The legendary Michel Legrand celebrates his 85th birthday at Dubai Opera
Michel Legrand is a man with strong opinions. During a 2011 interview, the composer described Barbra Streisand as “very temperamental and very demanding – people don’t like it very much”, and dismissed all of Italian opera, saying “most of it you have to put it in the bin”.
Whatever you think of his outspoken views, the Frenchman is a prolific talent. Best-known as a film composer, he claims to have scored more than 250 movies, working with directors ranging from Hollywood icons Orson Welles and Clint Eastwood to art-house legends Jean-Luc Godard and Andrzej Wajda.
Also a respected pianist, performer and bandleader, the diverse musical talents he has worked with include Streisand, Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
Born in 1932, Legrand’s first musical love was jazz. His father, conductor and composer Raymond Legrand, left when his son was very young.
Displaying an innate talent for the piano, Legrand entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of 10, where he studied under Nadia Boulanger – also an influential mentor to Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla and Quincy Jones. However, Legrand offended his tutor by moving to jazz and popular song, becoming musical director to Maurice Chevalier and orchestrating songs for Édith Piaf and Yves Montand.
In 1954, when he was 22, Legrand was paid US$200 (Dh734) for his debut album I Love Paris, featuring easy-listening arrangements of jazz standards. It was a hit in suburban America, selling seven million copies in two years. The delighted record company rewarded the achievement by giving Legrand a blank cheque for his next project. He used the money to recruit a dream team of the best jazz players in the world – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans – for three band sessions that would be released as Legrand Jazz in 1959.
Before that, he composed his first film score in 1955, for French movie The Lovers of Lisbon. In the early 1960s, he positioned himself as a key architect of the sound of the French New Wave. His work included Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman, My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders, Jacques Demy’s Lola and Bay of Angels, and Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7.
He found international success in 1964 when he scored Demy’s musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, starring Catherine Deneuve, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was a surprise hit in the United States. The film also spawned a song that would be translated into I Will Wait For You, a standard later covered by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong and Liza Minnelli.
After scoring Demy’s 1967 follow-up The Young Girls of Rochefort, again starring Deneuve, Legrand moved to the US, where he made an instant impression.
One of the first gigs he took was scoring The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, and he won his first Oscar in 1968 for the film’s theme song, The Windmills of Your Mind.
“In the ’60s I made a hundred French movies – in the ’70s and ’80s I made a hundred American movies,” Legrand said during that same 2011 interview, with The Arts Desk.
Two more Oscar wins were to follow: Best Original Dramatic Score for the coming-of-age drama Summer of ‘42 in 1971, and Best Original Song or Adaptation Score for Streisand’s self-directed musical, Yentl, in 1983. The same year, he wrote the music for another blockbuster, Sean Connery’s return to the Bond franchise in Never Say Never Again.
Throughout all this mainstream success, Legrand never lost his love of jazz. In 1972, he made duet albums with two greats: Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, and saxophonist Stan Getz’s Communications ’72, which he orchestrated and arranged.
In 1991, Legrand co-wrote the music, with Miles Davis, for the movie Dingo – made shortly before the jazz legend’s death – and a year later recorded an eponymous duet album with gypsy-jazz forefather Stéphane Grappelli.
In the twilight of his career Legrand has found success with the stage, writing the score for 2002 Broadway musical Amour, and Marguerite, a 2008 musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the creators of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon.
In 2013, Legrand proved his enduring appeal with Entre Elle et Lui, a duet album with French opera great Natalie Dessay, which was a gold-selling hit in his home country.
Which music from this storied career will be performed in Dubai remains to be seen, but we do know that he will bring a jazz big band, all the musicians will be French and he will play only his own music.
With such an incredible wealth of material, choosing what to play must be a challenge in itself.
• Michel Legrand will perform at Dubai Opera on Thursday, 8pm. Tickets from Dh250 at www.dubaiopera.com
Updated: February 20, 2017 04:00 AM