Nathalie Stutzmann: A maestro of the ages

Nathalie Stutzmann
Nathalie Stutzmann is the newly named Principal Guest Conductor for The Philadelphia Orchestra

Principal Guest Conductor for The Philadelphia Orchestra releases new album

Nathalie Stutzmann is the newly named Principal Guest Conductor for The Philadelphia Orchestra. Stutzman has had a magical connection with Philadelphia since she first heard the orchestra live under Maestro Riccardo Muti during his term (1980-1992) as Principal Guest Conductor.

Nathalie Stutzmann
Nathalie Stutzmann photo by Jeff Fusco

“I had all the recordings and had fallen in love with the sound of the orchestra as a child already!” Stutzmann said of her early impressions.

Stutzmann later sang with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1997 with Simon Rattle at the helm. “Simon, who became my main guide as conductor, and from whom I received one of the most supportive beautiful and helpful emails in my life while I was trying to break the ice as a conductor. It came the precise day I was singing with Yannick in Rotterdam!” Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is the current Music Director of The Philadelphia Orchestra. “A few years later, I was invited to conduct the orchestra for the first time and magic immediately happened with the alchemy we know. Becoming Principal Guest Conductor after this long history is just a dream!”

In addition to her world class talents as a conductor, Stutzmann is also a singer, an operatic contralto who began her musical studies at an early age with her mother, soprano Christiane Stutzmann, then continued with instrumental studies with piano, cello, and bassoon.

Stutzmann uses her singing techniques when conducting, most notably breathing. “I breathe in the phrases as if I were singing because breathing is the basis of everything in music. The fact that I can give the orchestra the benefit of my experience as a singer, brings, I hope, a very special way and freedom in conducting phrases just as in singing. Making the orchestra breathe is also my way of freeing the musicians.” Watching her conduct allows the listener to hear and feel the music from a different perspective, a singer’s point of view.

In 2009, she formed her own chamber orchestra, Orfeo 55. Orfeo, Italian for Orpheus, is a figure in Greek mythology who was chief among poets and musicians. In Orfeo 55, Stutzmann performs both as conductor and soloist.

Nathalie Stutzmann
Nathalie Stutzmann photo by Pete Checchia

I asked her how Orfeo came into being, “My dream as a musician was to be able to combine my two passions, singing and conducting. It was a musical wish in the sense that I wanted to be able to guide and master the work from the first to the last note and to have the possibility to be an instrument among instruments. When I had this dream, I was told that it wasn’t feasible to do both at the same time and it very much motivated and excited me to prove the contrary. It could also be a very new and accessible formula for the audience because it removed barriers with a small group of musicians. It abolishes a formal side and eventually gives a rather modern idea, for the musical activities of a small group of musicians, to be able to do it this way by combining all the activities. Many people find it very ‘rock and roll.’”

Of course, like everyone, Covid-19 forced Stutzmann to stop performing. “At the beginning, like many people, I was almost happy that the train stopped for a while. It allowed me to settle down, rest, think, study, read, cook, do a lot of things I don’t usually have a lot of time for.

“But after two months I found it appalling, and I couldn’t take it anymore! Felt like a junkie without drugs! It made me deeply depressed, anguished, while questioning myself on the fact that art and beauty, which seemed essential to me, didn’t seem essential at all to the rest of the world,” she lamented. “This called many things into question, in connection with our role, to what we can bring and how much we have to fight to bring to people what they don’t necessarily ask for. Each country has different laws, precautionary rules and some conditions can be very difficult to make art with. We are all trying to be as flexible as possible, constructing and deconstructing, because we are all very ‘hungry’ and unhappy not to be able to do what we love above all else.”

So, what can we expect from this incredibly talented woman when she takes the podium as Principal Guest Conductor in the 2021 season? Well, it seems to be a mystery for her as well as us. “Because of the pandemic, the setting up and programming plans have been under construction and reconstruction all year long, in permanent change.”

“Of course, we are thinking of the future with a pandemic that is under control and programs that are back to normal, however we have taken a long time to set up this programming given the uncertainty of the current context. But I hope that we will be able to reveal a little more about the repertoire and what will happen for my first concerts as Principal Guest Conductor very soon—though they won’t be my first concerts with the orchestra since it’ll be the fifth or sixth time that I’m in Philly with them.” Ah yes, the magical connections.

I wondered who Stutzmann would want to meet, past or present and her response both delighted and intrigued me. “I would love to meet the person who proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we are born equal and free, and I would love to discuss what can be done in modern society to keep this essential condition alive. Because I see that we are still neither equal nor free, and that we must continue to fight for equality and freedom.”

Stutzmann’s new album, Contralto, was released in January 2021.