fda20c_c850cb4dd0214ff688db33d783c0140fMusic-in-Motion is a revolution in classical music performance, conceived and developed by conductor John Landor. The musicians perform without music stands or chairs, using movements and gestures designed to clarify the structure, drama and emotional impact of the music.

I met with John Landor to talk about early musical influences, significant teachers, the impetus for creating Music-in-Motion, and more…..

 

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

Although none of my family were professional musicians, my father was a keen jazz trumpeter in his youth, and my mother loved the arts and played piano. We had a rather large family of six children and we did a lot of singing as a family. I was born in the Midwest USA and I remember vividly evenings “on the porch” singing all the old American favourites like ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain’, all that homespun stuff.

All my siblings learnt musical instruments, so I just assumed it was something everyone did. I remember proudly carrying home my first violin, the sense of ownership of something special. But almost as soon as I started lessons the family moved around a lot, which meant that it was difficult to get any regular teaching. At age ten I ended up as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral Choir School. There was no violin teacher, so I spent every morning break teaching myself, and also started to compose little pieces.

At WCCS I absorbed the whole Italian Catholic choral tradition. With 10 services to sing each week we all essentially became professional musicians at an early age. Although I hated being away from home (we were all boarders) the music was my great solace.

Was violin your first study instrument at Royal Academy of Music?

No, I decided there wasn’t much point in pursuing it as I was never going to play at the level I wanted to. My first experience of conducting around age 15 (one of my own compositions at school) was an epiphany. I walked around for days in a state of bliss and knew from that moment that this was what I wanted to do. I went to Oxford University to get a music degree and spent all my time forming orchestras and conducting concerts and went on to the Academy for conducting and composition.

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Significant influences or teachers?

My huge inspiration was Ilya Musin. At 34, I took some time for an artistic ‘re-fresh’ and went to study for a few months with him at the St Petersburg Conservatory. It was a revelation. Musin didn’t speak English but he spoke what I felt was my musical language, far more than anything I had encountered in all my years of study. I really felt I had ‘come home’, and fell in love with Russia in the process – such a fascinating country and people, complex, difficult, but so beguiling. He was the first teacher who talked about ‘character’ in music and that was a light-bulb moment. In my classes at RAM everyone talked about the nuts and bolts of conducting, but no one said anything about character. If the character of the music is absorbed, everything else starts to happen on its own. It was a total Eureka moment. I spent three months in classes with astonishment, amazement and relief, and it had a deep impact on my conducting.

This experience helped in the creation of Music-in-Motion?

Yes, although not directly. My finding the concept of Music in Motion was a slow evolution. It all started with the Mini Maestro family concerts I gave at St Martin-in-the-Fields around 2000 with LMA Orchestra. Because the sightlines there are not ideal for small children I started to send the orchestra out into the audience to play, with the kids holding their music. It gave them a chance to hear and see professional musicians close-up. But an important by-product was that it showed me that musicians can play perfectly well together even if spread out over a relatively large area.

I also realized that audiences just love being close to, or even in the middle of, the musical action – they’d say “wow! An oboist is playing in my face while I’m holding the music!”. And that face-to-face interaction with their audience gave the musicians a real buzz too – they felt more that they were artists in their own right communicating as individuals as well as a collective.

Then it occurred to me that if the musicians were able to move around while playing, they could perform more like actors on a stage and I could ‘choreograph’ the movements to show the interactions in the music. We started doing demonstrations of this in my Meet-the-Music discovery sessions in the interval of some of our evening concerts. The audience reaction was so extraordinary, it was clear that we had found something that was unusually powerful and inspiring. Instead of a static group of musicians seated in front of music stands, here was a living, moving, breathing musical organism.

Since then I have realized that this way of playing has almost limitless uses. For a start it’s ‘educational’ almost by default as it makes clear visually what is happening in the music without need for verbal explanation. All those people who like (or want to like) classical music but are put off by traditional concerts might find this a great way in. And for any musician it’s a great training for general expressivity as it challenges them to think more about how they communicate.

