Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My career in music has been an organic process of embracing a variety of opportunities that have unfolded as a result of my training as a multi-instrumentalist/ composer and following my intuition. The turning point in pursuing my musical career in particular happened during my years studying composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where I met a wide range of musicians and had several professional opportunities that opened the door to a continuous flow of experiences to date.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My Mum (who decided I should start piano lessons at 4 years old), Sweet Honey In The Rock, David Smith (my principal piano teacher), Sue Sutherly & David Kennedy (my cello teachers), Stevie Wonder, Trinity Laban, Bach, Courtney Pine, Nitin Sawhney and Anoushka Shankar.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Moments of my own self-imposed limited thinking.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My debut album Road Runner

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Roxanne

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Every show is unique. I consider the venue, audience, music I have in my repertoire, whether it’s a solo or band show and then shape the performance accordingly.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

King’s Place, London. It’s a beautiful venue in my hometown with great sound, two versatile rooms that are able to accommodate the range of my musical styles and the capacity is just right for me (intimate but big enough). I’ve had so many incredible pivotal performances there across my career and memories to last a lifetime.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing my song ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC, becoming the only non-American to win an entire season of Amateur Night Live.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A stream of exciting musical opportunities that facilitate artistic growth and truly enjoying the music you’re creating and sharing.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

  • Hearing your own inner voice, following your intuition as an artist.
  • Creative discipline – having a practice to enable development and excellence.
  • Recording your output so you can reflect and move forward with confidence.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

In 10 years time, I see myself engaging in a portfolio of amazing creative experiences including:

  • Creating an extraordinary multi-disciplinary live show and touring the world with
    my band, dancers and crew.
  • Composing music for theatre, dance and film.
  • Running a record label that supports release of music by other artists as well as
    my own.
  • Curating several music festivals worldwide.
  • Collaborating with some of my musical heroes including Sting, Anita Baker,
    Erykah Badu, Bjork and Take Six.
  • Composing for and performing with several orchestras including the London
    Symphony Orchestra, Chineke!, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Metropole Orkest

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Internal and external peace and fulfilment in all aspects of life in the present moment.

What is your most treasured possession?

Reuben, my cello.

What is your present state of mind?

Calm.


Singer, songwriter, cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a rare exception to the rule that classical and alternative r&b music cannot successfully coexist.

Graduating with a first from both Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Manhattan School of Music, Ayanna was a participant in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme and become an Emerging Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre. She was a featured artist with Courtney Pine’s Afropeans: Jazz Warriors and became the only non-American to win Amateur Night Live at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC.

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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I was always a musical child; I used to sing a lot in choirs before playing the violin; this has had a big influence on my playing.  I’m not sure what made me want to play the violin, but I remember that it was something I nagged my parents to do for about a year before I finally started aged eight. Once I had my hands on one, I knew that I would be able to play the thing!  Once it became clear that I had something special, the choice of career was made for me!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I had a wonderful friendship and working relationship with my one and only teacher Mateja Marinkovic. I was very lucky to find a teacher at that top-level from the first lesson, so violinistically he was my biggest influence. Since then it has been making wonderful collaborations with other like-minded musicians.  I have always had a very strong musical instinct; later on in my career though teaching at the Royal Academy of Music I have had to unpick why I feel things in this strong way in order to explain it to others!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Learning to play the violin to a world-class level is undoubtedly the most challenging thing I have ever experienced! We have to sacrifice so much as youngsters to get there, missing out on childish fun and shedding a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Still, it was worth it in the long run.

It’s 25 years since I made my debut with the Hallé Orchestra, and another significant challenge is to continually evolve and develop yourself over time so as not to become stale. For me, that has meant pushing myself to try new things and taking risks with repertoire that other players shy away from.

