Category Archives: Features

Thoughts of an Elder Statesman

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

Nicola Benedetti’s Solid Foundation

Lockdown has forced violinist NICOLA BENEDETTI to adapt to new ways of working, and it’s not all bad, she tells Keith Bruce

It was just a few days ahead of her return to live work that Nicola Benedetti and I talked on the phone, so a question about how she has coped with lockdown, and a complete halt to her usually hectic concert performance schedule, was really the only way to begin.She pondered for a moment, never a woman to give an off-the-cuff or unconsidered reply.“It’s been mixed, really. I am actually very busy at the moment, with a lot of different stuff going on. But it has been a mix of some quieter times and some much more intense times with all the education stuff that I’ve been doing.”

In fact it was within a few weeks of concert halls shutting their doors that the integration of the violinist’s professional career and the work of the Benedetti Foundation which she established to bolster music education began, as had always been scheduled. As the first step toward the launch of her latest Decca album, Elgar, featuring the Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski, she led her young students, wherever they were, through a party-piece performance of the composer’s Salut d’Amour, one of his best known tunes. Her own version, with pianist Petr Limonov, was released as a promotional single from the album and the sheet music was available for student violinists to download. A series of “Learn with Nicky” YouTube videos completed the package.

At the start of this year the Foundation took its potentially life-changing operation out on the road for the first time, with hundreds of young people galvanised into taking the learning of their instrument seriously by the charismatic presence of Nicky and her hand-picked team of dynamic cohorts. At the same time Benedetti had made it clear that this work was going to be a priority for her, and her availability for orchestral concert engagements and the learning of new repertoire would be adjusted to accommodate that.With her live bookings cancelled to the end of the year because of COVID-19, like those of every other musician, and any online behind-closed-doors work a matter of complete rethink once that even became possible, it turned out to be a back-to-the-drawing-board moment anyway.

As far as the work of the Foundation was concerned, she says, “it sort of solidified what we had wanted to do anyway; it just propelled us to do it quicker.

“We were always wanting to move things online, and have a really significant online presence, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that. The content of what we do has not been changed at all, but the numbers have grown massively and quite quickly. We are very happy about that and surprised by how little compromise there has been on quality – we are just seeing a lot more people.

“The setting up of an online structure that is functional and works well – we had to do all that very quickly. Our whole ethos was of year-round advocacy and communication with all sorts of different charities, individuals, schools, teachers and students, but then we have our workshops. These are explosive events that have the potential to be quite life-changing for people.

“They are very much seen as one-off things, but in the last two months we’ve been running those on almost a daily basis, communicated with almost 12,000 young musicians and taught them directly. But we will be going back to our live workshops, it is just a case of when. There is no question that it will happen.”As far as the album release was concerned, she thinks the coronavirus epidemic made little difference.

“So much of an album release is done remotely anyway. Fewer interviews happen in person, so the feeling of that wasn’t all that different. For the release of an album, especially an orchestral one, it is very rare that you’ll have a ‘launch event’ moment.”Having those legions of young Elgar players can’t have hindered its prospects, and the album went straight to number one on the classical charts on release, at a time of Decca label dominance of the top ten. Benedetti, however, seems a little sceptical about what that means in terms of real listeners, and sales. She had been due to play the concerto often over the summer.

“I was really sad not to play the Elgar in Edinburgh, and at the Proms and in Europe on tour. I always find it difficult to gauge the success of things in terms of numbers of clicks or likes and views. How in-depth are people listening to something? It’s a real shame we are not doing that tour – then it would really be selling!”

When live music began to happen again, Benedetti was, characteristically, in the first wave of players testing the water. She was part of the limited season of live BBC Proms performances at an audience-free Royal Albert Hall, playing baroque music with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and as soloist on a streamed session from the Philharmonia, playing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. So when Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili was unable to play that virtuoso violin showcase at the Last Night of the Proms through illness, Benedetti stepped in at the last minute and stole the show.

Shortly after that the violinist was in Scotland to work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on a condensed approximation of how that ensemble’s season was supposed to open.The SCO’s barn-storming opener at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and then Glasgow City Halls, backed by investment managers Quilter Cheviot, was to have been Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, preceded by Bruch’s First Violin Concerto and opening with John Adams’s The Chairman Dances. Instead there is an online concert performance of the Bruch, billed as the Quilter Cheviot Benedetti Concert, filmed and recorded behind closed doors at Perth Concert Hall, and first broadcast at the time the Usher Hall concert was due to begin on Thursday September 24.

“Some orchestras and concert halls were very quick just to cancel an entire project and didn’t enter into those secondary discussions about what’s going to be in its place, but that was never the case with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra,” says Benedetti. “They always were looking at what else they could do and how else they could do it. Obviously to have the opportunity to produce a concert is great and I’m sure they’ll do an excellent job of getting it out to all their patrons and supporters, so that even if there is nobody in the room, people will be able to enjoy the concert in another way.”

As it happened, she was the last guest to appear with the orchestra before the shutters came down, playing and directing the Mendelssohn Concerto in a programme of Mendelssohn and Mozart with violist Lawrence Power in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in March.

“We had just done the Mendelssohn Concerto before lockdown, and I played the Sinfonia Concertante for the first time, and I enjoyed that week so much. I feel like I had a bit of a rebirth in my relationship with the Mendelssohn Concerto through my experience with the SCO.”

When we spoke, before the SCO rehearsals and filming, the violinist was anticipating a similar experience with the Bruch, and her first collaboration with Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev did indeed deliver a delightfully fresh and vibrant interpretation of that often-played work.

Readjustment, one way or another, is certainly the order of the day, and like many people, Benedetti sees dangers in the post-COVID landscape as well as opportunities she is keen to exploit.