What influences would you say led you to the idea of Music-in-Motion?

First, Lindsay Kemp’s work, which made me understand how important context is to a performance. Secondly, a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Company where I ‘saw’ as well as heard a fugue being performed – a musical ‘line’ of dancers animated each voice of the fugue in a way that was incredibly clear and expressive. And finally, and most directly, Jonathan Miller’s production of the St Matthew Passion. In the arias with obbligato instruments, both singer and instrumentalist stood face to face, and I found it so direct, human and intimate compared to how it is normally done – just amazing. That deeply impressed me.

Is there a historical precedent for this?

Not that I can find or think of! For an idea that seems so obvious to me now, I find it almost unbelievable that there seems to be no historical precedent. Of course there has been quite a lot of work in the past few decades where musicians move on stage with dancers or act while playing. But these I find essentially use music to enhance a theatrical experience – whereas I am using theatre to enhance a musical experience.

I want to emphasise that Music-in-Motion is about revealing and highlighting the choreography, drama and acting that is intrinsic to the physical act of playing music already – not adding show or gimmicks! I am acutely aware that the moment you add a dancer, actor, video projections or have artists painting during a musical performance, the music itself becomes background. It’s incredibly vulnerable to that. So, while I whole-heartedly endorse the concept of musical performance in these kind of theatrical or dramatic contexts, that is the complete opposite of what I am trying to achieve. In a nutshell: a theatre of music, not music of theatre!

Do you feel any music could undergo the Music-in-Motion treatment?

Undergo? I think ‘thrive with’ is more the phrase I would use!

I’ve been purposefully focusing on core repertoire that isn’t overtly ballet or dance-inspired. In the Bach double violin concerto where the ripieno music interjects we had the players stepping out and back like a backing group to the soloists. It made the structure of the music so crystal clear to the audience.

In Mozart’s Jupiter, there’s this little Alberti figure in the second violins accompanying the tune. Normally it barely features in the aural landscape, it simply fills in the harmony. But then we musicians know it is in fact a completely wonderful, busy little conspiratorial moment in its own right. So we got all the second violins to play it in a huddle. All the sudden it became a vital part of the performance, not just an accompanying figure.

I want every and any audience to be fascinated by the riches contained in every single bar of a Brahms Symphony or a late Beethoven quartet – and not needing to be a connoisseur to appreciate it to the fullest extent possible, even on a first hearing.

How do you find musicians respond to Music-in-Motion?

Funnily enough the only run-ins I’ve had were with double basses! They felt it was a gimmick. Mostly, musicians start out pleasantly bemused, but once they get a taste of the sense of liberation from the normal hierarchies of traditional performance they love it! It makes each member of the ensemble feel they really count as individuals. Of course a certain level of stagecraft needs to be learned if it is not all to look a mess and distract from the music.

Does it affect the sound?

Yes it does, in several ways. The sound is much better. Music stands block sound, so when they are all removed there is better overall projection of the music. Even when a player turns while playing, the acoustic changes, so there’s yet another aspect of Music-in-Motion that can be used to enhance the experience of listening. Though it must only be used to clarify the music.

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

Be yourself and know what you are communicating.

Because the space we need to play our instruments is relatively small and, after all, most instruments are attached to our bodies in some way, many musicians naturally tend to focus inwards. The next point of focus is “am I playing well?”, then “what would my teacher think?”, then “I hope I am living up to the composer’s expectation” then “will I get a good review?’ – and only then the ‘end-user’, the audience, is considered! Music-in-Motion starts with the audience. How can we inspire, delight and fascinate them with what we do? If we can do this, I have no fears about the future of classical music.

Music-in-Motion – Shostakovich String Quartet No.8 performed by the Konvalia Quartet

 

John Landor is Music Director of London Musical Arts Orchestra, based at St Martin-in-the-Fields. He has been developing a new concept in orchestral and ensemble performance called Music-in-Motion since 2013.

