Monday, 15 February 2010

Cunning little conductor

So when a conductor can't make a show it falls to his assistant to do it. Well this has happened to me, only on a much larger scale. Yes in two weeks time I'm going on to conduct the Cunning Little Vixen with Edinburgh Studio Opera. My reaction to this was three fold: 1) Sympathy for the MD that had to pull out, 2) Excitement for myself, 3) Slight terror at what this was going to do for my allready behind dissertation (I'm plugging on...). And I was told I was doing it, (drumroll please) last friday. And before you ask, no I've never conducted opera before (I have done musical theatre, which actually, crazy as it sounds is a really good place to gain experiance for all types of conducting. I might write more extensively on this soon...).

The second opera scene I repped for was the last 20 mins of rosenkavelier and the first one I will conduct is the Cunning little Vixen. Talk about a baptism of fire...

Being a busy chap I went the lazy route into being Assistant MD and basically learnt the notes as the scenes came up and didn't really take the time to learn the peice thoroughly from beginning to end, which is fine(ish), except now I'm rushing through everything trying not to look like a complete wally.

It's actually going well at the moment, we've had some good rehearsals (including one with me in a kilt...) and people seem to be getting it. Plus everyone is being very supportive of me (i.e understanding that if they ask me a question I might have to think for a minute, or go away and look at it). We have two great foresters, and the Vixen and Fox are equally as good. I spent quite alot of yesterday playing with a decomissioned gun.

So I'll sporadically post about how things are going. And its

Monday, 14 September 2009


Tomorrow sees (for me anyway) the official start of term with the first day of auditions for the Edinburgh University Music Society. I am looking forward to them as it is the first time I'll have sat on a panel for instrumental auditions (although i Know All about singing ones...) and the first time I'll have done anything official as an employee of MusSoc.

Though these are my first set of auditions as a panel member I've played for all the auditions for the last two years. Thus I have a good idea of what to expect and whilst I'm no Jay Friedman ( I'd thought I'd share a few thoughts.

The problem is people often think they have to wow the auditioners to get noticed. In fact what you need to do is simply show us what you can do. If that means some amazing Violin piece with stratospheric high range, left hand pizz and lots of double stopping, then by all means go ahead. But if you can't do this simply don't try to do it. Obviously try for something that is going to show off how well you can play, but for me personally I would prefer hearing something to your level with few wrong notes than some amazing piece played awfully.

Don't panic! Is often great advice. You might be nervous, but try to relax, it really won't do you any good! Last year we had one unfortunate girl who's reed broke and she started crying, yet she still got in! Always think positively, only get upset about not getting in, until you know you haven't got in!

And for me commitment is paramount. My orchestra rehearses on 10:30 on a saturday morning. I need people who want to be their, rather than the fact they might as well play because they didn't get into symphony, and turn up half the time. In that case I'd rather have someone who was not as good, but turned up and really wanted to be there. Sadly this happens alot with my orchestra and its very annoying.

Short and sweet! So be warned! Play to your level, and know what your getting into!

Sunday, 6 September 2009


Ever wondered how conductors program concerts? Well...

I recently became the conductor of the (Edinburgh) University Sinfonia after Iain McLarty (blogger,, ex flat mate and fellow baton enthusiast) retired after 3 years with the stick. Living with Iain I obviously knew this was coming up, and, more in a state of fantasy than any confidence in my conducting ability (not to mention to field those scurrilous interview questions)started coming up with programmes. The word "hypothetically" was used an awful lot...

I had a sort of idea that I would go back to basics, overture concerto symphony. And where better to start than Dvorak 8, an enthusiastically jolly piece, which is perfect to do with this kind of orchestra, enough of a challenge to keep people on their toes, fun to play ect ect. As soon as I heard that horn trill in the 4th Movement I was hooked.

So I had my symphony, "hypothetically" of course. Great. What about the rest? One focus that Iain had really bigged up was that of student soloists, and particularly unusual instruments (tuba, double bass). Obviously I was very keen for this to continue and thought a bass trombone concerto was just the ticket. I had a guy who was at least interested in thinking about it. The obvious choice after shopping around was the Brubeck, a great jazzy piece which isn't hard for the orchestra but is just different, refreshingly so in fact.

So I took this to my interview. And they liked me and so conjecture became fact and I never used the word hypothetically again...

