Tag Archives: Martyn Brabbins

Passing The Baton

Charisma, not ego, makes a great conductor. New RCS professor, Martyn Brabbins, tells KEN WALTON how he plans to impart that message

Wilhelm Furtwangler defined the art of conducting as “the sensualisation of the spiritual and the spritualisation of the sensual”. Herbert von Karajan reckoned, like Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God”, that “something just comes, and it’s the grace of the moment”. Then there’s ego. “Of course I’m not modest,” asserted Bernard Haitink. “If I were, I wouldn’t be a conductor!”

These particular exemplars belong mostly to a bygone era, the youngest, Haitink, having only just retired in 2020 while in his nineties. The world of conducting is becoming increasingly democratised. The untouchable demigods are all but extinct. If not yet completely, they will surely be once Covid is licked. 

It’s within this seam of change that Martyn Brabbins, musical director of English National Opera and long associated with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (associate principal conductor, 1994-2005), is turning his attention to tomorrow’s professionals. “There’s no place for the dictator,” he believes. “I like it when people’s egos are under control, where there’re able to be a decent human being and collaborate well with the players in front of them.”

As the newly appointed visiting professor of conducting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, expect him to impress such values on the young hopefuls he takes under his wings. Well-respected by the many major orchestras he has conducted around the world, Brabbins practises exactly what he preaches. Musicians admire him for his slick musical efficacy and no-nonsense efficiency. He knows the score – literally. When orchestras are hit by last-minute conductor call-offs and difficult repertoire needs rescuing, the call invariably goes out: Get Brabbins! 

This is not his first association with the RCS. He tutored there when it first began offering conducting courses in the early Noughties. Why come back? “The time is right”, says the 61-year-old, whose own career has taken him from studies in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and winning the 1988 Leeds Conductors’ Competition, to being one of the busiest international conductors on the planet.  

Besides his hectic pivotal role at ENO, he is artistic advisor to the Huddersfield Choral Society, a visiting  professor at the Royal College of Music, globe-trots regularly (or did so before the pandemic), and is a ubiquitous presence with the UK’s BBC orchestras, especially at the annual BBC Proms.

“I feel I’m in a much better place to impart useful stuff to aspiring conductors compared to how I was 15 years ago,” he explains. “I’ve done a lot of teaching, at the RCM in London, in Orkney [directing the annual conducting courses run in tandem with the St Magnus Festival], and many other bits in between. 

“Also, the RCS department is thriving. They’ve had some real successes and they’ve got the new Leverhulme Fellows and a very good Masters course which means the Conservatoire attracts some high level emerging conductors.” Alumni include Ryan Bancroft (principal conductor, BBC National Orchestra of Wales), Kerem Hasan (chief conductor, Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck) and Jessica Cottis (international freelance and principal conductor, Glasgow New Music Expedition). 

RCS alumni Jessica Cottis conducts the Queensland Symphony Orchestra


Equally significant in influencing Brabbins’ decision to return is Michael Bawtree’s appointment last September as administrative head of the department. “In order to make things work you need someone on the ground with whom you have a strong relationship and trust. Michael’s made the whole thing very quickly his own and it’s shaping up in a very positive way,” says Brabbins. 

That’s all good and well, but what of the reality of giving these students an “instrument” to practise on? Violinists have their fiddles, flautists have their flutes, but how do you provide wannabe conductors with their very own symphony orchestra? 

There will, of course, be opportunities for hands-on experience with the RCS’s own symphony orchestra. That, in itself, has encouraged Brabbins to broaden his involvement with the Conservatoire. “I felt I ought to be a presence for the whole Conservatoire if I could be,” he explains. “So we’ve agreed that, once a year, I will do a concert with the student orchestra, and integrate some of the conducting students in the rehearsal process. The most rewarding and interesting bit of teaching conducting is when you have an orchestra at hand.”

More importantly, Brabbins’ has enormous clout with Glasgow’s professional orchestras, and he’s making full use of it. “I’ve already had very good conversations with the SSO,” he reveals, with the intention of making that relationship beyond what it has been over the past 15 years. “We want to achieve a really good integration, and both sides need to get more from that relationship,  ensuring that the orchestra, its management and players have at least some kind of say in who’s chosen by the Conservatoire to be a Fellow. That creates a real sense of ownership.”

It doesn’t stop there. Brabbins has also been speaking to RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie “so we can embrace the RSNO in all this”. He’s also held talks with Gregory Batsleer, chorus master of the RSNO and SCO, about how to build in experience of choir conducting.  

“Gregory feels there’s a big hole, in that many orchestral conductors really don’t have much idea how to approach amateur choruses, and let’s face it, we have a lot of very good amateur choruses in this country. They are an integral part of our musical fabric. 