I have always challenged myself to be the best I can and in order to evolve I have also had to be creative, from the founding of my Music, Science and Arts Festival in Oxford (www.OxfordMayMusic.co.uk) to recently being given the role as Artistic Director for the Australian Festival of Chamber Music (www.afcm.com.au). These roles take me out of being a just a player into a whole new creative world.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am very proud of the three recordings I made for Hyperion of the complete Bruch works for violin and orchestra with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins. In particular, the recording of Bruch Violin Concerto no. 2 is very close to my heart.  I’m also very excited by my latest recording of the Schoenberg and Brahms violin concertos (Orchid Classics). The Schoenberg was an incredible adventure to learn and get to grips with.  I have made some lovely movie soundtracks, and as I imagine music in terms of storytelling, the imagery and music make such a powerful combination; the soundtrack to Jane Eyre written by Dario Marianelli still makes me cry!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have probably enjoyed performing Brahms Violin Sonatas with my regular collaborator Katya Apekisheva the most out of any of the smaller scale repertoire. In terms of concertos, I adore Mendelssohn Concerto, and I could play it over and over again without tiring of it. I love Brahms and Dvorak Concertos too. I have also had a great time performing more contemporary concertos like those by Magnus Lindberg (no 1) and Brett Dean.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

This happens kind of organically. Some things are requests from promoters (for instance an unusual concerto), others more ideas that come together because of a particular theme.  I am happy to juggle lots of repertoire, so sometimes there is no rhyme or reason!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

In London I would say the Wigmore Hall is the most special – you can hear a pin drop!  Out of London where the best halls in the UK are, I particularly love Symphony Hall in Birmingham and Usher Hall in Edinburgh. The hall becomes an extension of the instrument, so the best halls allow the violin to fully vibrate and give a warmth to the sound, and the hall gives feedback to the musicians.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I have always said that as a British soloist, you haven’t made it until you have played a Prom concert. This happened for me in 2015 when I played Paganini’s La Campanella with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and I’m looking forward to the next one!

Performing in Leipzig Gewandhaus with MDR Orchestra a few years ago was magical. My father’s side of the family came from Germany but fled the Nazis, and I could feel my (long dead) grandfather in the room; he would have been so proud!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

See above re the Prom!

But, also I think longevity is a sign of success in the musical world, continuing to evolve and perform into your middle age (I’m getting there!) and then later is a real sign of success and stamina…

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

For me, integrity as a musician is the most important asset.  We are the voice of the composer, the notes didn’t accidentally land up on the page, so we have to justify every sound we make. No notes left behind!

What is your most treasured possession?

I have two; one is my incredible Guadagnini violin, a life partner that I have played for over twenty years. The other is my dog Mollie – although sometimes I think I am her possession.

Jack Liebeck’s new recording of the Schoenberg and Brahms violin concertos is available now on the Orchid Classics label.


Violinist, director and festival director Jack Liebeck, possesses “flawless technical mastery” and a “beguiling silvery tone” (BBC Music Magazine). Jack has been named as the Royal Academy of Music’s first Émile Sauret Professor of Violin and as the new Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music from 2021. Jack’s playing embraces the worlds of elegant chamber-chic Mozart through to the impassioned mastery required to frame Brett Dean The Lost Art of Letter Writing. His fascination with all things scientific has included performing the world premiere of Dario Marianelli’s Voyager Violin Concerto and led to his most recent collaboration, A Brief History of Time, with Professor Brian Cox and Benjamin Northey. This new violin concerto was commissioned for Jack by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from regular collaborator and composer Paul Dean, and is written in commemoration of Professor Stephen Hawking; A Brief History of Time received its world premiere in November 2019.

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Image credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Who or what inspired you to take up the trumpet and pursue a career in music?

It was mainly the incredible Dizzy Gillespie who taught me how fantastic the trumpet can be! 

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Definitely Dizzy, but also many other musicians – Queen,  also Trevor Pinnock, and many violin virtuosos who helped me understand song-like communication through an instrument 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The lack of Classical repertoire for the solo trumpet… and finding adequate time to mindfully practice and the courage to perform in front of audiences and at the front of symphony orchestras. 

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I was so proud of creating GABRIEL at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013. It was everything I adore about music: the greatest material one can imagine in the music of Purcell and Handel, the delightful opportunity to work for an extended period with the English Concert,  also to work for the first tine with very fine actors and explore a different kind of attitude and camaraderie on stage than anything I’d experienced before. Happily we’re restarting it as a concert performance at Saffron Hall and the Barbican later this month. 

Which particular works do you think you play best?

That’s not really for me to say! But I think over the years and over many many performances I finally know what I’m doing – or ideally would like to be doing with the two mainstays of the repertoire: Haydn’s and Hummel’s trumpet concertos. They are less of a display of short term technique and more of a vehicle of expression of who you are as a person through the instrument. 

