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...

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