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1971 : SERGE BAUDO AND THE ORCHESTRE DE LYON

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Serge Baudo (1971-1987)

In 1971, Louis Frémaux left Lyon for the United Kingdom, where he conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra up until 1978. Serge Baudo agreed to conduct the Opral and Theodor Guschlbauer replaced him as Music Director at the Opera. Serge Baudo enlisted the services of a young trombonist from the orchestra, Sylvain Cambreling, who became his assistant; this outstanding musician would later lead a distinguished career as a conductor.

Orchestre de Lyon

The orchestra had yet to gel: the psychological breach caused by the reclassification of certain musicians and the arrival of new ones remained to be patched over. Baudo threw himself into the task and forged the new orchestra, then officially in charge of performances at the Opera and renamed simply Orchestre de Lyon. He conducted and promoted the Lyon-based orchestra like the head of a company, and battled to promote the French repertoire, from Hector Berlioz, César Franck, Albert Roussel, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy through to contemporary composers such as Henri Dutilleux, Charles Chaynes, Maurice Ohana or Olivier Messiaen. But though he left the image of a conductor linked to French music of the 19th and 20th centuries, Serge Baudo proved to be far more eclectic than that: he readily broached the French classical repertoire (Jean-Baptiste Mouret) and was also regularly associated with the names of Liszt, Wagner, Lutosławski, Szymanowski, Bartók, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. The tenth anniversary of the orchestra in its modern-day form was celebrated on 8 May 1979 by Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder, rendered by over 400 performers.

Under the leadership of its new music director, the Orchestre de Lyon received its first prestigious invitations: the Champs-Élysées Theatre (Paris) on 25 September 1974, the Besançon Festival on 11 and 14 September 1975 and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (Athens) on 28 May 1976 as part of the orchestra’s first international tour (Greece, Romania and Bulgaria). The orchestra also released its first recording (Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and Four Portraits from “The Gambler”) in September 1974.

A purpose-built venue for the orchestra: the Auditorium

The opera house stage was kept so busy with opera performances and the lyric arts in general that the orchestra could give only a limited number of symphony concerts and had to rehearse in the Chabrier hall, a small venue situated on the Cours Charlemagne at the tip of the peninsula. When the Opral was created, Robert Proton de la Chapelle and the mayor, Louis Pradel, immediately began considering the possibility of providing it with a modern concert hall specifically for symphony concerts. The resulting Auditorium was inaugurated on 14 February 1975 in the new Part-Dieu district built on the site of former army barracks. It was the first concert hall of that size in France to be dedicated exclusively to music.

Tour in China

After a tour in Prague in June 1978 with two programmes of French music, a new high point was attained the following year with the tour in China, Japan and Korea. The Orchestre de Lyon was the first European orchestra and second Western orchestra (after the Boston Symphony Orchestra) to perform in China. Prior to the tour, Serge Baudo had been invited to conduct the Beijing-based Central Philharmonic Orchestra on 12 December 1978 for an audience eager to hear Western music. All of the rehearsals were open to the public and the venue was packed. China was ready to receive the Orchestre de Lyon which, in April 1979, gave a total of eight concerts in Beijing and Shanghai. Serge Baudo and Sylvain Cambreling shared the podium in a programme of French music: Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique), Debussy (La Mer, Prélude à L‘Après-midi d’un faune), Ravel (the two Daphnis et Chloé suites and Alborada del Gracioso) and Fauré (the Pelléas et Mélisande suite).

On returning from their travels through Asia, both musicians and stage managers had colourful stories to tell: from the novel culinary delicacies tasted at gala dinners to the improvised France-China football match on the tarmac in Shanghai! Not to mention their unsuccessful attempt to visit the Great Wall, thwarted by a snow storm that forced the buses to turn back just 10 kilometres from their destination. The most impressive memory, though, was of the enthusiastic audiences: 22,000 Chinese concertgoers turned out to hear the orchestra.

Berlioz Festival

In 1979, Serge Baudo decided to devote a festival to Berlioz, a composer very dear to his heart and who was born near Lyon, in the Isère department of France. He set up an association for the purpose in 1978 in collaboration with Jean Aster, the Auditorium’s director. The inaugural Berlioz Festival was held in September 1979 on the Place des Terreaux in Lyon. During the second edition, in 1980, the festival created headlines with the first French performance, over two evenings, of Berlioz’s monumental opera masterpiece, Les Troyens, at the Auditorium. Louis Erlo was called in from the Opera to handle the production. Berlioz’s operas subsequently featured in many editions of the festival and the Orchestre de Lyon was happy to once again be performing the lyrical repertoire after the creation of the Opera orchestra in 1983.

In a bid to reach as broad an audience as possible, the Berlioz Festival is regularly held in the Palais des sports in the Gerland district. In September 1981, Berlioz’s Requiem was performed there to an audience of 8,000 spectators. Benvenuto Cellini was performed there twice in 1983, conducted by Serge Baudo; it was performed again in the Auditorium in 1989 in a landmark production conducted by John Nelson and directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. On his election as Mayor of Lyon, Michel Noir put a halt to the Berlioz Festival and replaced it by a Biennial French music festival devoted to seldom-heard French music. The festival was held only once, in September 1991, before being revived in 1994 in Berlioz’s home town, La Côte-Saint-André.

The Orchestre de Lyon Choirs

In 1976, Serge Baudo felt that his work with the region’s good amateur choirs and the Opera choir was reaching its limits, and considered founding a choir specifically to work with the orchestra. The original plan was to record Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Baudo had heard a radio broadcast of Bernard Tétu conducting Debussy’s Chansons at the head of the Ensemble vocal de Bourgogne and decided to work with him on Pelléas. The recording, released in 1978, featured an exemplary cast (Michèle Command as Mélisande, Claude Dormoy as Pelléas, Gabriel Bacquier as Golaud, Jocelyne Taillon as Geneviève and Roger Soyer as Arkel) and was awarded the international grand prize by the Académie du disque lyrique. After this achievement, Serge Baudo entrusted Bernard Tétu with the task of preparing the choirs for Fauré’s Requiem.

Bernard Tétu was also, naturally, involved in creating the Berlioz Festival. He was tasked with forming and preparing the full choir to sing Lélio at the inaugural concert; for the occasion, he combined the Opéra chorus and singers selected by audition from among 2,000 applicants. At the same time, Bernard Tétu worked on creating a permanent choir, formed of a core group of professionals (the chamber choir) and a choir of excellent amateurs (the oratorio choir). This was the birth of the Chœurs de l’Orchestre de Lyon. The first joint recording made with the orchestra was Joseph Cosma’s Les Canuts, released in 1981. It was followed by Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), then Fauré’s Requiem, the latter conducted by Emmanuel Krivine. Alongside its many projects with the orchestra, the choir developed its own programme of performances. In 1993, it became an independent choir, named the Chœurs et Solistes de Lyon-Bernard Tétu. When its founder retired, the choir merged with Nicole Corti’s Chœur Britten to form Spirito in 2017. The Chœur d’Oratorio de Lyon was a later offshoot from this choir.