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It’s pretty organic – it’s a mixture of conversations that rapidly take off (or don’t, and go on a slow burn!) and long standing relationships with beloved orchestras and conductors. Inspiration taken from all over the place too which is where the next album starts. 

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I’m quite keen on all the main UK venues as I have such a long history with them, and they bring back fond memories each time I visit, but I do love magical settings such as the Hollywood Bowl and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. 

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The last night of the Proms will always be a big personal highlight 

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being totally inside the music and living each moment in the present, with nothing hampering what you want to say – technique, distractions, doubts, random sticky valves etc. ! 

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Keep listening to live music and going to concerts to remind you why this is such a brilliant, powerful, relevant, important, beautiful thing in a human’s life and why you should keep on searching for those memorable, spine tingling occurrences. 

Alison Balsom performs in Gabriel at London’s Barbican Hall on 21 October as part of her Artist-in-Residence series. Further information

Her new album Royal Fireworks is released worldwide on 8 November on Warner Classics


Alison Balsom has performed with some of the greatest conductors and orchestras of our time including Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, Sir Roger Norrington, l’Orchestre de Paris, San Francisco and Toronto Symphony Orchestras, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York and London Philharmonic orchestras, and has appeared as soloist at the Last Night of the BBC Proms. She regularly collaborates with some of the world’s leading chamber ensembles including the Academy of Ancient Music, Il Pomo d’Oro, The English Concert and most recently The Balsom Ensemble (a handpicked group of leading Baroque soloists). Alison is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including Gramophone Artist of the Year, the Nordoff Robbins O2 Silver Clef Award, three Echo Klassik Awards and three Classic BRIT awards (two of which as Female Artist of the Year).

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Help Musicians ShootWho or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I didn’t have a lightbulb moment with deciding to follow a career in music. It was more the accumulation of many joyous and happy moments right from when I started to play the clarinet, and from there it seemed a natural thing to keep working and enjoying what I did. As I was growing up and playing more and more, nothing else appeared that seemed more attractive as a career, so I simply stuck with it!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My first clarinet teacher, Vanessa, who got me started on this crazy journey. After that, I had lessons with Joy Farrall who remains a wonderful colleague and friend to this day. Other than that, more generally: everything! I take great pleasure in listening to what other people have to say. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt – one of the greatest mistakes we can make is passing judgement before we form our own opinion. (This is especially true, I think, as we exist in an era where peoples’ attention spans and tolerances often seem shorter and lower than ever before.)

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

A continuous challenge is sitting with uncertainty, and knowing that you’re only as good as your last performance. Of course, we all make mistakes (and whoever created this obsession with perfection in our industry has a lot to answer for), but it can be hard to feel like you are always being evaluated, compared, ranked. On the other hand, to do a job which keeps me on top of my game constantly is a challenge that I relish. The thought of having a job where I can become stultified and get away with constantly being mediocre is frightening.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Truth be told, I don’t really listen back to many recordings I do – once I’ve done something I move on pretty quickly to the next thing. Any performance or project that I walk away from knowing I learned something or gave everything to I am proud of.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Anything where you get a lot from the score or the collaborators. I draw a lot on what is right in front of me in the moment – the more there is to bounce off, the more involved I become.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I don’t really choose a lot of repertoire myself – this often comes down to the orchestra’s schedule. With freelance work you get booked and the repertoire is always decided in advance – you just turn up and play. With The Hermes Experiment, we always look to do new and different things, be it commissioning a certain composer, playing at a certain venue, or exploring a different theme (or all three!), and so our repertoire grows around this.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Before Christmas I took my bass clarinet along to a pub in Stoke Newington and joined in a blues jam at the invitation of a friend. I am pretty sure I was terrible but it was by far the most fun atmosphere I’ve played in for months.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Anyone who has flair and says things in an interesting way that also make sense. I think Joni Mitchell is a genius. I am discovering Kate Bush. A friend introduced me to the wonderful music of Brad Mehldau.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Some of my most treasured memories come from my time in the National Youth Orchestra – playing at the BBC Proms with Vasily Petrenko as the culmination of months of delving so deeply into repertoire and forging wonderful friendships is something I’ll never forget.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For me, success is asking the two questions ‘What do I want my life to be right now’ and ‘What do I actually have in my life right now’ and having as narrow a gap between the two as possible. There’ll probably always be a small gap, but it’s a good thing to aspire to. As a musician, as a person, it’s all the same thing. I’m not talking about wanting to own a nice car or winning the lottery or something. I’m talking about doing things that leave you fulfilled, that are true to your values. That is success. And being able to pay the rent. That’s also nice.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Firstly: Listen to as much music as you can. Try and get a flavour of everything, and then find what you’re passionate about and investigate it as much as you can. Be obsessed. Find what makes you happy and follow it relentlessly.

