When they arrive at the Granada on Monday, February 16, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande will be unpacking almost a century’s worth of musical history along with its priceless and precious musical instruments. Founded by the pioneering conductor Ernest Ansermet at the height of the modernist movement in classical music, the orchestra is well known for its many excellent recordings and for offering the orchestral premieres of works by such modern masters as Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. Today, the OSR, as it is commonly known, has a reputation for thrilling performances that revive the passion and excitement that the breakthrough compositions of the early 20th century provoked when they were still brand-new.
Last week I spoke with Cléna Stein, double bassist for the OSR and a native of Southern California, on the phone from her home in Geneva. Stein filled me in on what to expect from this world-class organization on its upcoming concert tour, which features works by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Ravel.
I understand that you are in Switzerland now. What has your schedule been like recently? Last week we played at the United Nations in Geneva for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There were four concerts, and as a part of that, I also played with my historic klezmer group, the Bessarabian Nights.
You’re originally from Long Beach, and you went to UCLA, but you have settled in Europe for most of your classical career. What led you to that decision? For me, it’s always a pleasure working in Europe because of the sense of history that comes along with the music here. In the U.S., and especially in pop music, it’s all about the future, whereas with classical music, it’s all about the past. In an orchestra, our world is the past. Each time we perform, we are going back in time and trying to find the sensibility that gave rise to this music. It’s even more powerful when I play chamber music because in Europe, chamber music is ordinarily heard in historic spaces. I’ve played Vivaldi in churches and libraries where Vivaldi has played, and that kind of thing happens all the time here.
The founder of the OSR, Ernest Ansermet, must have had a strong personality to put together such a lasting legacy. What do you feel was his greatest gift? Ansermet was a powerful personality, but to me his greatest gift, and the one that gives the orchestra its special character, was the sense that he had his finger on the pulse of European music in the early 20th century. He knew all the great composers, and he worked closely with figures such as Stravinsky to bring their music into the orchestral repertoire when it was still new. He was a mathematician, a brilliant mind, but with musical sensibility.
How would you describe the character of the OSR today? The OSR no longer has such a French identity as it did when it was in its early years. There really aren’t enough musicians coming just out of Switzerland to stock a world-class orchestra, so by necessity, the OSR has become more international in its members than some of the other major European groups. The players in the great German and French orchestras have a certain national style, and that’s what the artistic directors of those orchestras hire for, the proper national sound. Americans, on the other hand, take a bit from everyone. We in the OSR have a strong connection to the music of the early 20th century through our founder, but we have a more mixed group of musicians today than a generation ago.
How does conductor Charles Dutoit fit into the picture? He grew up in Geneva, and he learned his role alongside of many of the musicians that were in the orchestra and are now retired. He outlived them all, and he’s still going strong.
CAMA presents L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Monday, February 16, at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 899-2222 or visit camasb.org..