Musicians and ensembles interested in exploring the concept are warmly invited to apply for one of his Music-in-Motion Workshops held regularly in London. Further information here

  

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting, and pursue a career in music?

Carlos Kleiber! More seriously, I was feeling a bit frustrated playing the cello, not having the big picture. The instrument seemed to be almost “getting in the way” of the music and me. Also I have always enjoyed managing people and was excited by the added challenge of getting the musicians to feel they are fully part of the creative process. Finally I felt I had something to say and express about music. 

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

I have met some fantastic people in my life, ranging from my nursery school teacher to my passionate cello teacher when I was a teenager, and my music teacher in high school. Working with Benjamin Zander was also a great experience. He taught me a lot as a musician and as a person. I believe it is crucial as an artist to keep learning from others throughout your life. It is often said that a great musician should know about philosophy and other arts, cultures etc. and this is absolutely true.

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

Getting it started!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My concert last year with Sinfonia Tamesa, when we performed Nielsen (Aladdin), Grieg (Peer Gynt) and Rimsky-Korsakov (Sheherazade), was pretty amazing – really electrifying and colourful! I was also thrilled to perform Albéric Magnard’s Hymne à la Justice last year on the 100th anniversary of his death. He hasn’t been played at all in France and for me it is a real shame! I am also very proud to be conducting a concert on 11 November at St James’s Piccadilly with the amazing Sarah Connolly in aid of UNICEF Syria Children’s Appeal. Such a worthy and important cause.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I experience and therefore conduct the music in a passionate way. Of course there is always a necessary intellectual approach to the score: you’ve got to analyse it and understand the notes and their relationship, but what’s most important is to love the music, to feel it and make the audience experience it with you. I particularly relate to powerful and expressive composers like Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius, Bruckner etc. Plus I am an advocate of playing unknown composers; the feeling of discovering something new, another language, another personality is always extremely rewarding and motivating.

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

I always try to put three kinds of pieces in my programmes: something famous to attract the more traditional audience, a premiere or contemporary piece, and a little-known piece or composer to feed the audience’s curiosity. There are so many wonderful things out there we haven’t heard yet!

Supporting new music is also essential. I believe performers should be more involved and work with composers themselves. For example, I think what Fenella Humphreys did with Bach to the Future was really inspiring.

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

I have played in too few venues to have a favourite. Maybe the state-of-the-art concert hall which Simon Rattle has been calling for in London?

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I can be quite obsessive sometimes, and right now I am completely mad about Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. It’s incredibly powerful, meditative, epic…

Otherwise, I like to listen to YouTube channels featuring unacclaimed masterpieces and other hidden gems. The Corymbus blog is also definitely worth following!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Carlos Kleiber (again)! He is such an inspiration. He breathes the music, loves it so much that the way he conducts seems so organic. I’ve also always been fascinated by Furtwängler and his bizarre but magical conducting. Of course we’ve got some fantastic conductors today as well: Mariss Jansons, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Andris Nelsons, Sir Simon Rattle.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my very first concert as a conductor in 2009! Hopefully there is much more to come. The UNICEF concert on 11 November promises to be quite a highlight too and because of the cause it supports, a memorable one too.

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

“You know nothing!” No matter where you are or how good you are, you have to keep learning and be humble. But remember if music is life, life is not only about music!

What is your most treasured possession?

The St Christopher pendant my grandmother gave me a long time ago. Not for religious reasons at all but because it is a reminder of where I come from. Also my cello: it symbolises the efforts and sacrifices I had to make to get where I am and all the support I got from my parents. And very soon my wedding ring!
Sarah Connolly and some of the top professional musicians in London are uniting under the direction of Nicolas Nebout in a special fundraising concert for Syrian refugee children. The concert takes place on 11th November 2015, 7.30pm at St James’s Piccadilly, London W1

Programme:

Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No.5

Gustav Mahler – Kindertotenlieder (soloist: Sarah Connolly)

Malek Jandali – Phoenix in Exile (World Premiere)

Book tickets http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2265817

Donate https://www.justgiving.com/MusiciansForSyria/
Nicolas Nebout’s website http://www.nicolasnebout.com

(Photo: Jana Jocif)

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

I like to take the broad view of works: their historical and philosophical context, their structure, the issues surrounding them. As an artist, I like that music expresses itself using the body. Conductors are not far removed from dancers.