Now I could really think about it. I had about 15-20 mins to add to the Brubeck and Dvorak. I dabbled with some Adams and Copland to create an all American first half but decided against it. Then, whilst looking at a random brochure for youth orchestras my eyes rested on Chanson Minimale by Ed Harper, a university Lecturer who had died recently. I read the programme note which talks about wondering what sort of music Elgar would have written had he been alive in 60's America. This sounded brilliant, and a nice tribute to a man who did so much for university ensembles. I got a score and it was fine. Great.

However it was only 6 mins long meaning I still had 10 mins to fill. I had absolutely no idea where to turn. I asked friends, listened through my iTunes, looked through youth orchestra websites for rep. Nothing. And then, when I was about to turn to Vaughan Williams English Folk Song Suite suddenly it came upon my iTunes shuffle, a Shropshire lad. What a nice piece I thought, the more I listened the more I liked. I checked the score, playable. However does it fit in with Harper, Brubeck and Dvorak? Eventually after much umming and aahing I decided to just go with it as time was pressing. So I had my program, excellent.

Except...The publishers for the Brubeck were appauling communicators, nigh on silence. Add this to the fact that my soloist was expressing doubt in himself. Eventually it got to the point where we just had to drop it and go with something else (though, as sods law dictates the day after I'd given the order to drop it, they got in contact...). Without much thought I told my librarian to order Mont Juic by Britten/Berkeley, something I was going to do ages ago on an orchestra tour that never happened and which I knew was feasible and fun, though less exciting than the Brubeck.

It was only a few days later when writing a summery for our website that it clicked that these three pieces were four English composers view of three different places and periods, Harpers take on late century America and minimalism, Butterworth's view of an idyllic turn of the century Shropshire and Britten and Berkeley's take on 30's Barcelona and Catalan culture. Great, I thought. It looks like I've really thought about the first half, "English views of cultures through music" or something more snappy. I felt rather chuffed with my subliminal planning.

Then in a moment of insomnia last night I reached for my indispensable "BBC Proms pocket guide to great symphonies" to see what it said about the Dvorak. It turns out that due to a publishing dispute the Symphony was published first in London, leading it to have until recently the nickname, "English".

Of course if anyone asks I'll say that I planned the whole program around this...

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Pageturning and the Festival

So I got a phone call from a friend during a hectic week a couple of weeks ago asking if I could do some page turning at the (International) Festival. Great I thought. And there's money in it. Even better.

Which is why I found myself in the Queens Hall to page turn for the Hebrides ensemble. This in itself was quite nice, they are a group that I love listening to and I've been conducted by Will Conway their artistic director a lot.

However the best thing about this was the fact I was page turning for Philip Moore, not the former organist of York Minster (and a former next door neighbour of mine) but Philip Moore the upandcoming pianist. His duo with Simon Crawford-Phillips has created in my opinion the best recording of the two piano version of the Rite of Spring you can find (you may have also seen them on the proms recently). In short, I'm a fan. So consider my delight when he turned out to be a lovely guy, quite chatty, a fabulous pianist and very accommodating of my occasional errors (hazy as I was at the 9 O'Clock morning rehearsal after a less than sober night the night before. Mind you at least I didn't sleep in completely like two of the Hebrides' own members...!)

All was fine until we got to the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony. I'm a relaxed kind of guy, I don't get nervous before all but the biggest concerts, and I'm very laid back even in those. However the Schoenberg turned out to be just about the most stressful 22 minutes of my musical life. There seemed to be a page turn every 10 seconds, and everything seemed to be a blur of black on white. This was the sort of peice that if I fucked up he would have been in serious trouble. Thankfully I didn't, though there was one moment where they all got out and I didn't know whether to turn or not which nearly ended in disaster. Thankfully it got sorted out before something awful happened. It was certainly the most I have concentated in a musical performance, and as I wasn't playing anything this says alot!

The rest of the concert was more mundane thankfully, a lovely version of L'Apres Midi which I want to get my hands on, and some Mahler songs excellently sung by Christopher Maltman were the real highlights.

The other concert was today. I was turning for Helmut Deutsch who was accompanying Michael Volle and Franz Hawlata. I wasn't really very excited about this one, song recitals don't really turn me on, plus it came on the the back of the after show party for the show I was doing in the Fringe. However this morning turned out to be one of the most pleasurable mornings I have spent in a very long time.

All three of them were lovely, and completely mad, they kept suggesting mad things they could do to liven the recital up (in a drinking song they were seriously thinking about bringing the bottles of Whisky Festival Performers are given on with them...). I thought it would be odd being a 'fourth wheel' in a rehearsal conducted in German, however they kept telling me anecdotes in English which was nice. And at one point, whilst they were rehearsing three songs by Britten, Helmut said "Do you have any remarks about the english?" I suddenly realised he was talking to me and the other two were looking at me intently. I mumbled something about it being "Really good" (which it was!), hardly world beating advice, but what is one meant to say to two world renowned singers in this situation? Answers on a postcard please...

