Ken Walton interviews conductor SIR MARK ELDER who returns to the BBC SSO for the first time in 25 years
Let’s look on the bright side. While the visceral, spine-chilling sensation of the symphony orchestra at its fullest fortissimo is becoming something of a distant memory, the same COVID restrictions that permit only limited player numbers to perform together has created a perfect outlet for forgotten, reduced-scale repertoire.
When, for instance, was Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony last performed in Scotland? I can’t answer that. But the fact it is scored for 23 solo instruments makes it the perfect vehicle for a cutdown BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra whose live online performance next Thursday (22 October) will feature a conducting figure whose Scottish appearances in recent years have also been few and far between.
He is Sir Mark Elder, currently working wonders as music director of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra – most recently in a highly-rated Vaughan Williams’ album on the Hallé’s own label, reviewed elsewhere on VoxCarnyx – which is one of the reasons he hasn’t been north of the border much lately.
He last conducted the SSO in 1995, filling in for the late Sir Alexander Gibson who had just died. Since then, fleeting visits have mainly been for Edinburgh International Festival appearances with the Hallé.
“As you know, I’ve been in Manchester for 20 years where we had an undertaking that I wouldn’t conduct any other orchestra outside London, so that my profile was focused on the Hallé,” he explains. “I was happy to agree that at the time, but now I’m freer to take up opportunities like this. So it will be wonderful to come back and work with the SSO again, though it’s unlikely it will be with all the same faces I knew 25 years ago.” There will, I assure him, be a few.
The entire programme, Elder believes, will be “a new experience for everybody listening and almost everybody playing it.” Besides the Schreker, a gorgeously sinuous example of post Romanticism, the concert includes Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 1 and Stravinsky’s abstract neo-classical ballet score Danses concertantes.
The choice of Schreker was all Elder’s. “It’s a piece I’ve known for years and done quite a few times in different countries. I think it’s a masterpiece, but it takes time to get into his idiom. There’s a richness in the harmony which is different from [Richard] Strauss. It feels to me like somewhere between Strauss and Berg, on the fringes of atonal music, and yet there are noticeable key centres.”
Written during World War 1 for the Vienna Music Academy, where Schreker was teaching, its restless spirit echoes the prevailing zeitgeist of fin-de-siecle Vienna, a musical world epitomised by the soul-searching radicalism of Berg and Schoenberg, and within which Schreker was popular and well-respected. His reputation waned later under Nazi oppression.
“There’s a sense of peace at the end of the Chamber Symphony,” Elder notes. “But it’s not wholly calm. There’s some unsettled quality which was perhaps there in all his music. I think it’s very inspired, hard to play, but very, very beautiful.”
Hard to play? With orchestras forced into rediscovering such rarefied repertoire, might it be perverse to suggest that COVID could actually present them with positive creative opportunities?
“I think the repertoire we’ve being forced to go towards is full of great chances,” Elder says. “But we have to divide things up between the members of the orchestra so that every time you do, say, the Schubert Octet it’s not always with your first string players. Everyone needs to benefit from it, to feel a part it.”
He’d happily do Tchaikovsky’s or Dvorak’s serenades for masses of strings. “I think they sound very good that way. You can then balance that with something like Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments or his Symphonies of Wind Instruments so the strings get a rest. I loved the idea my friend Ed Gardner had in London the other day of combining Messiaen’s Et expect resurrectionem mortuorum [for wind orchestra] and Schoenberg’s Varklarte Nacht [for strings] with the LPO. I think that’s exactly the mixture one could do to make sure everyone gets a go.”
For Elder, now 73, the past seven months have been a time for rich reflection. Without the constant travelling that is a conductor’s typical way of life, he’s been able to enjoy time with his family, including a baby grandchild “who’s a bundle of energy”. Spending springtime in his London home for the first time in his married life was, he says, a precious experience.
“I live at the top of Highgate Hill near Hampstead Heath and I know this area now inside out because I’ve been on so many walks. And to see the spring come to our garden was a real thrill that helped me to think forward, to spend time studying music I’ve never had time to.”
“I’ve really got into Bruckner,” he reveals. “Now I can’t wait to conduct the Eighth Symphony. It’s the most wonderful piece, however unfashionable everybody may say it is. Particularly the marketing people!”
He accepts that won’t be happening any time soon. In Manchester with his Hallé Orchestra, it’s clear the road back to symphonic blockbusters will be slow. The orchestra has been furloughed since lockdown, but the musicians will come off that at the end of this month. “They’ve been very frustrated and hemmed in by this, but we’re now planning a series of streamed concerts in the Bridgewater Hall, which is going to open for us, and that’s terribly exciting,” Elder explains.
“The first consideration in the middle of COVID, however, is persuading the public to have the courage to come back into concert halls.” But the future, he says, lies also in greater flexibility and he’d like to see the Hallé get out of central Manchester more often. “It’s important we seek out unexpected venues in the wider community, to go out and embrace new audiences and show them we have something they could enjoy, especially when they might have a fear of coming to places like the Bridgewater”.
The one thing Elder has avoided over recent months is “crying over spilt milk”. “I’ve concentrated on looking forward to the future as much as you can, in the belief that we’ll all get back to doing some wonderful concerts.” There’s positive thinking.
View Sir Mark Elder conducting the BBC SSO online from Thu 22 Oct, 7.30pm, at bbc.co.uk/bbcsso