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

My time as a student in Vienna was unforgettable: the language, the repertoire, those life-changing sessions with Abbado and Harnoncourt. Those Nordic and English musical influences set me on my musical path.

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

There have been several! Creating a professional chamber choir in France, then developing a structure which brought together artistic discoveries, new technology… transmission… and now the creation of Insula Orchestra, playing on historical instruments.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’m very proud of our recording of Richard Strauss’s monumental choral works, and, more recently, of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Franco Fagioli.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I feel an affinity for many composers, starting with Bach. As a conductor, I particularly enjoy performing Beethoven, Weber, Schumann…

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

It’s a very delicate operation: you must find a balance between your own wishes regarding the repertoire you want to create for yourself and your orchestra, soloists you’d like to work with, rare and unjustly neglected pieces, pieces by women composers, what the programme creators want…

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

There are several halls which really inspire me with their beauty and their acoustic… In France, the Philharmonie de Paris, soon to be the  Cité musicale de l’Ile Seguin, Theater an der Wien, the Barbican in London, and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. There are also lovely halls in Tokyo and in the US.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I would like to come back to the final Schumann Ballades, they’re nothing less than little operas. I also enjoy conducting Mendelssohn’s ‘[Die erste] Walpurgisnacht’, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’… But also Bach’s St. John Passion. As a listener, I like listening to the big Romantic symphonies; Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich. At home, chamber music or Lieder.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

With the Brussels Philharmonic, I performed Schumann’s “Das Paradies und die Peri semi-staged. It’s a spiritual tale from which no-one escapes unscathed, and the music is sublime from start to finish.

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

It’s important to make your vision of the work, its artistic issues, clear to the musicians, and to speak to them about your view of it. On the other hand, the most important thing is to let the musicians communicate their musicality and feelings themselves. As a conductor, you are there just as much to understand their emotions and the colours they bring, and to relish them. You shouldn’t lead, you must be followed.

Could you tell us a bit about the Insula orchestra?

Insula is a period-instrument orchestra that focuses mostly on music from the Age of Enlightenment, the Classical style, and the pre-Romantics. We play symphonies and oratorios and also operas. There are 50 musicians, with the string section enlarged to fill today’s halls. We try to find a balance between a very cultivated, historically-informed style and one compatible with the size of concert halls.

Insula are making their UK debut on 21 September, how did you choose the programme for this? 

I proposed a programme to the Barbican that typifies our current artistic goals: Zelenka’s Miserere, a real forgotten masterpiece. Then, the Solemn Vespers, a famous work by Mozart, a composer central to our project, and whose Requiem we recorded earlier this year. Finally, a piece to which I feel particularly attached, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s rarely-performed Magnificat.

What are Insula’s plans for the 2015-16 season? 

Insula’s highlights for this season include the release of Orfeo in September on Archiv, then the Magnificat programme at the Barbican and, on tour, an all-Beethoven programme, with the 3rd piano concerto and Nicholas Angelich, as well as the Eroica symphony. After that, Mozart’s Lucio Silla with Franco Fagioli, in a semi-staged performance which will go on tour to Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Vienna.

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

I would like to have been involved in some exciting, innovative projects which bring in a big audience, and to have played in the greatest halls.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I am always searching for it.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Giving concerts, and connecting with the public, an “être merveilleux”, as Novalis said.

What is your present state of mind?