Secondly: Listen to other people. If you think they’re a moron. Listen to them. Everyone has something worth saying. Even if you walk away thinking ‘I definitely wouldn’t do it that way’, you were present and you listened and made the active decision to do things your way, rather than walking away out of close-mindedness, arrogance or laziness.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I still ask myself on a regular basis if I want to do this, if this is something that I want to be doing. As soon as the answer is ‘no’ I am out of here! Music is something that you do because you want to, because you are passionate about it and it brings you happiness (as well as happiness to others, of course). Why do it if these things don’t happen? To do something as personal as music for a living, but be empty or cynical inside just doesn’t make sense to me. Go and become a banker or something. Or a consultant (I still have no idea what consultants do). In 10 years’ time I will be wherever I am.


Oliver Pashley is a young London-based clarinettist and founding member of contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment. He holds the position of Sub-Principal Clarinet with Britten Sinfonia and plays regularly with orchestras and ensembles at home and abroad, including the Philharmonia Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Southbank Sinfonia, The Riot Ensemble, Northern Ballet Sinfonia, and the Haffner Wind Octet. Highly in demand as a soloist, chamber and orchestral musician, he has played guest principal with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, London Mozart Players, and English National Ballet.

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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music? 

My father was a huge inspiration for me. He was a fine pianist and played piano the Charles Kinz stride piano style. Along with my mother, they had a concert party after the way and with the other members of the “Wakeans”, as they were called, used to re-live the shows in our tiny front room in Northolt on a Sunday evening. Around 1953, when I was four, I can recall climbing out of bed and sneaking down the stairs to listen before getting caught and being sent back to bed.

I just wanted to play the piano so badly, and aged five I was sent off to piano lessons with Dorothy Symes, and indeed stayed with her throughout my grades before going to the Royal College of Music.

My father encouraged me to listen to as many different kind of music as possible and to play as many different styles as possible. I owe him so much.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

There are so many – Dorothy Symes was such an inspirational teacher; being taken to see Swan Lake aged about nine and the same year seeing Lonnie Donegan (who in later years became a great friend and fellow Water Rat).

I loved Trad Jazz and especially Kenny Ball, who I also got to meet in later life. My father introduced me to Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’, which mesmerised me. Here was a story being told in music – that was really the moment when I knew that’s what I wanted to do: tell stories in music.

What have been the greatest challenges and pleasures of your career? 

The biggest challenge has always been people saying “You can’t do that“, which makes me all the more determined to do it, regardless of the consequences. I was told doing King Arthur on Ice was doomed to failure, and it is still the most talked about show I’ve ever put on!

Likewise, I was told it was ridiculous to take a symphony orchestra and choir on tour in America – red rag to a bull! I did it and it was fantastic! Every day brings new challenges and if you manage to overcome and solve them, that’s where the pleasure comes in.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

I would probably give different answers on different days, but these are the ones that come to mind today:

‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ as that was the first solo album and was hated by the record company who kept asking when I was going to put the vocals on!

Also ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ and ‘King Arthur’ from the early seventies as well.

With my band, ‘Out There’ (originally released 2003) springs to mind as a very complex album where those around me really understood what I was trying to achieve.

The remakes of both ‘Journey…. ‘ and ‘King Arthur’ are very important to me as it now means there are records of the music to be remembered. Both of there were limited to the amount you could get onto a vinyl recording, so to do the full length versions was very important to me. I did the same with ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and added the three missing pieces to a live recording made at Hampton Court.