Page turning for Helmut Deutsch was honestly one of the most privileged things I have ever done. I mean Philip Moore is an astonishing pianist, don't get me wrong. However The Helmut plays the piano is just astonishing, the amount of colour and depth he gets out of the piano was incredible. For someone who has and will be doing a lot of this sort of thing in the upcoming months it was a complete eye opener.

So all in all I've had a great time doing it. The festival might still be going on but I'm back in Beverley having a bit of R and R. Bring on next year...

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Fuzzy AM...

After the other months negative Radio diatribe I thought I would balance it out with a rather more positive one tonight. The obvious station to focus on would be Radio 3, but as good as it is I have to confess I hardly listen to it (although I am getting better. my driving station is, very unpredictably, Radio 1...). No I want to talk about what, in my humble opinion is one of the best, well balanced and informative Radio programmes out there, and yet, due to it's anti-social hours is known by few people, 5Live's Up All Night.

This may sound like an oddity. People too often have a very negative perception of night time radio. It's taken Radio 1 until the last few years to make anything of its 10 O'Clock shows with Colin Murray and now Nick Grimshaw turning what used to be a precursor of "the graveyard shift" into a success. The graveyard shift is usually the domain of either up and coming talent, sent to cut their teeth for a year or two, or washed up former breakfast show hosts who have in some way or another pissed off the management.

However, in an inspired decision, when creating 5Live back in the 90's the BBC gave the 'graveyard shift' to neither of these types of people. Rather they gave it to Rhod Sharpe, who at the time of the stations creation was a experienced Foreign Duty Editor. Around Sharpe they built up an impressive show which makes the most of the BBC's correspondents around the world to develop stories in ways daytime just won't allow. It sits in the middle of the two normal types of 5Live show, the sedate paced phone in and the frantic news show.

Sharpe himself is one of the greatest assets to the show. Some of the best moments are Sharpe's regular little asides, his short vivid description of four scenes of American life in the four time periods, just before the ABC news at 2:05, or his personal anecdote after the news at 3 that perfectly frame periods of hard hitting, proper journalism, or reports from far off places.

Of course one can't forget Dotun Adebayo, recently honoured with an MBE, who is in some ways Sharpe's opposite, his African inflected twang more lively and upbeat than Sharpe's soothing tones. It is he who marshals the weekly World Football Phone in, which seriously rivals 6-0-6 in my opinion. He's good at jolly, but also very good at serious and interviews like a dream.

All of this combines to create a vividly exciting show, one, because of its late time slot and long duration, can handle both the very serious, the very funny and the very mundane (in a good way). Its not like the night shift on News 24 for example, which is effectively the same stuff recycled every half an hour. Here we have news, phone ins (everything from science to sleep), interviews and so on.

I put it on to get to sleep, but I have to confess I usually don't (at least for a while anyway). Part of me really wants more people to know about it, but part of me likes the fact that most people switch off after Richard Bacon. It keeps it special for the rest of us.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Fuzzy FM...

A recent read of Robert Fink's book "Repeating ourselves" shows a clever link with the rise of minimalism being prepared for by the repetitious listening habits of the 50's/60's middle class (which were then developed by classical listening radio stations), especially to the second rate concerto grosso of second rate 18th century composers. This got me thinking by extension about our own much maligned fuzzy-wuzzy Classic FM.

I have to point out before I really get started that most of the usual arguments levelled at Classic FM I don't really have a problem with. I unlike many do not mind the fact that individual movements are played on their own, sometimes all I want to do is listen to the last movement of Mahler Two, or the opening of Shos 5. I would never (of course) programme a single movement if I was conducting. In fact, as much as I hate naming names I recently played a concert with Edinburgh's Open Orchestra, where we did only the last two movements of Schumann 3, something that felt really odd and slightly lacking(lets not even get into the fact that that there conductor has no idea how to treat trombonists...).

I do not also mind the arguments that say you 'should never switch off when listening, it should always be a serious process'. This is the 21st century. I don't every time I hear the first movement of a symphony think "ooh there's the development". Sometimes I switch on, sometimes I switch off (I'm writing this listening to Rzewski's Windsboro' Cotton Mill Blues and ignoring it...) Background music is a welcome addition to mundane tasks, and long may it continue to be.

