(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