Composer, musician, singer-songwriter, record producer and conductor, Mike Batt has teamed with record label Guild Music to release a special recording of Holst The Planets that he conducted in 1993. Here he shares his thoughts on why The Planets is such a significant work and the challenges of working on it with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, together with some insights into his musical and creative life…..
What it is about The Planets that makes it such an attractive piece to conduct?
It’s a seriously wonderful piece of orchestral composition. Maybe that’s obvious but The Planets has such melodic strength, and depth of orchestration and it ranges across the entire spectrum of emotions and dynamics. It’s not just “Programme music” like a piece “about” each particular planet. In Saturn – The Bringer Of Old Age, you feel the emotional weight of old age, in the dark, lumbering opening. Later in that movement you get a bit of feisty madness, maybe even confusion coming in, always in an original and musically striking way. It’s a real adventure for the listener just as it must have been for the composer.
Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
For some reason, as soon as I heard orchestral music. I wanted to be a conductor. I didn’t grow up in a musical family. There was almost no music in the house. The junk mail leaflet from Concert Hall records dropped through the letterbox when I was about 11 and that was it. Once I heard Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, I wanted to conduct it. The fact that my granny sent me an LP called “Music for Frustrated Conductors” with little diagrams of a cartoon bloke diagrammatically conducting the basic rhythms, might have contributed! I read an interview a while ago where Simon Rattle said he had partly been influenced into conducting by that very same album!
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
My love for music is almost too eclectic for my own good, to the extent that people might be confused by it. But I wouldn’t change the chameleonesque nature of my “theatres of operation” and my passions and influences, which range from from Mozart to Bartok and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones to Frank Zappa and Count Basie.
How exactly do you see your role as a conductor? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
An orchestra definitely gets a vibe from a conductor and vice versa. The conductor needs the orchestra to feel confident that he or she won’t let them down by screwing up, or make them play a piece in ways that they don’t feel appropriate (eg., tempi that they hate) – although that’s part and parcel of being an orchestral musician. If an orchestra “likes” a conductor and empathises with him, they will play better for him. If they can see it matters to him, they will try to deliver. A bit of an eye contact just before a woodwind or horn entry, for example, works wonders to make the player feel that you know where he or she is coming in and would like to share the moment. If you punch the air at the brass section just as they are breathing to come in fortissimo they actually do play fortissimo!
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
The best way is by body language. You should be able to walk in and just play, maybe with a little pre-explaining any particular ideas you have, but it should mostly come from your baton, body and face. You are sort of dancing with the band , and you are “leading” the dance. A great orchestra will observe a rubato moment that has never been discussed, just by what they see and feel from the conductor. They should and do follow that baton, far more than non-musicians could ever imagine. Conducting a great orchestra is like driving an F1 car. They respond completely to the slightest gesture.
This was your first time working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. What was the most challenging part of conducting them?
I’ve worked with them many times since – but this recording was 25 years ago. It’s always a thrill to meet a new orchestra and when you know you have top notch players, you know the job will get done, and to the standard you want. Call me an optimist! But “meeting” a new band is rather like a first date. There are a few nerves. It takes only a few seconds for the conductor to size up the orchestra, and crucially for me, vice versa! So the challenges are only psychological. If you have top players the challenges are shared, – you are all after the same thing, a brilliant performance. When I was younger I had an experience where an overseas orchestra decided they didn’t much like me after only a few seconds. You could just tell. You learn by such experiences. You still get the job done but it’s less comfortable.
And what is the most fulfilling aspect of conducting the RPO?
Somehow that day in 1993 when we recorded the Planets it was just a joy to do it. I could see they were enjoying it, and so was I. The room (Watford Town Hall) had wonderful acoustics and I can’t think of a panicky or unpleasant moment. I would cite that whole day of recording as one of the most fulfilling events of my musical life.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
Schubert: 9th Symphony (The “Great” C major)
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
The Royal Albert Hall. It’s intimate and cozy, strangely. Yet it has that special majesty and charisma. You also know the audience are taking in that wonderful atmosphere before you even play a note!
As a musician and composer, what is your definition of success?
It can be so many things, depending on how you look at it. The parameters of commercial success have changed so much that it’s hard to say what is a “hit” and what isn’t. But artistically, if a composition succeeds in moving the audience and conveying the feeling you had when you wrote it, that is success. If you felt tearful writing it, you can bet the audience will feel tearful listening. If you were writing a funny, witty piece and you chuckled or were amused, the audience will chuckle and be amused too. That’s success.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Partly answered above. But guitarists John Paracelli and Chris Spedding are “up there” as musicians. So many classical musicians to choose from. Nicola Benedetti is such a wonderful violinist, so I’ll choose her. The (sadly) late Douggie Cummings (former principal cellist of the LSO) was an astonishingly good “life force” to have in the room while working, a beautiful player. Composers? Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Brahms, Beethoven Schubert, Tchaikovsky. All possibly boring marquee names to choose, but that’s why they got there!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Don’t get into gangs and cliques. Seriously, snobbishness in music is necessary in getting everyone to feel special about their music, but leave the snobbishness (again, sadly) to the audiences. You as a practitioner should feel free to enjoy every genre and do what you like. Oh, and practice until you’re blue in the face. Be passionate. If you aren’t passionate don’t get into it full time. Do it as a hobby. Even then you’ll enjoy it more if you are passionate. Pretty obvious I guess.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Knowing that my family could be happy and secure and fulfilled
What is your present state of mind?
Restless, with so much more to do as time marches on and I get older. I wish I could live for a lot more musically capable, healthy years than will probably be the case. Does that mean there will always be a project that I’ve conceived that I will never see come to fruition? Probably. I’m not afraid to die, I’m just afraid of not being alive.
To mark the centenary of the first performance of Holst’s The Planets on 29th September 1918, Guild Music presents the first complete release of a recording that Mike Batt made in 1993 that has lain in the vaults for 25 years. Produced by Robert Matthew-Walker and engineered by Abbey Road’s Simon Rhodes. Further information
Michael Batt LVO is an English singer-songwriter, musician, record producer, director, conductor and former Deputy Chairman of the British Phonographic Industry. He is best known for creating The Wombles pop act, writing the chart-topping “Bright Eyes”, and discovering Katie Melua. He has also conducted many of the world’s great Orchestras, including the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Sydney Symphony and Stuttgart Philharmonic in both classical and pop recordings and performances.