“There are individuals and smaller organisations – or indeed larger organisations that have been very successful in managing their finances thus far and are therefore not prime candidates for rescue packages from the Arts Council or Creative Scotland – that are at risk. To get through this period without any casualties is highly unlikely, but it is an opportunity for people to refine themselves and double down on their fight for their existence and their worth.

“This has been an eye-opener for everybody, and lots of people have made life adjustments that they won’t give up now. I think for me there’s been a massive appreciation for time spent with family, and it’s a gift for me to see how much it is possible to do from your home.

“It’s also been interesting for me to see that everybody says you have to plan a concert two years in advance and suddenly we’re seeing that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Next year still looks like it did on my schedule, but of course I’ve no idea how much of that will actually stay. Anything I am doing now has been a recent invitation, put together within the last month or so. It’s a whole new way of working.”

Lockdown Life for Fergus Linehan, EIF Director

With a second spike in COVID-19 likely to undermine the return to normal for Scotland’s live concert scene, maybe it’s time to accept that a radical new norm is the only option. EIF director FERGUS LINEHAN is veering in that direction, he tells Ken Walton

Whatever time it takes to quell the presence of COVID-19, the pandemic’s impact on the Edinburgh International Festival will be game-changing, says its director Fergus Linehan. But don’t expect it to happen overnight. “2021 will only be the journey back,” Linehan cautiously predicts. “Probably 2022 will be the great celebration.” 

If he’s right, the timing is perfect. 2022 is the year the Festival celebrates its 75th anniversary. What better moment to embrace the catastrophic consequences of the current global dilemma and apply its lessons – and opportunities – to revolutionising the established norm.

We spoke in the wake of this year’s virtualised programme, in which – for classical music – streamed concerts on You Tube from The Hub replaced the traditional daily live Queen’s Hall series, orchestras were reduced to skeletal proportions in works such as Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, and opera became cinema (Scottish Opera’s terrific film version of Menotti’s The Telephone).

According to the EIF, a global audience of around 1.5 million tuned into the entire Festival rescue package, double the number of previous audiences. It didn’t do much for footfall in the city, of course, but it has opened Linehan’s eyes to new priorities, new opportunities, and lessons to be learnt through enforced adversity.

He was particularly surprised, for instance, by the extent to which the virtual audience signed up. “You know, usually our web audience skews much younger, but this time the older audience were equally engaged. A lot of people went ‘now I know how to play You Tube only television, or now I know how to hook up my speakers’. So what we started to see was not just us going to them, but those who never looked at culture online suddenly coming to us. That’s a huge change.”

Before Festival fans choke in their soup, be assured that Linehan has no plans to minimise the live experience. It’s a way of enhancing it, he says. “It has put us together with a whole range of people, whether it’s television production companies of filmmakers, who we’ve never really been together with before. I can see ways of really enhancing performances with it, where if you did a particular series, you could then have something online that people could go to before and after, like an extended equivalent to programme notes.”

We missed a few things this time round,” he admits. “I keep thinking of people tuning into Edinburgh for some of the music, say, where we might have had a merging of the performance with a video essay about different parts of the city, like a journey through Hopetoun House to Haydn’s music. It’s another art form and a way we need to start thinking.”

Whatever transpires, future Festival content is likely to reflect the inevitable anxiety over international travel that will be the fallout of COVID. Linehan is convinced the formerly accepted model of artists constantly on planes is going to change. “I do think we’re now going to need more localised culture. The idea of this constant flow of global stars is lovely, but it’s not really sustainable.”

But what Edinburgh really needs in order to bolster its global appeal, he insists, is a commitment by the city to improve its cultural infrastructure. And surely the most immediate priority is to resolve the bureaucratic bickering that is delaying and compromising the completion of the new 1000-seater concert hall of St Andrews Square, which will serve as a home to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and as a much-needed world-class venue for mid-size Festival events.

Linehan is in prime position to influence that, having recently been appointed the project’s interim co-chair in the wake of previous chairman Sir Ewan Brown’s sudden resignation. It won’t be an easy ride – the current squabbles require the plans to be redrawn to lower the building so as not to spoil the views of a new hotel next door, incurring increased costs and inevitable delays – but he is optimistic of a positive outcome. 

“We really need this hall,” he insists. “I think anyone who has been through a major capital development will know it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are always going to be turns in the road. I think it’s up to every generation to leave some great infrastructure behind. We do struggle as a city to build infrastructure at times. Maybe it’s because we have such a beautiful historical legacy that the necessity to add to it never seems so urgent. But as I often say, if someone hadn’t built the Usher Hall, we’d never have had an Edinburgh Festival.”

The enforced rethink, he adds, together with the practical realisation this year that technology has a key role to play in shaping future programming, might even be to the venue’s ultimate advantage. 
“I do think that any infrastructure now needs to think about how it’s going to feed into broadcast. Everyone says how technology has threatened live music, but actually it’s created more. When people listen to more music they go to more live music. The disrupter has never replaced it in any sense. All it really serves is to widen the area of interest. The new hall must recognise that.”

Finally, Linehan’s vision for EIFs-of-the-future is one that looks beyond three weeks in August. “I think what is becoming clear is that the future is not about everything or nothing, but a question of what the 12 months look like, about taking some of the emphasis away from August. That might mean looking at an extended season.”

“We’ve got to think a lot more about what Scotland’s cultural calendar looks like and what’s our collective duty towards that? Earlier in the year do we need to gravitate towards things that are more like public art, or more outdoors, and then to skew things in another way?” 

In short, expect future Edinburgh Festivals to free themselves from time-honoured convention. “It’s going to be a constant testing, a constant moving forward,” he predicts. And maybe it’s a message to all involved in the performing arts, given the COVID wake-up call, to get real with radical change. 

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