Aarhus Symphony gets the Gallic touch

French maestro Marc Soustrot had conducted the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra just once when he was named the ensemble’s next chief conductor. ‘Somehow the chemistry was immediately there,’ says general manager and artistic director Palle Kjeldgaard. ‘It was quite obvious he was the man to choose.’

The Danish orchestra has been without a chief conductor since 2012 when Giancarlo Andretta left the position; so Soustrot wil be a welcome addition. ‘We want him to develop the orchestra and really challenge the musicians,’ says Kjeldgaard. ‘And Soustrot is a fantastic conductor – he has a huge repertoire and is one of those conductors who can really develop the musicians. He has a relaxed way of working that’s still demanding.’

Marc Soustrot courtesy of NAM
Marc Soustrot, courtesy of NAM

When he takes up the role next autumn, Lyon-born Soustrot will be just one of a few French conductors at the helm of a Scandinavian orchestra. The Aarhus Symphony plans to draw on Soustrot’s expert knowledge of French repertoire, with Berlioz and Debussy featuring prominently on the schedule.

‘In the 2015-16 season we will premiere several commissioned pieces, produce a recording, and include a significant amount of French repertoire in Soustrot’s concerts,’ says Kjeldgaard. Not that he will look just to France, the forthcoming programme will also feature Carl Nielsen symphonies, marking the Danish composer’s 150th anniversary year. The orchestra is increasingly diversifying its programming and concert formats in a bid to reach and attract new audiences.

In May Pirates of the Carribbean was screened behind the orchestra, as it played the cinematic score in full – the concerts attracted 3,000 people over the course of two nights. Also last month the symphony performed a concert of music based on the main themes from the popular computer game franchise, Final Fantasy. ‘It was completely sold out,’ says Kjeldgaard. ‘And we had the most difficult audience to please, boys aged from 15 to 25.’

‘One of the goals is to show that they hear a symphony orchestra far more often than they’re aware of,’ he continues. ‘Because [orchestral music] is so present in movies and computer games, they hear a symphony orchestra much more naturally than they realise. That’s one of the barriers we want to break down.’

Aarhus Symphony
Aarhus Symphony

But did the Final Fantasy concerts go any way to enticing these hard-to-reach listeners to the main season? Kjeldgaard says it’s more of a long-term investment in the orchestra’s audience base. ‘I’d guess that some of those guys going to the concerts, maybe 10 years later they’ll say, “well actually I did hear a symphony orchestra when I was younger, I might go again now.”’

One problem the project caused was negative criticism from the traditional press – despite the audience turnout and a standing ovation. ‘One newspaper was positive about bringing new audiences,’ says Kjeldgaard, ‘ and the other was very conservative, saying we shouldn’t do [these kind of concerts], that we should only do high art like Mahler.’

For Kjeldgaard, the solution to this problem is to loosely segregate the programming and marketing. Concerts like Pirates of the Caribbean and Final Fantasy are advertised almost exclusively on social media, and form a special part of the season line-up dedicated to unusual performances, while traditional concerts have their place in the rest of the programme.

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The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra takes a determined, almost systematic approach to music education; its goal, says Kjeldgaard, is for every school student in Aarhus (a city of 320,000 people) to encounter the orchestra four times each year. The musicians are divided into eight or nine small groups, a string quartet or wood quintet perhaps, and visit schools across the area, introducing children to various pieces. The same children then visit the orchestra in the concert hall, and hear a full symphonic work. Teachers receive training and preparatory material, as do the orchestral musicians – it’s an extremely dedicated programme that doesn’t receive any additional state or private funding.

Aarhus Symphony musician
Aarhus Symphony musician

But according to Kjeldgaard, it’s an approach that’s needed: he’s concerned that the quality of Danish music education is in sharp decline. ‘You see fewer and fewer teachers who are properly educated to actually teach music,’ he says. ‘There’s an increasing tendency in Denmark to focus more on languages, maths and science, and less on the artistic side – and music has been suffering throughout the country [as a result].’

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In Kjeldgaard’s experience, parents are also sceptical of what little music education pupils do receive. ‘They say, “Why do they need to sing, why do they need to learn about music? Can’t they just learn from a CD?’” Happily though, schools are still committed to engaging with the orchestra: more than 90 per cent take part in the ASO’s scheme. And feedback from parents, once seeing their children interacting with a live orchestra, is good.

Looking ahead, the orchestra is preparing for 2017, when Aarhus will hold the European Capital of Culture title. A major series of orchestral and choral concerts is slated for the programme, as well as a series of residencies, guest soloists and a European tour.