms described as “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” How do the two works, work together?
ST: This a brilliant pairing of two great Romantic works. Tchaikovsky’s piece is short compared to Brahms’. Brahms’ is a huge adventure – heartbreaking. They do work well together given that Tchaikovsky’s is a huge celebration at the end – a compare and contrast.
On classical music…
SO: What do you want to convey to the audience, or those who are have not been to the symphony but are reading the article?
ST: It is important to try and attract the greatest amount of people to classical music; important to renew audiences; important not to forget the experienced concert goers, who are very precious as well. In any art form you are not sure if you are going to like it, and with classical music it is the same thing, so listen to it first on digital (Apple iTunes, Google Play). There is something magical that occurs and everyone should experience it in their lifetime, all should have the opportunity. It should not be intimidating; you do not need to know the history, history is the orchestra’s job, just have ears and eyes open and try to be touched by what you are hearing. If you don’t like it that is okay, it is not a torture game. I am active on YouTube and have had someone say to me, “You know, Stéphane, I am more of a heavy metal fan, but I want to come to hear your concert.” I love classical music – it is my passion, I love it – but it is what I do for a living. I also very much like Adele, Queen, the Sex Pistols. I don’t care what the genre is as long as it is well done and they have something to say or express through the music. That is what counts for me.