Michel Legrand: An Icon Heads to Boston


Michel Legrand

Michel Legrand

By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BOSTON — Michel Legrand has been composing, conducting and playing the piano for as long as he can remember. And for him, it is still not enough.

He has worked on the soundtrack of 250 movies, at least, and has more than 200 CDs out.

And yet, even now, at 77, he said in an interview last week, “I want to work all the time. I am full of ideas and the desire to work year
after year.”

Legrand is going to perform in Boston on November 18 at Symphony Hall. Accompanying him will be Quebecois singer Mario Pelchat and American legend Dionne Warwick.

“I am working even more than before. It is my pleasure, my whole life. This is why I was put on this earth,” said Legrand, with an eagerness and freshness that belies his age.

He is currently working for a show that will be on Broadway, and is also working on a musical, which he hopes to direct next year.

The performers will sing songs by Legrand with a jazz quartet, plus his wife on the harp and the composer himself on the piano.

Legrand has dabbled in most genres of music, from jazz to folk, and he loves them all. “I don’t have a favorite genres of music. I love every kind of music, jazz, classical, folk, etc. I love the 12 notes of music and everything that comes out of that 12.”

Legrand’s success would be daunting to anyone speaking to him, were it not for his incredible humility and still-fervent dedication to the art of songwriting.

Legrand experienced his first success in 1954 with an album called “I Love Paris.” He scored seven films for Jean-Luc Godard, and made 10 with Jacque Demy, including “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Legrand moved to Hollywood in 1966 and worked with Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini. All in all, he received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning three, as well as 27 Grammy nominations, winning five.

He has worked with a wide  range of artists, from Ray Charles and Diana Ross to Bjork and Stephane Grappelli who celebrated his 85th birthday in 1992.

In 2005 a compilation of Legrand’s best-known film soundtracks was released under the title “Le Cinema de Michel Legrand,” featuring 90 songs composed in the course of his career. One of Legrand’s most famous work on these shores is “The Umbrellas of
Cherbourg,” or “Les parapluies de Cherbourg,” about a mother and daughter who sell umbrellas in a small store in the title city. The
young girl, played by Catherine Deneuve, falls in love with a young, handsome mechanic, played by Nino Castelnuovo. He goes off to war in Algeria, but not before the two consummate their love. Many trials and tribulations follow that decision, affecting the two former lovers.

The movie is a standout for its candy-colored sets, and for creating an alternate universe in which every scrap of dialogue is in song
form, all by Legrand. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1964. A song from the film, I Will Wait for You, was
nominated for the Academy Award that year.

“I wanted to have a normal conversation, everyday words, but in a world where everyone sings, and doesn’t just talk,” Legrand said. “I wanted to try it and it worked very, very well for that movie. ‘Cherbourg’ is a realistic fairy tale. It is so real, so sad and so down to earth,” he added.

In 1968, his song, Windmills of Your Mind (Les moulins de mon cœur), part of the soundtrack for the original “The Thomas Crown Affair,” won the Academy Award for best song. That version was performed by Noel Harrison. The film was remade in 1999, with the song again on the soundtrack, this time sung by Sting.

Legrand was part of the French New Wave cinema, which exploded the French post-war film industry and featured some of the giants of the industry, including Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Demy.

“It was an extraordinary time,” he recalled. “We were not making money, but making movies. We were just starting a movie, not knowing how to pay for it. All the actors, composers, all worked for free. There were no producers. We made with almost nothing, so many movies. It was a real lovely, lovely decade for creativity.”

Legrand is one quarter Armenian. “My mother had an Armenian father, Sarkis Der Mikaelian from Arabkir, which is now in Turkey. My grandfather escaped in 1917 as a little boy and came to France. He married a French woman. A lot of his family were massacred. The few people in his family who survived came to France.”

Legrand might be part Armenian, but he is wholly dedicated to Armenia and makes a point of visiting the country often. The first time he was in Yerevan, he recalled, he was “very, very moved.”

France is one country where several of the artistic icons are of Armenian descent. Among those is Henry Verneuil (Ashod Malakian), who was born in Turkey during the era of the Armenian Genocide and whose family fled Turkey for the safety of France. The other icon is of course, another musical giant, Charles Aznavour. He said he was a friend of the late Verneuil, who died in 2002, and is still a good friend of Aznavour, though he had never worked with either.

“I always try to get better and try more difficult stuff,” he said. “It is a strange thing, feeling like you can make your brain more
capable.”

For tickets to the November 18 show, visit the Symphony Hall box office at www.bostonsymphony.com.