Impatient!
Insula make their UK debut on Monday 21 September at London’s Barbican Hall

Magnificat

Zelenka Miserere

Mozart Solemn Vespers K.339

C.P.E. Bach Magnificat in D Major H.772

Insula orchestra, accentus choir, Laurence Equilbeyconductor

Judith Van Wanroijsoprano, Wiebke Lehmkuhlalto, Reinoud Van Mechelentenor, Andreas Wolfbass

21 September 2015, Barbican Hall, London, 7.30pm

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice 

CD release: 11 September 2015 

Archiv Produktion

Insula orchestra | accentus Choir

Franco Fagioli | Malin Hartelius | Emmanuelle de Negri

Conductor and musical director of Insula orchestra and accentus, Laurence Equilbey is acknowledged for her demanding, yet open-minded approach to her art. Her exploration of the symphonic repertory has seen her conducting the orchestras of Lyon, Bucharest, Liège, Leipzig, Brussels Philharmonic, Café Zimmermann, Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, Concerto Köln, Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteumorchester Salzburg, etc. In 2015, she performs Beethoven’s König Stephan with the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra.

She has recently conducted Britten’s Albert Herring (at the Opéra de Rouen Normandie and the Opéra Comique), Weber’s Der Freischütz (Opéra de Toulon), Sous apparence (Opéra de Paris) and Reynaldo Hahn’s Ciboulette (Opéra comique).

She regularly conducts the Orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen. Since 2009, she has been working with accentus as an associate artist of the Paris Chamber Orchestra and will be joining up with them again for a Gounod/Liszt programme. She is also an associate artist of the Grand Théâtre de Provence in Aix-en-Provence and a companion of the Philharmonie de Paris.

In 2012, with support from the Conseil départemental des Hauts-de-Seine, she founded Insula orchestra, an ensemble devoted to the classical and pre-Romantic repertory, using period instruments. In 2014, she recorded with her musicians Mozart’s Requiem on the Naïve label and she continues to honour the Austrian composer in 2015-2016, with Vesperae solennes de confessore, and also Lucio Silla, including at the Theater an der Wien. Their second album – Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Franco Fagioli – will be released in September 2015 on the Deutsche Grammophon label (Archiv Produktion).

With accentus, Laurence Equilbey continues to interpret the great vocal music repertoire. She conducts a Bruckner program in the spring with the Orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. The extensive recorded work of accentus (on the Naïve label) has received wide critical acclaim. Laurence Equilbey supports contemporary creation and she’s also Artistic Director and Director of Education at the Department for Young Singers at the Paris Conservatory.

Laurence Equilbey has studied music in Paris, Vienna and London, and conducting, notably with Eric Ericson, Denise Ham, Colin Metters and Jorma Panula.

Laurenceequilbey.com

(photo credit: Luiz Ciafrino)

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

When I was at school, in rural North Yorkshire, I had a very charismatic head of music, who seemed to conduct absolutely everything. As an impressionable 11 or 12 year old, I wanted to be like him. Soon I was pinching Mum’s knitting needles and carving the air in front of my bedroom mirror, accompanied by the Beethoven Violin Concerto. That’s where it started – it was downhill from there, really…

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

Of the ones I’ve known well: Benjamin Zander figures highly – he was a profound influence, blessed with such an open-minded, enlightening approach to freedom in music. I learned so much from him about the possibilities within one phrase, or within an entire Mahler symphony. Amongst my more formal conducting teachers, three crucial, inspirational and utterly amazing maestri stand out above all others: Paavo Järvi, who I was lucky enough to study with in Estonia, and who I still see often in London and on the continent; Sian Edwards, now the new head of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music; and the legendary Ilya Musin, with whom I spent an unforgettable summer studying at Accademia Chigiana in Siena.

Of those I (alas) never met: Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. I wore out tapes hearing and watching them as a student. Luckily I’ve replaced most of it now on CD or DVD.

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

Trying to remember that the music is more important than the multitude of irritations which follow performing musicians around: a stage that’s too dimly lit, or a silly row with a technician about trivia can always make us forget why we’re there at all

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

I remember a Shostakovich 7th Symphony some years ago where almost everyone was in floods of tears at the end. Nobody could speak or clap for what felt like an age, and I kind of lost touch with myself. It was a remarkable evening. I guess, as performers, we all try to (re)capture that essence every single time.