No my problem with Classic FM seems to be... well Classic FM. I think the first thing that gets me is that it seems to be ALL about relaxing (Relaxing Classic FM...) As said above I don't mind the idea of using music to relax, but at Classic FM this is all they seem to use they're for, smooth classics, relaxing classics, surely their listeners want to be a bit more energetic (thats when they order '1812' on the requests show...) Relaxing is fine, but to build a whole station around it is mind numbingly irritating. The rest bite always used to be the 'Concert' at the end of the day which had some great works played, some of which were even not relaxing in any way! However even that got taken over to some extent by the fuzzy wuzzy police, and is a shadow of its former self (if it exists at all)

And what do we get to relax? Either Baroque instrumental movements, romantic symphonic middle movements or soppy 'contemporary' diatribes in C Major (more on this in a minute) endlessly repeated on a monthly cycle. Now my personal limited scope of repetoire (i.e not liking pretty much of the above rep) might be making this sections polemic a little impartial. But its not even necisarrily the music. I do begrudgingly admit that some of the stuff Classic FM play is brilliantly written, but its the fact that this is all they seem to play!Even if there is a need for relaxation (which I can get) why not play some new pieces for a change? I've always thought minimalism would work well, it has everything a perspective Classic FM listener would need, tonality, solid rhythm and so on. Or some Tipett, 'child of our time' isn't particularly offensive, and a cracking piece of music with the same check-list as minimalism. But no, we never get imagination, just Mozart.

It's got to the point where when I hear a piece I do like, say for example Dubussy's Prelude I instantly don't like it and switch off just because of the context its placed in (a fuzzy silence either side, and a gentle voiced male commentator sliding us straight into a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso...) whereas I listen to Radio 3 and I get Petroc booming out afterwards. I bloody love it.

Yes, my other hatred, this contemporary classical stuff. Now to clarify I'm a fan of tonality, I believe it still has a big role to play in music of our time. Karl Jenkins I can just about deal with, but people like Joby Talbot et al churning out long repetitive works which just about dodge traditional teleology whilst sticking to C Major and Cello solos (plus framed by the context all ready set out above) is about as suicidal as it gets. As much as I would like a bit of a experimental interlude (but then who would you put in it, Ades?) in the Classic FM Composer-in-residence scheme. However I don't think it's going to happen any time soon.

Now this has been (I admit) a unusually negative jeremiad. I must point out that Classic FM has done precisely 4 things for me.

1) It helped me to get to sleep on long cold nights at my Grandad's in the Dales, where it was the only radio station I could get

2) Classic FM was the place where I heard for the first time Moeran's Symphony and fell in love with it (its still my favorite symphony)

3)It once helped me with a pub quiz question about Peter Grimes

4) I accidently switched on one night after an awful day and they had just started playing Howells' Hymnus Paridisi, a absolutely cracking piece and one I shamefully omitted from my blog post about English music earlier in the year which cheered me right up.

Apart from this I get tired instantly of it all. I haven't even gone to talking about the requests show, or the magazine (which is where I DO get annoyed that they only have single movements...). So I will stop typing, and see whats next on the iTunes shuffle I have on at the moment. Its like Classic FM, except with much better music and less Fuzzyness and C Major.

It's John Adams, good.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Other Stuff

Also meant to say that I have recently come across the music of Gavin Bryars. Well worth checking out, espeically Jesus' Blood Never failed me yet, a very moving peice, even if it does go a bit over board with the minimalism. Still worth checking out though, it is on Spotify.

Talking of Spotify I have been very impressed with the amount of 'classical' music available. For a couple of years now I have been using the Naxos Music Library which, despite having a vast library of music takes a while to find what you want. Plus when you find it its usually been recorded by the National Ochestra of Outer Mongolia (not that I actually have a problem with Naxos recordings, just the older ones tend to be a bit dodgy) On spotify though often stuff is there, and in the case of well known repertoire, in many versions, most often the best ones as well. For example I was trying to find a recording of Messiaen's Piano Preludes. On NML there is one version, on Spotify there are about 5, one by Loriot, 1 by Aimar and so on, making it a great service for comparing recordings. Maybe eventually Radio 3's CD review will have to become "Spotify Review"...

Lastly I must draw your attention to Edinburgh Studio Opera's production of Carmina Burana for which I am assistant MD for (which, if I could be arsed to do them would earn this post a Where's Runnicles esque "Shameless Plug" tag...). Rehearsals start in 4 weeks and I'm getting rather excited (I'm playing piano). To be honest I'm very keen to see how it turns out, we are doing it fully staged set in Las Vegas, sure it will be great fun!