Sound of the future

Emmanuel Villaume coaches orchestra members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.

As the longest-standing music director for opera and orchestra in the history of the Spoleto Festival USA, Emmanuel Villaume has spent the last decade shaping the festival's orchestra into one of the most desirable summer programs for young, professional musicians.

'The orchestra has reached new heights of quality and musicality under his direction,' said Nigel Redden, Spoleto Festival USA general director, adding that Villaume was the perfect choice for music director when he took the job in 2001.

To kick off his tenth anniversary season, Villaume will conduct a challenging program that includes Maurice Ravel's "La Valse," Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," as well as Johann Strauss II's overture to "Die Fledermaus" and Carl Maria von Weber's overture to "Der Freischutz."

"If any young professional orchestra can tackle this kind of repertoire, it's the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra," Villaume said.

Orchestra members, selected by audition each year, come from across the country. Among them are players from The Juilliard School, Yale University and the Manhattan School of Music. More than 600 applicants were whittled down to the 86 players performing this year.

While 40 of the orchestra members have played at Spoleto before, Villaume said each summer the orchestra has a different "vintage." Every year, he works to "build a culture of playing together" in few rehearsals.

That culture comes partially from the hunger of the young musicians, said Jenny Cho, a violinist returning for her second stint. The average age of a Spoleto orchestra member is 24 or 25.

"People my age that are just out of school are really enthusiastic," said Cho, 26. "Right now with the economy, there's not enough work to go around, unfortunately. Everyone is just really happy to be here."

But enthusiasm alone doesn't make any orchestra great. Cho attributes some of the orchestra's success to Villaume.

"When you have a conductor that's just really able to get the orchestra to sound its best, you stop worrying, and you can just play," she said.

The French-born Villaume made his American debut with the Spoleto Festival USA in 1990. He has been on the podium at the Metropolitan Opera, the Washington National Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Currently, he serves as chief conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra in Bratislava and as artistic director and chief conductor of the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra.

A former dramaturg at the Opera du Rhin in Strasbourg, France, Villaume said he links the pieces on the program through the Romantic era and the waltz.

In "La Valse," Ravel interpreted the Viennese dance as an orchestral poem expressing the aftermath of World War I. The "back third" of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" also is a waltz, but Villaume said it is overlooked. The introduction of the piece, called "Sunrise," is best known as the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Villaume said someone suggested he repeat the opening passage as a way to engage the audience -- he resisted.

"You cannot ignore all the history and interpretation of the passage," he said. "You just try to do your best to present it in a way that's going to be fresh and going to be direct."

The waltz appears again in the overture of the operetta "Die Fledermaus," as "a moment of absolute happiness and enjoyment." The fourth selection, the overture from Weber's 1821 opera "Der Freischutz," to provide context for the other works, demonstrating the Romantic aesthetic of contrasting light and darkness, Villaume said.

But as enthusiastic as he is about the musical works, Villaume's excitement about his orchestra is even more evident.

"These are young people with an incredible energy," he said. "My job is to rein them, to have them use their efforts so we can have something that is very polished."