Interview of with tenor cultural lecturer Grégoire Ichou

Would you like to discover a historical site or an exhibition while listening to a tenor singing just for you? Well, it’s possible thanks to the musical guided tours of tenor musical lecturer Grégoire Ichou. I discovered this concept a few months ago, thanks to Twitter, and I tested in October 2019 during a fantastic sung tour of the Saint-Denis Basilica. In this new musical season, and after a forced break due to the Covid-19 health crisis, Grégoire Ichou is resuming his singing visits, and he has a busy schedule with planned musical guided tours of Saint-Denis Basilica in Seine Saint-Denis, the Pantheon, the Château d’Hardelot, the museum La Piscine in Roubaix, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper. He gave me an interview a month ago to talk about his love for music, the importance of discovering a forgotten repertoire, his musical training, the place of the artist in society, and the concept of a musical guided tour.

How have you lived these last 6 months with the covid-19 pandemic which led to museums and concert halls shutting down for many months and the slow, difficult return to normal life ?

The lockdown period was relatively difficult. Many of my performances were cancelled, cancellations that did not take place all at once, but little by little, which was particularly stressful. In some cases cancellations happened very quickly, while for others the question arose as to whether they would be postponed or cancelled. Fortunately the teams of some museums and monuments were very kind and understanding of my situation as a potentially precarious contract worker, which was very welcome in this period.

The other thing that made it difficult for lyric artists to be confined is that when we sang, it was at home and with neighbours who, contrary to the usual times, were also at home. It was an additional stress: « Am I going to be able to work on my voice as much as I want, at the rhythm I want? ». Even though I have to admit that I have very nice neighbours who didn’t make any remarks to me. And this added to the already great constraints of confinement. At present, even if I resume my activity, the uncertainties remain and the recovery is taking place under very special conditions.

Another thing that was quite frustrating for me was that I had a lot of musical guided tours planned at the Louvre museum, and these were visits for which I had great expectations because I must admit that I was quite proud and impressed to be able to work with the museum of the Louvre. But the hardest thing was certainly not being able to do what I enjoy doing in life, which is singing in front of an audience, sharing knowledge, sharing moments in concert halls or heritage sites, and I intend to make up for that in the coming weeks.

Grégoire Ichou
Photographed by Sophie Palmier

Did you receive any state benefit during this period to compensate financially for the cancellation of the musical guided tours planned between March and August 2020?

As I am a self-employed person, I was able to ask for help. This did not necessarily correspond to what I could have earned if I had worked during those months of lockdown when I had a fairly busy planned schedule. But it helped me get through that period.

What policies would you like to see implemented to help artists make a less precarious living from their work?

This is a difficult question. Perhaps moving towards something that would resemble a « universal income » for artists, authors and performers, but it is difficult to define the exact contours of artists’ status. It would also be necessary to include in such a scheme the other professions that make performing arts and creation possible. But I can imagine the constraints that this might imply.

Artists, contrary to what one might imagine in a sort of nineteenth-century fantasy, are people like everyone else. In any case I am convinced of this. They may have a particular sensibility, but they are people like everyone else, and therefore in our society – and this is to be deplored – they need money to live. Therefore we absolutely cannot detach the artist from this reality, which is everyone’s reality. We don’t only create in suffering, in misery. On the contrary, it is certainly more difficult to create when one is constrained by questions of money. It would be absurd and counterproductive to try to extract the artist from this reality.

Can you tell us about your background and training?

I played the piano and music theory from the age of 5-6, without much love for the piano or music theory, but with an interest in music. It was my parents who had pushed me to do it, and I couldn’t find the rigour to work on the piano, because I just didn’t feel like doing it, until I entered the conservatoire of music of the 13th arrondissement of Paris on the advice of my primary school teacher, a genius, who made me discover that I loved singing. I spent years in this conservatoire, first in the children’s choir, then the youth choir, under the direction of Claire Marchand. Then I went to other conservatories, notably the one in Bobigny in the class of Robert Expert, with whom I continue to work, and at the same time to the conservatory of the 7th arrondissement in the class of Caroline Pelon. Then, I joined the Jeune Choeur de Paris at the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional, which was run at the time by Laurence Equilbey and Geoffroy Jourdain. The training was rich. There was not only choir singing, but also language courses adapted to singers, musical analysis, musicals, drama, vocal ensembles, etc.