Of recordings, my CD of works by Raymond Warren (all premieres) are undoubtedly a highlight – I was very lucky to work with such a great singer and players:

With which particular works do you have a special affinity or connection?

One composer springs instantly to mind: Sibelius. And he’s topical, with 2015 being his anniversary year. Something about his language, harmony, use of rhythm as a structural device, that distinctive timbral-colour: all those things do it for me. I also feel deeply at home with Mahler, Bruckner, Elgar, and Tchaikovsky. I wish I did so for Brahms and Beethoven, but alas not – I love their symphonies passionately, yet every time I conduct them I feel they’ve beaten me, and it’s back to the drawing board

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

Programming for orchestras hinges on so many variables. Balancing the personnel required, soloists, requests for premieres, or commissions, venue-size, and of course cost plays a big part. Currently it feels as if, certainly with orchestras, one is under greater pressure than ever to appeal to audiences. In some cases, I admit, I’ve felt under pressure to water-down programming – which breaks my heart – but I suppose we’ve got to build our audiences before we can take greater risks with our programming and repertoire. I have a long wish-list of works I’d love to perform, but it gets longer each year, not shorter!

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

Probably Snape Maltings, Suffolk. I’ve many fond memories of being on that stage. It’s a beautiful sounding hall, for a start, with (as I recall) so much wood, brick, and orange light. Plus the view over the marshes and  reed-beds over the Henry Moore sculptures is unearthly and intoxicating. Performing Britten there has been one of the highlights of my career to date. I long to return.

Dvorak Hall in Prague’s Rudolfinum is also right up there. Such a fantastic hall, just the right degree of space in the acoustics, yet intimate too: somehow you feel like you can reach out and touch the very back row. However, not quite the same calming, tranquil vibe backstage as Snape…

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

Sometimes I’m unable to cope with listening to music (yes, an odd thing for a musician to admit to, but at times it all gets a bit too much: silence or speech are the maximum I can handle). Despite that, I love plunging into… late Beethoven quartets (played by the Italian Quartet)… Richard Strauss with Schwartzkopf, and Kleiber’s Rosenkavalier… Beethoven Concerti with Wilhelm Kempff (that colour – where does it come from?!)… and Sibelius in those old, mono but incredible Anthony Collins / LSO recordings. Or Jeff Buckley – that works too, most days.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Apart from the Shostakovich Leningrad mentioned above, it must be a concert of concerti in a large church in Prague, at the start of my career, when I was assistant conductor. Mid-Weber, a VERY aged, Yoda-like monk (hooded cowl, the lot) barged his way through the orchestra, sending music and stands flying, to reach the vestry. How the soloist and I stayed together I’ve no idea. Most of the violinists were either playing from memory, or in tears of laughter – probably both.

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

To maintain the music, the composer’s deepest intentions, at all costs. Everything else is secondary, or should be. Technique is crucial, not only as an instrumentalist or singer, but as a conductor too. So is repertoire, style, stamina, and a deeply-centred awareness. Humility goes a long way too. Yes, nowadays a good website plus skill at self-promotion is necessary alongside all this. But music must always remain as the beacon, despite the weariness of travelling, unsatisfactory dressing-rooms, and the mountain of admin. We get to spend every single day with genius, after all, if we choose it

What are you working on at the moment? 

Mahler! I’ve performances of the 5th and 6th Symphonies coming up soon, and am making a short film about them too. Plus I’m busy programming with many of my orchestras for the coming seasons, including more Family Concerts with my great friend and collaborator James Mayhew

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

Doing just the same, only more of it, and in more countries than I am now. Working my way through that repertoire wish-list…

What is your most treasured possession? 

It would have to be the two cats, even though they’re not possessions at all really, are they? Besides they possess me rather than vice-versa. They’re called Schmoogle & Ratty (don’t ask!)

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Standing on top of a Lakeland fell, in total silence except the wind, having tortured myself to climb up it. And probably enjoying a pint afterwards.

