Week two of our look inside the Philharmonie’s phenomenal planning department brings us to Jazz and World Music, where Francisco Sassetti is at the helm. “I thought the Philharmonie only does classical music!” said my physiotherapist, when I told him I was off to interview Francisco. In fact, non-classical music accounts for a third of the Philharmonie’s output.
Francisco was born in Lisbon but only lived there for four years before moving to Luxembourg. His father was a lawyer and got a job with the European Union when Portugal joined in 1986. Francisco duly attended the European School and went on to study musicology at Royal Holloway University in London.
Musicology is one of those slightly nebulous degrees, which not everyone understands fully. It’s the academic study of music and music history without the performance element, even though Francisco did study piano for a time at the Conservatoire de la Ville, and solfège, of course.
“When one is sixteen or seventeen and has to choose a path, I think everybody feels the same way. We look back, and we don’t know exactly why we chose what we chose. Of course I love music, and I come from a family where music and musicians are very present. In some families, studying the arts is seen as a dangerous career path. Many people around me said the same thing: ‘Oh but music – what are you going to do with that?’ ”
Well, Francisco wasn’t initially sure either and so he continued to study. A Masters in Arts Administration (London), followed by another Masters in European Studies (Geneva), to explore his European heritage more deeply.
A Question of Identity
At this point, Francisco had a personal ambition to fulfil, which was to actually live in Portugal. For although he felt intrinsically Portuguese, he had never really lived there long enough to know it. His first job was in radio journalism. Next came work at the prestigious Cultural Centre of Belém, which had the added attraction of being close to the famous bakery producing the pastel de nata custard tarts. The president of the executive committee became somewhat of a mentor, observing Francisco’s avid interest in both artists and concerts, and gave him a chance within the planning unit.
“… which I confess was not something I was considering at the time, because there is not a straight career path into artistic planning. It’s multi-dimensional; you cannot study it. You have contact with artists and agents, but a big part of the work is also doing contracts, negotiating the small details, which will hopefully result in a great concert for everyone.”
Francisco, having rediscovered his Portuguese roots, now looked abroad again.
“When you grow up away from your country, at a certain point it’s difficult to settle somewhere completely.” A sentiment understood by many ex-pats no doubt… what or where is home?
Return to Luxembourg (via Austria)
Next stop, Vienna. Francisco operated the communications department of the prestigious Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, which he describes as “probably the best youth orchestra in the world. In three years I met hundreds of extremely talented musicians.”
Communications, however, did not satisfy his intellect in the same way as planning. So when a friend told him about the opening for ‘Artistic Planner for Jazz and World Music’ at the Philharmonie in Luxembourg, he was intrigued enough to consider a move back to where he had grown up. The only thing bothering him was the genre he was going to work in. Francisco’s uncle, Bernardo Sassetti, was a high profile jazz pianist in Lisbon; and at the Cultural Centre of Belém, Francisco planned for jazz and classical music. So the world of jazz was a familiar one, but what about ‘world music’?
“What does it [world music] mean? We all agree that’s a very bad way of describing it, but nobody has found a better phrase.”
A few conversations and interviews assuaged his fears and gave him the confidence to start. The job at the Philharmonie was his and the return to Luxembourg set within months.
And All that Jazz
The Philharmonie’s jazz output has been strong since the start, with its brilliantly successful ‘Jazz and Beyond’ series. As Francisco remarked, “For such a small country the jazz scene of Luxembourg is pretty impressive.” But he felt that the Philharmonie could support a different way of looking at the genre altogether. ‘Jazz and Beyond’ fills the Grand Auditorium, selling out close to 1200 seats each time. Francisco wanted to recreate something of the club scene: getting closer to the artist; something smaller and more intimate.
“We created a second cycle called Jazz Club, with concerts in the Salle de Musique de Chambre, bringing younger musicians, and more avant-garde jazz to the Philharmonie.”
Again, it’s had great success.
The World (Music) according to Francisco
When it comes to the wealth of world music, there is an overwhelming amount to choose from. Francisco is constantly balancing what is potentially interesting to the audience with what might be interesting musically, ever-conscious that the Philharmonie is a house of culture, and not just entertainment.
“Often, when we talk about traditional world music in rural areas, the really authentic genres are the ones that do not have an audience. Very authentic Indian music, for instance, is very difficult to sell, to put it bluntly. Yet, some concerts we choose because they are absolutely worth it artistically – maybe they’re not going to sell-out, but they’re really relevant.”
And sometimes they have to invite bigger stars, who don’t always create 100% ‘authentically pure’ music. They might blend it, say, with pop music or some other influences, but this is where Francisco’s genius comes in. It’s a subjective choice and requires judgement to ensure that any concert played within the Philharmonie is of the highest artistic quality. It’s also about being conscious of Luxembourg’s unique audience.
“When we chose and invite a musician, we know that the music they do will be interesting to a broad, international audience and that’s very important because the city has around 65% foreigners, the country about 47%, which is huge. These concerts are for everybody.”
And it is that inclusiveness that gives Francisco’s choices their edge; his concerts offer excellence of execution along with accessibility. It’s a winning combination from a winning character.
For more information on the Jazz & Beyond, Jazz Club and Autour du Monde subscription series visit www.philharmonie.lu
All photos ©Pippa Herbert