At the same time as my singing studies, I entered the department of musicology at the Sorbonne, and during my bachelor’s degree in musicology I took an option that fascinated me on the history of literature and the history of the arts about the periods we were studying in parallel in the history of music. Then I did a bachelor’s degree in guide-lecturer, then a master’s degree in art history research, where I wrote a thesis on « Portraits of female singers in Parisian privileged theatres in the third quarter of the 18th century », and finally a second year of a master’s degree in cultural mediation at the École du Louvre. And in the midst of all this, I lived abroad for two years. I spent 6 months in Edinburgh, 6 in Vienna, 6 in Florence and 6 in Valencia, with the aim of improving my skills in different languages (because I have always been passionate about learning languages) and in learning the vocal repertoires of different countries.

Can you remind us what these musical guided tours consist of? What is the origin of this project, which has been a real success with both experienced and novice music lovers?

Musical guided tours are like traditional guided tours, i.e. there are explanations about monuments and/or works shown in the context of exhibitions or permanent collections. And within these guided tours, I insert musical pieces that I interpret. These pieces are related to the discourse I have on the works, on the artist or on the place and illuminate in a lively, sometimes surprising, sometimes amusing, sometimes moving way, the purpose of the visit. One essential aspect for me is that these pieces are not there as mere illustrations. Their choice is carefully thought out, the result of often lengthy research, in order to create a real global coherence.

This concept came almost naturally to me from my interests and training. I first created it on paper in a university dissertation in the course of my training as a lecturer-guide, as I had to write a dissertation on an aspect of this occupation. I had studied the concept that I had then called « total tour », in reference to the total work of art, in which I integrated artistic and historical explanations, literary extracts and musical pieces.

Initially, this was only achieved a few years later in the form of lecture-concerts, i.e. in a room with screenings. This also has the advantage of bringing this type of offer to older audiences or people with motor disabilities.

Then, in 2017, this evolved into musical guided tours: the first took place on the occasion of the Rubens exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg. From then on, one thing led to another: the Musée du Luxembourg, then other institutions (the Villa Cavrois, the Basilique Saint-Denis, the Pantheon, and other CMN monuments) ordered new musical guided tours. I had the chance to work for a wide variety of museums and exhibitions, from Ferdinand Khnopff at the Petit Palais to Sigmund Freud at the Museum of Art and History of Judaism, Tintoretto at the Musée du Luxembourg, the permanent collections of the Cognacq-Jay Museum… This has allowed me to explore a very different repertoire each time, which always makes me very enthusiastic and curious, because I can learn new things and discover new pieces, most of which are very little known and/or have never even been recorded. In order to find these vocal works, I look for the scores most often at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, but it can also be in other libraries. I try to revive, at my humble level, repertoires from different eras that have sometimes not been heard for decades, even centuries.

Is it important for you to open up an unknown repertoire to visitors who come to your musical guided tours?

It’s important for two reasons: firstly, because I enjoy doing it, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m doing all this just for the audience [laughs]. I’m also doing it because I think it’s a bit sad that all these songs are never sung. It’s a great pleasure to see how these little-known pieces from different eras can appeal to a modern audience. For example, a song from 1910 can amuse an 8-year-old child from the years 2010-2020. It still resonates with today’s audience, and sometimes in a really striking way. At the moment, I am in the final stretch of my preparation of musical guided tours for La Piscine museum in Roubaix, in connection with some of their works evoking slavery or cockfighting, I am singing songs (one from 1794 and the other from the end of the 19th century), whose texts are extremely strong and resonate with our contemporary questions.

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