In recent years Piano Portraits has meant a lot tome for many reasons, not lease that it was my way of celebrating the genius and friendship of David Bowie. This has led to my brand new album for Sony Classical, Piano Odyssey, which ventures a stage further with piano variations of the music I love, with a string section and choir. A lot of time was spent getting this album absolutely as I wanted it and so has a special place in my “recording heart”.

Tell us more about your ‘Piano Odyssey’ album….. 

When I recorded ‘Piano Portraits’, it was purely solo piano versions of pieces I loved or had a connection to that had great melodies, and I rewrote variations on themes for all. I was really pleased with the outcome and the album did extremely well, making the top 10 for more than eleven weeks. I had decided against a second volume; however, because whilst there were a lot of other wonderful pieces of music that I wanted to do, none of them would work with just piano in the way I envisaged them.

However, it was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that started it all off again. Now working with the team at Sony Classical, I had wanted to do this originally but just couldn’t get it to work on piano alone in the way I could hear it. I kept hearing a string section and choir, and had a Eureka! moment one day when I realised this was indeed the answer – an album of piano variations of great music but with the addition of a small string section and choir.

I prepared a short-list of 40 pieces and eventually whittled it down to the 12 I really knew would work – and that included Bohemian Rhapsody, which I sent to my dear friend Brian May. He not only gave it his seal of approval but added a cameo performance of beautiful acoustic guitar.

‘Piano Odyssey’ is everything I set out to achieve and indeed has even gone a stage further than I thought possible.

What motivated your selection of the music featured on this album? 

Simple answer – melody. There has to be a great melody that allows variations without taking away from the original. There are pieces from The Beatles, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Liszt, Handel, Dvorak, yes and even me! There are also two original tracks that I wrote in memory of two wonderful moon bears which were saved from horrific bear bile farms, and as an Ambassador for Animals Asia, I am proud that we have save so many of these wonderful bears and celebrate them here. Both the bears – Rocky and Cyril Wolverine – sadly passe away. Cyril was my own bear and the loss was devastating for all of us who knew him. I wrote both these pieces surrounded by their photos.

Were there any special challenges in arranging the songs? 

To be honest, no. I have been doing this for many years, although never recording them like this. I also have a good team around me with the Orion Strings and English Chamber Choir, who know where I’m coming from musically.

Do you feel that progressive rock is a way to bring some classical sophistication to the pop world and, if so, are your achievements in some way striving towards leading an innovative, “parallel-classical” career? 

When I started in the late 1960s after leaving the Royal College of Music, there were real divisions within all music types, whether jazz, classical, pop, rock, folk, country, you name it. They all had their own identities and seldom met! I deliberately set out to fuse as much as possible and at first hit a lot of brick walls, but slowly started getting the message across, and today there are no taboos which is great.

With there being a Prog-revival of sorts, does you think there is potential crossover for youth audiences between the two genres? 

There already is and vinyl has a lot to do with it. Younger people are discovering vinyl and album covers and the information contained on them. Music is tactile and vinyl is bringing that back. Music now no longer has a date stamped on it. You either like it or you don’t. There is no specific age thing any more either – that side of things is very healthy.

Would you ever consider making a fully classical album? 

I have been asked to and the answer would have to be no. Although I occasionally turn to Mozart and Beethoven sonatas or plough through the Bach “48” for fun, it’s not what I would want to do, if I’m honest.

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

Success is sadly always thought of in commercial terms, but for me it probably only comes after you have departed this mortal coil. In other words, if in 100 years’ time somebody on radio plays a piece of my music, then I guess I can say I was successful to a degree…

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Believe in yourself. Don’t be frightened of opinions and criticism from others, as long as they are qualified to give it (which 99% of them aren’t!). Most people who try and tell you what you should be doing do so because they can’t do it themselves (many don’t know a crotchet from a hatchet!), but occasionally the odd word of wisdom does get through: you just have to be able to spot it.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Alive please – and still able to play, composing and having music adventures.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

To be worry-free – so there’s no perfect happiness for any human being, I’m afraid!

What is your most treasured possession? 

My father’s upright Bechstein piano on which I learned to play and inherited when he died in 1980.

What is your present state of mind?

Jumbled! It always is – too much going on!

 

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!

Mike-Batt-conducting-Credit-Claire-Williams
Mike Batt conducting (photo: Claire Williams)

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.