British conductor Robin Browning is increasingly in demand with orchestras both in the UK and abroad. Robin made his debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London, in a concert which was broadcast on Classic FM. He has conducted the Hallé, English Northern Philharmonia, Northern Sinfonia, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Intercontemporain, St Petersburg Festival Orchestra, and Estonian National Youth Orchestra. 2011 marked Robin’s US debut, conducting three subscription-series concerts with the Boise Philharmonic, and in 2013 he made his debut with Milton Keynes City Orchestra. 

Robin recently assisted Sakari Oramo for the UK Premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. He has also been assistant conductor to Benjamin Zander with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and assisted Mark Elder with both the LPO and OAE. Since taking second prize in the NAYO Conducting Competition, and winning the inaugural Boosey & Hawkes Award at the Edinburgh Festival, Robin is now firmly established as music director of five British orchestras, including the highly-regarded de Havilland Philharmonic. He has performed in some of the world’s most famous concert halls, including Snape Maltings, London’s Cadogan Hall, the Rudolfinum in Prague, and the Banff Centre in Canada. In 2008, Robin gave a concert at the Olympic Stadium, Nanjing, conducting live on Chinese television before an audience of 70 million. He has worked with a wide array of soloists, including Guy Johnston, Aled Jones, Craig Ogden, Jack Liebeck, John Lill and Raphael Wallfisch. 

Robin studied at the Accademia Chigiana, Siena, with Myung-Whun Chung and the legendary Ilya Musin. He furthered his training in the USA with Joseph Gifford, and was invited to Estonia for masterclasses with Neeme and Paavo Järvi at the Oistrakh Festival. Robin also studied with Sir Charles Mackerras, Sian Edwards and Benjamin Zander, and participated in the first ever Conductor Development Programme with Milton Keynes City Orchestra in 2012. 

Passionately committed to the training of younger musicians, Robin has guest-conducted orchestras at both Trinity Laban Conservatoire and Guildhall School of Music, and works regularly with young conductors at the University of Southampton. In 2008 he was involved in the Barbican Young Orchestra project, preparing the inaugural orchestra for Sir Colin Davis. Robin is also dedicated to contemporary music and recordings: since making his first first professional studio-recording in 2008, he has released three more – all are available from iTunes and Amazon. 

www.robinbrowning.com

(photo: Chris Stock)

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

There were a number of “wow” moments that inspired me as a kid. I still remember the first time I heard an orchestra live (it was my local youth orchestra playing Shostakovich 5). I was only three, but that moment stuck with me and I started going to grown-up concerts very young, maybe five or six years old (worth noting given recent controversies about kids at concerts). There were other pieces, like the Shostakovich, that had a huge impact on me when I first encountered them- symphonies by Mahler, Beethoven and Bruckner for example.

My parents bought us a wonderful series of LPs called “The Stories of the Great Composers Told Through Their Music.” I must have played the Mozart, Bach and Beethoven records hundreds of times.

I was not a very motivated young pianist (it’s a pity nobody told the seven-year-old Ken about the link between keyboard proficiency and conducting), but I loved the cello, and when I started playing real repertoire in good orchestras, that was a major turning point. I still remember playing Schumann 2 for the first time in my high school orchestra, and when James Smith took over my youth orchestra that was an eye opener. I’d never played under a great conductor before. That was the first time I understood what an orchestra can be when everyone is giving their best.

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

My teachers, chamber music coaches and mentors. My main cello teachers, Parry Karp (Pro Arte Quartet), Lee Fiser (LaSalle Quartet) and Fritz Magg (Berkshire Quartet) had a huge impact on me. Their teaching went way beyond cello playing, and taught me a lot about score study and chamber music. Henry Meyer (LaSalle Quartet) and Peter Oundjian (Tokyo Quartet) were very important chamber music mentors- my whole approach to conducting was shaped in significant ways by studying and performing the string quartet literature. Gerhard Samuel was incredibly generous with me when I was his conducting student in Cincinnati. Take one more step beyond the scope of the teachers I saw every week as a student, and the list of important mentors gets absurdly long, but they’re all important and inspiring.

