Conductor Diego Masson tells Terry Grimley why he'd rather conduct Boulez than Beethoven
Diego Masson is one of Europe's best-known conductors specialising in new music, but there was a time when he had a very different career in mind.
As a teenager he was a talented footballer - naturally two-footed, he played either left or right wing - who considered turning professional. But it was inevitable that the conflicting demands of football and music would eventually collide.
"I had to stop playing football when I was 18," he recalls. "To make a living I started playing in dance bands on Saturday nights until four in the morning, and then I was playing football on Sunday mornings. Of course I only had three hours' sleep, and in the end the coach was very angry with me."
There was some consolation years later when Masson formed his new-music ensemble Musique Vivante, which had its own in-house football team.
Born in 1935, Diego Masson is the son of the French surrealist painter André Masson, and his earliest memories include being dandled on Picasso's knee. He grew up in a highly cultured if not particularly affluent household, and his early years were disrupted by politics and war.
"My father became very famous when he was very old and after he died," he says. "We always lived in the countryside. We were not miserable but we just had enough to live, to have shoes and clothes."
They were living in Spain when he was born, which explains his Spanish name.
"My father's mother was a gypsy. My parents got established in Spain, and then there was the Spanish Civil War and my father made some flags for the International Brigade. So when it appeared that Franco was winning we had to leave."
Masson senior's political art also later forced the family to flee from France to the United States.
"My father had made some drawings - cartoons, you would say, caricatures of Hitler and Mussolini. My mother was Jewish but that was not the reason we left, because we did not realise at the time how serious that was."
The family settled in Connecticut, and André Masson's "automatic" drawings are cited as a seminal influence on Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, pioneers of abstract expressionism.
In the early 1950s Diego arrived at the Paris Conservatoire. Originally he intended to become a pianist, but finding Paris full of pianists he made the practical decision to learn the drums, playing in dance bands to pay his way through college.
"I liked that very much, working in striptease clubs in Paris. Of course the other guys at the Conservatoire thought I wasn't a serious musician, but I studied very seriously.
"I wanted to be a conductor before going to Paris to study. As well as playing piano I wanted also to play cello and to sing not only the bass part but also tenor and soprano, so I thought what I should do was conduct.
"But I forgot about it and studied composition - but I didn't like the music I wrote. I wrote some film music for Louis Malle, but I thought there was enough bad music around - better to conduct the good."
His gravitation towards the modern end of the repertoire began with his discovery of Alban Berg's opera Wozzek at the age of 16.
"Then in Aix-en-Provence, at the festival, I heard Boulez, Berio, things like that. I was thrilled by that music. Later as a percussion player I worked with Boulez at his Domaine Musical concerts - I'm speaking of the late 50s. So in a natural way I started conducting new music.
"I was acquainted with new composers because I had played their music as a percussion player. Also I worked with a ballet company as one of my first jobs. The boss of this ballet company became the boss of an opera house, so I did a lot of opera, but I also did a lot of modern music at the same time. For me it was quite natural because I was interested in both things - and I still continue!"
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is one of a number of specialist groups Masson conducts. The programme he and BCMG present at CBSO Centre tonight is typically wide-ranging, including premieres of new commissions from Nicholas Sackman and Norwegian composer Elvind Buene, and Sil-bury Air by the crusty old man of contemporary British music, Harrison Birtwistle.
There was a time when we used to think of British music as a backwater, something apart which didn't necessarily travel. That's not how Diego Masson hears it today.
"I feel British music is Elgar. It's not my favourite music at all, but I have the same problem with French music. Gounod or Mass-enet, I just can't stand it! Nowadays I would perhaps make an exception for some pieces by Massenet, but Gounod - I will not conduct a piece by Gounod in my life!
"Every country has certain composers they like. In London, for example, Berio, Boulez and Xenakis are played but some other composers like Donatoni are not played so much. It changes from place to place, but I don't think there is any country which plays only its composers. They play more Berlioz in Britain than they do in France.
"Some years ago Tchaikovsky was not played at all in Paris. Even 20 years ago, Abbado came with the LSO and there was an announcement that the second half of the concert would be replaced by a Tchaikovsky symphony and people started booing, because they came to hear some good music and they had to hear Tchaikovsky instead. But Tchaikovsky is very popular here."
So here's a big question. Contemporary music is associated with small audiences. What does the future hold for the music Masson spends much of his time conducting?
"I've been working with new music since 1954, and I remember when I played with Boulez as a percussionist we played in a hall which held about 150 people - a very small hall. It was almost full, which means maybe 120 people.
"Last year I've done with the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall a Luciano Berio programme which was sold out. How many people there are now, compared to 30 or 40 years ago - its amazing! If you do a programme of a new young composer you won't get a large audience but this same composer, if his music is really good, it's going to be full."
As our conversation comes to an end Masson is heading back to his hotel to study the scores for an all-Elliott Carter concert he is conducting with the Spanish National Orchestra. Late next year Carter could become possibly the first composer in history to reach the age of 100 while still composing.
But Masson doesn't specialise entirely in living composers. Later this month, for example, he will be conducting two of his favourites, Haydn and Schumann, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
"I can't conduct everything," he says. "There are things I love which I don't conduct well. Like Beethoven, for example. I love Beethoven but I don't feel I can do it. I've done most of the symphonies, some of them many times, but I think I had better give that up and leave it to others.
"I'm not always happy with what I do. But when I hear a Beethoven symphony conducted by Christophe von Dohnanyi, I think 'Right - that's it!'"