Passing the baton to youth: Twenty-six-year-old Lionel Bringuier is the new musical director at the Zurich Tonhalle
It used to be policemen that kept get- ting younger. Now, it’s conductors. Last month, one of Europe’s richest and most respected orchestras chose a young man of 26 to be its music director. He is exactly half a century younger than the grand old maestro he is replacing.
Lionel Bringuier was spotted six years ago by Esa-Pekka Salonen and taken as his assistant to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Promoted by Gustavo Dudamel to the rank of Resident Conductor (“Lionel makes me feel old,” jokes Dude), Bringuier has spent much of the past three years learning the ropes as chief conductor of a Spanish orchestra in Valladolid and preparing for a meteoric leap.
Last spring he impressed the tough-minded BBC Symphony Orchestra with his ease in handling a difficult premiere. Senior players in the Zurich Tonhalle, many of them professors at the nearby conservatoire, called for his appointment almost on sight, so galvanised were they by the young Frenchman’s insouciant command. Short and soft-spoken, Bringuier exudes a natural authority allied to deep musical understanding.
The only question that needed to be resolved during a brief negotiation was whether this soaring star would want to commit to a city that offers millions of francs but little in the way of fizz. Zurich is not the first place a young guy would go for a good night out. Its elderly concert audience prefers, on recent evidence, a good night’s sleep. Parts of the Tonhalle around me at a benefactors’ concert were a snore palais.
Lionel Bringuier knows full well that he has a mountain to climb if he is ever to put smug and snobbish Zurich into the top league of cultural destinations. Yet it is this very anomaly that gives his precocious appointment a cultural significance far beyond the gnomic bars and euthanasia clinics of a city that has all the money in the world and nowhere worthwhile to spend it.