Tag Archives: RCS

RCS / Opera Double Bill

Alexander Gibson Opera School, RCS, Glasgow

This wasn’t an evening of rip-roaring thrills and spills, as opera so often is. Instead, a small student cast and instrumental ensemble from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in the flexible intimacy of the Alexander Gibson Opera School, took on the audacious challenge of a double bill of introspective chamber operas by Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars in which darkness and subdued intensity are the connecting thread.

Neither work – Nyman’s pseudo-Freudian The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Bryars’ melancholic Marilyn Forever – is over-concerned with narrative, musical highs and lows, or even time-stopping vocal showpieces. Instead, the focus, driven by Nyman’s trademark minimalism and Bryars’ smoky jazz-standard proclivities respectively, is mostly on the moment, a pertinent thought or turn of phrase phrase turning in on itself musically, and all the more potent for it.

Nyman’s work deals with the strange case of Dr P, a singer suffering from visual agnosis, which makes it impossible for him to recognise everyday objects, unable even to recognise his own wife, yet he can still sing and play chess. His devoted wife joins him in consultation with Dr S (the opera’s title comes from a book of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sachs in which he describes many such cases). Caroline Clegg’s production, with stage designs by Finlay McLay and lighting by Davy Cunningham, places the action simply and unpretentiously in an elegant domestic drawing room, the six-piece ensemble visibly raised side-stage.

Scots baritone Ross Cumming brings curiosity and humour to the role of the patient, whimsically unaware of the worry he loads on the doting Mrs P (sung with charming resilience by French soprano Marie Cayeux). There’s a suspicion at times that he might just be playing the doctor, which bounces pertinently off tenor Sam Marston’s lean, self-satisfied Dr S.

It’s not the easiest score to keep sizzling for a full hour, being typically Nyman with its fundamentally lugubrious demeanour, slow-shifting sections and imprisoned cellular detail. Yet conductor William Cole sculpts a performance that carries plenty cut and thrust by dint of meticulous discipline and sensitively-balanced dynamics.  

In contrast, the sultriness of Bryars’ Marilyn Forever – imaginary scenes based on the last night of Marilyn Monroe’s life to a libretto by Marilyn Bowering – opens the door to more decadent, expressive vistas. There’s an alluringly seedy quality to it, the tragic actress (sung with pouting conviction by mezzo-soprano Megan Baker) sprawled on her bed, men grubbing around, the humid strains of a jazz trio within the larger wraparound ensemble painting a louche musical backdrop.

It’s all about Marilyn, such is the symbolism of this production’s ubiquitous face masks and the actress’s mirror obsession; and Baker’s performance, demurely sung, lives up to the self-imposing fragility of the troubled American icon. Cumming, this time, excels in a constant state of metamorphosis as “The Men”, at one point as her incompatible husband Arthur Miller, at another tempestuously suggestive of previous partner Joe DiMaggio, but mostly he’s a shifting cipher of the species. 

Clegg couches the action in postwar movie terms, the tragic and predominant central focus on Marilyn offset by the pseudo-vaudeville presence of The Tritones, two agile sharp-suited misfits (tenor James McIntyre and bass-baritone Ryan Garnham) with more than a hint of the sinister, who might easily be mistaken for the comedic gangsters in Kiss Me Kate.

It would be charitable to say that Bryars’ score is anything beyond the ordinary. He’s at his best in jazz territory, which is where these RCS players, again tight-knit under Cole’s cool-headed direction, effect a sumptuous, atmospheric response, and where this opera really finds its niche.

You don’t often get to hear this repertoire. Well done the RCS for providing such a slick opportunity.

Ken Walton

Further performances on Wed 2 & Fri 4 Nov

Picture credit: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland / Robbie McFadzean

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. 

Errollyn Wallen at RCS

With a residence in a lighthouse on the North Coast of Scotland and a view to the Orkneys, Belize-born, London-raised Errollyn Wallen has been appointed Visiting Professor of Composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Wallen, who was appointed a CBE in the New Year Honours at the start of this year, found herself at the centre of some controversy with her instrumental arrangement of Parry’s Jerusalem for this year’s Last Night of the Proms, which she dedicated to the Windrush generation.

She has been working in Glasgow with the RCS String Orchestra and Teresa Riveiro Böhm, RCS Leverhulme Conducting Fellow, on her cello concerto, and will mentor students writing work for Plug, the Conservatoire’s annual festival of new music.

Wallen’s orchestral work The Frame is Part of the Painting was played at the 2019 BBC Proms by the BBC NOW under the baton of Elim Chan, with Scottish mezzo and RCS alumnus Catriona Morison as soloist.The current Principal Conductor of the Welsh orchestra, Ryan Bancroft, is also an RCS graduate and he will conduct her earlier work Mighty River in the RSNO’s current digital season, on January 15.

Image: Errollyn Wallen CBE ©Robert McFadzean