Cosmopolitan French Conductor Says Music Has No Borders

For Philippe Auguin, who has just been named almost simultaneously as music director of both the Washington and Nice operas, distance is no object as there are no national or musical borders.

“What interests me, is always having new horizons,” Auguin told said after taking up the reins of the Washington National Opera in October, less than a month after also assuming new duties with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice.

From an early age Auguin showed a passion for music, and especially the Austrian composers Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. He left his hometown of Nice to study abroad, first in Vienna and then Florence.

“Everything was pushing me to leave France,” said the 49-year-old, now billed as one of the most sought after conductors of his generation.

“I think of myself as a cosmopolitan,” added Auguin, who speaks four languages – French, English, German and Italian – and conducted his first orchestra in 1989, the Vienna Symphonic.

Since then he has conducted in some of world’s top venues, such as the Met in New York, La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin as well as the Vienna Philharmonic.

“I was only 30 when I was called on to lead Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy,” he recalled.

Two decades later he was feted for his direction of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” in Washington DC, winning standing ovations from a packed auditorium.

And he says he won’t have any difficulty in leading two top orchestras at the same time, thanks to forward planning, even though he is likely to have a packed diary for the coming years.

“I already have the dates in Vienna until 2013,” he said, adding that to be a musical director does not require him to be physically present. “I can fulfil my duties in Nice at a distance thanks to the great team there.”

Auguin has lived in New York for the past three years but is planning to move to the American capital, to be closer to the opera, which has become one of America’s premier companies since its founding in 1956.

He has already built up a following here after making his debut in the city in 2009 with a well-received performance of Wagner’s Goetterdaemerrung.

Auguin says he is working in the same way with both companies, despite the distances, and even “if the pressure on the musicians is very different.”

“In Vienna musicians are national heros,” he said. “They have a cultural understanding of Beethoven and understand immediately what the conductor expects from them.”

The social status of musicians also influences the way they approach their work. In Europe, where musicians have better social rights and protections such as unemployment benefit “it is difficult to have any sense of urgency on a daily basis,” Auguin said.

“There are places where we can never begin rehearsals on time,” he said.

In contrast in the United States where orchestras are dependent on private funding, musicians “know that the quality of each performance is intimately linked to their economic survival.”

The purse strings are tighter in the United States. There are fewer rehearsals and musicians “tend to practice among colleagues.”

Auguin is taking over during a period of upheaval for the opera, after legendary Spanish tenor Placido Domingo announced in September that he was quitting in June as its general director after seven years in the post.

Domingo, 69, has worked with the Washington National Opera since 1996, when he was appointed artistic director. He became general director in 2003, and was credited with attracting world-class talent to the company.

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