Interview with Catherine Bolzinger

Soprano Nathalie Colas (a member of both Fonema Consort and Voix de Stras') brings us this interview with director Catherine Bolzinger in anticipation of our upcoming joint project Merging Voices. In addition to her work with Voix de Stras', Bolzinger is choir master of the Strasbourg Philharmonic orchestra and professor at the Music Conservatoire of Strasbourg.

Nathalie Colas: What is your artistic background?
Catherine Bolzinger: My first instrument is the harp. I studied music at the Conservatoire de Grenoble, and specialized in choral conducting with Bernard Tétu. I was then appointed head of choral activities at the Conservatoire National de Strasbourg. It was a great opportunity for me, because of the strong choral tradition in the Alsace region, and also because the Conservatoire was early on very innovative and forward-thinking in the field of contemporary music. I closely collaborated with Georges Aperghis, Ramon Lazkano and Pascal Dusapin amongst others while they were in residency at the Conservatoire, which deeply influenced my early professional years. It was then that I created Voix de Stras ', as it had been a dream of mine for a long time, and there was no professional chamber vocal ensemble in the region. Early on the ensemble was invited to perform by the Opéra National du Rhin, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and Les Percussions de Strasbourg. It was the beginning of a great ride! In 2003, I was appointed chorus master of the Orchestre Philharmonique, which I am still today, along my activities at the Conservatoire.
In the recent years, I have been fortunate to participate in projects abroad, such as collaboration with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, invited by Kent Nagano. I am very pleased to make my first steps in the United States this year.

NC: How do you know composers Ivan Solano and Clara Olivares? Have you ever worked with them and in what circumstances?
CB: I have known Ivan Solano since 2007, during his last year of his composition studies in Strasbourg in the class of Ivan Fedele. Voix de Stras’ premiered his pièce de concours (graduating piece). In 2009, VdS recorded its first self-titled album and one of Ivan’s pieces was featured on the CD. He was also the artistic director of the project. He then wrote us a piece for three male voices, and Kyogen for 6 female voices is the latest piece that the ensemble commissioned him. His musical writing is very soft, very poetic; it installs a very particular atmosphere.
Clara Olivares used to sing in the choir of the Conservatoire, so I have also known her for a long time. She then studied composition and I was then introduced to her music, which I was right from the start very interested in. VdS commissioned her for the first time in 2012. Nebula is our second collaboration. Her writing is intense; it contains pain, drama. Both pieces end in a cry.

NC: What does the collaboration with living composers bring you?
CB: The most important for me is the pleasure of meeting a living person. The perception that I can have of their personality completes the musical image of the score. It is a nice reprieve from the sometimes solitary nature of conducting. Finally, the fact that we are living in the same time period allows me to feel myself concerned with the issues they address in their art. I can share and relate to their imagination.

NC: How is writing music for vocal ensemble specific?
CB: A vocal ensemble first encounters specific problems regarding intonation: the singer must hear the note before singing it. He/she must find in the musical writing the elements that will help him/her stabilize the intonation, for example harmonic or contrapuntal relationships; he/she must be constantly connected to other singers or instrumentalists for that specific purpose. The different ways vocal parts are notated can either ease or complicate this issue and the composer needs to bear this is mind in order for the group to attain accuracy through connection between the singers. The other specificity is the text, which can carry meaning or not. The singer can be alternatively or simultaneously actor or musician. Finally, as in writing for instrumental ensemble, we encounter issues related to managing the strengths and frailties of a group as one entity, as well as the agogical aspect of a piece, which allows a meaningful and integrated performance.

NC: This is your first trip to the United States. What are your expectations and your desires regarding this project, Voices Merging?
CB: I am very proud of presenting concerts in Chicago as I know of its bubbly and enthusiastic music scene. I am looking forward to meeting audience members and performers alike, and observing the way they approach music, whether from the stage or from the seats. It is also a great pleasure to work with Fonema Consort because they are hyper-dynamic, demanding, and uncompromising on the artistic content – it is both enjoyable and motivating! I'm sure the collaborative rehearsals will be very interesting for all of us as the way we musicians work the music is deeply rooted in our cultures.  We will need to finely tune our voices and our minds!