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“It's a Love Story.” Camille Pépin's new violin concerto

29 January, 2024

French composer Camille Pépin and Chief Conductor Simone Young unpack Pepin’s new violin concerto, which receives its Australian premiere as part of our Season Opening Gala in February.

By Hugh Robertson

Camille Pépin is one of the classical world’s rising stars. Not yet 35, the French composer’s sweeping, dramatic music has been commissioned and performed all over the world, winning numerous awards and legions of fans – including Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Simone Young.

In April 2023, Young led violinist Renaud Capuçon and the Orchestre National de France in the world premiere of Pépin’s new violin concerto, Le Sommeil a pris ton empreinte (Sleep retains your imprint). In February the work will receive its Australian premiere as part of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 2024 Season Opening Gala, once again with Capuçon as soloist and Young at the podium.

‘Camille is an extraordinary voice in new music,’ says Young excitedly. ‘And this concerto is a beautiful work. It’s very expressive. It has at times tremendous rhythmic vitality, and at other times quite ethereal elegance. The orchestral writing is very atmospheric and the violin part is hugely virtuosic, and so that makes for a great start for the season with an artist of the calibre of Renaud Capuçon.’

Renaud Capuçon. Photo by Marco Borggreve, courtesy of Warner Classics.

Pépin describes her own music as being at the crossroads of French Impressionism and modern American music, and this concerto bears all those hallmarks: the rich, evocative sound paintings of Debussy and Ravel as well as the driving, maximalist energy of the orchestral works of Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

However Pépin reveals that her chief inspiration is nature, but not in the sense that she attempts to depict landscapes, like Beethoven in his Pastoral Symphony. Rather Pépin says that nature provides her with a blank canvas on which to work.

‘When I'm composing, I always need to go on a walk in nature, in the forest,’ she says. ‘I live in the countryside, and I really need this environment. I need a quiet place and I need trees and mountains.

‘Nature gives me a clean mind. And all the colours and textures I can see outside inspire me. Sometimes I have this feeling when I see a landscape, I translate the colours I see in my mind and I hear instruments or mixture of instruments in my head.’

Composer Camille Pépin. Photo by Natacha Colmez-Collard.

That inspiration can be clearly seen in the titles of her works, with such evocative names as The Sound of Trees, At the Edge of the Storm, Before the light of dawn and Early Summer Rain. This new concerto, however, is not so directly inspired by the natural world, but by another awe-inspiring phenomenon: love.

‘The piece is a love story, actually,’ says Pépin. ‘I was inspired by love and especially by Paul Éluard, a French writer. Renaud Capuçon and I are very big fans of him.’

Éluard was a French poet in the first half of the twentieth century, and is closely associated with the Surrealist movement. Through writing, painting, theatre, filmmaking and photography, Surrealism’s aim was to express the unconscious mind, ungoverned by logic or reality: think of René Magritte’s famous illustration of a pipe featuring the declaration "this is not a pipe”, or Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory and its unnerving melting clocks.

‘I first read Éluard’s writings when I was a teenager,’ says Pépin. ‘At that time I liked him, but as I grew up, I experienced things in life and I had the feeling I understood his poetry much better. I don't think he is a poet we can really understand when we are too young – we have to experience life.

‘I selected three poems by Éluard, and these poems structure the concerto and define its five movements,’ explains Pépin. ‘The idea of the concerto was to talk about love, but through the life of the poet. In 1946, his first wife died unexpectedly, and that’s the story of the second movement. After a mourning period, he meets his second wife and that's the fourth movement.

‘And the first, the third and the last movements are really short and slow, and they are inspired by the same poem – Le Sommeil a pris ton empreinte – which is about sleep, and how sleep has taken the colour of his lover's eyes. It's like a suspended moment in time. And I tried to find a different sound for each occurrence as its meaning evolves through the piece.’

Watch the world premiere of Camille Pépin’s violin concerto recorded in Paris in April 2023.

Putting a new work out into the world is always slightly harrowing. Composing a new work for orchestra is especially nerve-wracking, says Pépin, given that you never get to hear the full work until the first rehearsal.

‘We don't have a whole orchestra at home to try things,’ says Pépin. ‘So the first rehearsal is actually the first time we hear it.

‘I'm always afraid of it,’ she continues with a slightly traumatised laugh. ‘Each time I'm always afraid that the piece doesn't sound the way I imagine. That is the worst fear of composers!’

With this concerto, though, Pépin was greatly comforted by working with Young and Capuçon, benefitting not only from their individual mastery but also their strong working relationship.

‘I composed this concerto especially for Renaud,’ she says. ‘What I appreciate the most in his violin playing is his sound. I think Renaud can be as soft as a leaf, but still very intense. I tried to explore all of this in the concerto.’

Simone Young is similarly enthusiastic about working with Pépin and Capuçon, though she reveals that her relationship with Renaud isn’t as long as people always think.

‘It feels like we have known each other for years,’ says Young. ‘Actually we haven’t – but we found a mutual musical language very, very quickly.

‘Renaud is one of these musical polymaths. He plays, he works with composers on new works, he programs festivals. He's one of these people with a brain that's about this big,’ she says, raising her arms in a big circle around her head.

‘But the first time we worked together was for an insane program in Paris in July 2021. It was the Bastille Day concert which took place on the Champ de Mars, which is that beautiful field right in front of the Eiffel Tower.

‘So having opened the summer with a bang in Paris, we've got Renaud here to open the season with a bang with Camille’s concerto, followed by Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. There's a nice serendipity to the whole thing.

‘It’s going to be a very special concert.’