“Get all that in place, do it well, and we’re on course to making Glasgow a leading conducting hub,” he predicts. “My students at the RCM don’t get that level of opportunity.”

All of which is worthless without the right calibre of student, and it’s here that Brabbins’ instinct for the future of the conducting profession really matters. “Post-Covid, things won’t get back to the way they were, and maybe that’s a good thing,” he argues. 

“When I was with the BBC Philharmonic last year, chatting to the principal clarinettist, he said: ‘yeah, it’s been wonderful to be shopping local’. He was genuinely pleased that the orchestra, by necessity, had been using UK-based conductors. Maybe musical culture will have to change now, and there won’t be this passionate desire by British orchestras always to seek the next young foreign conductor.”

But even if that does open up more opportunities, it still requires finding the right set of skills for today’s purposes. What does Brabbins look for in his potential recruits? “Some things never change,” he believes. “There are many essentials, but no two people will have the entire combination of these essentials. So when you’re selecting you have to weigh up the strengths. 

“There are obvious things, like musical awareness and musical excellence. I remember talking to [Jorma] Panula, the famous Finnish conducting teacher, and his first criteria is that the conductor is a virtuoso, a top class performer. That’s one way of looking at it and an interesting thing to have in your back pocket, but maybe not as crucial as he might think. Charisma, though, is hugely important. It comes in very different guises, but there has to be a very clear and passionate musical desire, a real personality, a real wish to make music in a certain way.” 

The days of great dictators are gone, he reiterates. “There has to be a willingness to collaborate. I’ve just been rehearsing the strings here in Cardiff, and you’re to-ing and fro-ing all the time.” That from someone who knows his stuff, gets the results he wants, and always gets asked back. 

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow 

As Martyn Brabbins rightly observed during his interval thoughts on Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice, there is a disturbing undercurrent that haunts its pungent score. We weren’t about to hear the whole opera, but rather a masterfully crafted concert suite, prepared eight years after Britten’s death by the conductor and Britten collaborator Steuart Bedford.

It was the final piece in a brooding all-Britten programme broadcast live on Radio 3 by the BBC SSO, the common factor throughout being that anxious underswell described by Brabbins, whether in the sombre strains of Russian Funeral, the searing mystical delights of the song cycle Nocturne, the ghostly references of John Dowland cutting through the ruminative Lachrymae for viola and string orchestra, or the constant reminders within the Death in Venice score of the opera’s hovering fear – rumours of a cholera pandemic. How topical!

Russian Funeral, scored for brass only, is understandably powerful and morose, written in the run up to the Second World War when Britten’s anti-war sensibilities were fully wakening. But it’s not just about his pacifist ideals. Structured around a Russian proletarian song, it’s a paean to the victims of the 1905 Winter Palace insurrection, its lugubrious but hot-blooded sentiment roundly embraced by the SSO brass, underpinned by the menace of militaristic drums.

Britten’s final song cycle, Nocturne, took us to a dreamier world. These settings of Shelley, Tennyson, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare, among others, explore rich and varied images of sleep and darkness, from the hypnotic density of Shelley’s On a Poet’s Lips I Slept, the catchy “ting, ting, ting” of Middleton’s Midnight Bell, to the powerful contradictions in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43.

Tenor Mark Padmore’s performance hit the magic button, in one sense capturing that piercing objectivity we so associate with the work’s original exponent Peter Pears, but in another sense finding a range of expression fluid enough to amplify the music’s shifting moods and dramatic surprises. 

He owed much, of course, to the supporting piquant flavourings of the SSO ensemble, notably the thrill of the duetting flute and clarinet in Keats’ Sleep and Poetry, the entrancing harp in Coleridge’s Encintured with a Twine of Leaves, and that gorgeous blanket of strings throughout – a defining, unifying presence.

Where Nocturne looks to English poetry, Lachrymae for solo viola and strings (Britten’s 1976 orchestration) turns to old English song for its inspiration. Almost like a reverse set of variations, John Dowland’s theme, on which it is based, emerges in full at the end rather than the beginning. It’s a transformative moment, and one that seemed especially profound as the inevitable resolution to a captivating solo performance by SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson. The subtle references to Dowland previously were like phantom apparitions, the full string complement equal in capturing such magical moments.

All of which found the perfect destination in the Death in Venice Suite. Bedford’s slick continuous distillation maintains the opera’s narrative flow, but equally it allows us to appreciate the score on its own merit. Yes, the gnawing nuances that reflect the ageing writer Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy Tadzio are intrinsic to Britten’s expressive language, and are hard to discard if you know the opera. Yet this steely, sinewy, often sublime performance illustrated, too, the composer’s own emotional struggles. Disturbing yes, but wonderfully enriching.
Ken Walton

Image: Martyn Brabbins ©Ben Ealovega