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

The hardest thing about being a conductor is that your time with the orchestra is always finite. I’m glad I can pick up a cello and play Bach without having to raise money, go to committee meetings, or set a rehearsal schedule. There’s so much great repertoire that one wants to learn (more than you could do justice to in three lifetimes), and so much that one could do in rehearsal, and yet the clock is always ticking. I’d love to be able to work with really great orchestral colleagues in the kind of detail we do in my string trio, but nobody wants to pay an orchestra to rehearse so it’s always a balancing act.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’ll always remember conducting my first complete Mahler symphony (the Second) with the Oregon East Symphony. That was a huge undertaking for everyone involved- so many people worked very hard and the concert felt like a real spiritual coming together. The final concert with Orchestra of the Swan in our Gál/Schumann cycle was memorable and moving- the end of a fantastic journey through that repertoire, and they played out of their skins.

For me, one of the joys of playing in a chamber group is revisiting pieces over and over until we feel like we really own them. When Ensemble Epomeo play the Schnittke String Trio, it’s always an event for us, and it felt much the same whenever my string quartet used to play Bartók no. 2. When you’ve invested years in a piece with your colleagues, you know you have to savour every performance together.

As far as recordings– the Gál/Schumann discs have been special. Gál was a recent discovery I felt lucky be entrusted with, but I’d wanted to do the Schumann symphonies since I was a teenager. The recent Nimbus recording of Philip Sawyers’s Second Symphony, Cello Concerto and Concertante was also a labour of love. Introducing unknown music to a wider public is surely the most important thing a recording can do, and Philip’s music is wonderful and very important.

Which particular works do you think you play/conduct best?

I find a huge range of music both rewarding and challenging. I don’t believe in specialities, because everything not on the list of things you do particularly well then suffers. I’m an intense guy, and I suppose I’m most at home in music that uses that intensity constructively.

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

It’s a balance of what I want to do (some works stay on my wish list for 15 years before I get a chance to programme them), what my colleagues and employers want me to do, and what we have to do to stay in business.

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

My friends from home will laugh because it’s not a great venue, but Mills Concert Hall in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s where I first heard an orchestra when I was tiny. I’ve given recitals, played in all kinds of cello sections, played concert concertos, chamber music, heard amazing performances by friends and teachers, conducted and taught. It’s where music was born for me as a kid.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

As a listener, I tend to cycle through obsessions. I might listen voraciously to late Shostakovich, Schumann piano works, Debussy and Ravel, or early Beethoven string quartets, for two or three weeks, then not touch it again for a couple of years.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I like musicians who combine a certain amount of serious mojo with craftsmanship and honesty. My favourite performers are the ones who can put across a distinctive point of view about the music they play. My favourite composers engage heart, head and guts.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok with the Dubinsky’s and Fritz Magg with soprano Gloria Davey at Indiana University when I was 18. I still don’t think I’ve recovered.

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

Cultivate a love of music that will sustain your efforts as an instrumentalist- too many young musicians are more interested in playing their instrument than in the music they play.

Rhythm is the foundation of music. Playing in time is hard, but you can only play with true freedom if you’re in total command of tempo, pulse, meter and time.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Camping with Suzanne and the kids (while knowing that I’ve got something nice in the diary when we get home)

Kenneth Woods conducts the English Symphony Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square on 24th April in a concert of music by Handel and W F Bach which explores the origins of Mozart’s Requiem. Further information and tickets here

Hailed by Gramophone as a “symphonic conductor of stature,” conductor, cellist, composer and author Kenneth Woods has worked with the National Symphony Orchestra (USA), Royal Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia and English Chamber Orchestra. He has also appeared on the stages of some of the world’s leading music festivals such as Aspen, Scotia and Lucerne. In 2013, he took up a new position as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, succeeding Vernon Handley.

Kenneth Woods’ full biography

A View from the Podium – Kenneth Woods’ blog