Robin conducts SÓN during their launch concert in front of a sell-out Turner Sims audience

How to launch an orchestra — a guide to creative entrepreneurship

I thought for ages about this. Pondering, scrawling mile upon mile of notes, pondering some more, scrawling some more. It took me ages. Then I began. And I’m only talking about this, my first Medium post. I haven’t even told you about the orchestra stuff yet.

In late 2015, along with some other established musicians, I decided to create SÓN, a new professional orchestra based in the UK. So far so good. Quite a simple beginning, but the floodgates opened fast and we were up and rolling, the tsunami of reality lapping at our heels. Launch concert booked, musicians to hunt-down, endless favours to call in, photographers and videographers persuaded, all the mate’s-rates begging wearing a little thin real quick…

Fast forward to mid-2017, and we’re approaching the end of our second season, eight incredible gigs later (over half have been a complete sell-out, too). We’re still rolling, still juggling, still robbing Peter to pay Paul (they’re not players, it’s an expression. Not sure it translates stateside). We’ve got some big plans, some huge, life-affirming plans, some that’ll-never-work-and-besides-it’ll-cost-a-bomb plans.

Of course, money is an issue, as are things like staff (and finding them), as well as being bold and exciting, but not wild and whacky. It’s tricky to settle on a niche artistic direction without breaking the bank, not to mention being isolated in the equivalent of that grimy annexe where nobody wants to go.

There’s lots to tell. Loads of it. I’ll unload some of the most pertinent nitty-gritty next time. Nearly all of it, I think, is relevant to musicians and performers, all of us cultural entrepreneurs. Thing is, for freelance musicians (conductors, composers, grime rappers, bagpipers, whatever) we are all entrepreneurs. You may not like such an appellation, nor agree with it — everybody wants to be an entrepreneur right now, after all, and it can certainly put people off embracing the whole thing — but it’s what we are.

We need to start thinking like creative entrepreneurs, whether we’re searching for a breakthrough as a soloist, creating a community opera, getting gigs for our quartet, or launching a new orchestra. It’s all the same.

It’s not what gets taught at conservatoire or university.
It’s what gets taught by life.

And it begins with beginning. Actually doing. No amount of planning, no amount of dreaming, is going to lift any artistic project you may have off the ground. If you want lift-off, it’s simple: Act. Act now. Stop faffing around, waiting for things to be perfect. They never will be. Stop waiting until your proverbial ducks are in a row. They’re all excuses. And none of them matter at all.

Whatever your plans, your project, and your dreams — begin now!


An edited version of this post first appeared on Medium


Robin Browning conductor Oxford Orchestra 2016Robin Browning conductor Oxford Orchestra 2016

Interview with the Oxford Student

Back in May I was invited to conduct one of the top student orchestras in the UK – Oxford University Orchestra. Our performance in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, coupled with Debussy’s La Mer, prompted rave reviews (more of these later) and an almost immediate re-invitation. In terms of their scheduling, it was nice to be sandwiched in between such esteemed company as Daniel Harding and Hugh Brunt, as it were.

As part of the pre-concert publicity, I gave an interview with the Oxford Student newspaper. As you can imagine, being Oxford, this was a little more probing than a many interviews often are – full of erudite questions, and possibly even some erudite answers (I hope). Despite the event being a few months ago, I thought the Q&A is worth reproducing here.

With many thanks to James Chater and OxStu magazine


On Saturday 21st May 2016, Robin Browning will conduct the Oxford University Orchestra (OUO) in Debussy’s masterpiece La Mer and Bruckner’s  Symphony no.7 in E Major at the Sheldonian Theatre. Robin is an established conductor, performer and music-educator. Praised as an “expert musician and conductor” by Sir Charles Mackerras, he is a passionate advocate for music and for the arts in general.

In the interview, Robin speaks to OxStu about working with OUO, the repertoire they will perform, and his admiration of Bruckner.

This the first time that you’ve conducted OUO; are you excited about the prospect of working with the orchestra and in Oxford?

Very much so. I know OUO have a history of inviting fine, established conductors to work with them as guests, and it’s great to be in such good company. I felt sure it would be a strong orchestra – quick-witted, aware and flexible – even after one rehearsal this turns out to be true. I regret to say I know Oxford far less than I should – it’s only my third visit – but I hope this will change.

With OUO, there’s a fairly short period of rehearsing with an orchestra you don’t know. What are the particular challenges and benefits associated with this type of preparation?

In many ways I prefer it – it limits the amount of time one can faff about, and focuses the mind! I’m a firm believer that, unless you’re Carlos Kleiber, a conductor’s work always seems to expand to fill the time available. Having said that, you need good players who respond well and think enough in between rehearsals, too. It’s similar to what one expects with professional orchestras – fewer sessions, clumped together shortly before the gig.

Perhaps, going on from that, what do you enjoy most about working with students?

Open, inquiring minds. Quite apart from the considerable talent within the orchestra, I’ve already sensed a generosity of spirit from the ensemble as a whole. This isn’t always the case – either with students or pros. With OUO, I get the impression that every single player wants it to be a really strong performance.

Arguably, the two works we’ll be performing couldn’t be aesthetically further apart. Firstly, how do you think they’ll complement each other?

It’s fascinating. They’re kind of odd bedfellows, but I think they work well. Bruckner can appear so formal, monolithic and weighty. I used to programme his music with other Austro-Germanic music (Wagner, Strauss, etc) and it can all get a bit much. Debussy is another world entirely. Plus, despite the apparent contrasts, there are subtle similarities when one comes to rehearse them side-by-side: there’s more of a “modular” side to Debussy than one might think…

Secondly, what are the performative difficulties associated with moving between Debussy and Bruckner?

One must take care to find the other world, to breath the “new” air when crossing between the two of them. There are enormous differences in colour and timbre, of course – but also in the way one has to breathe, where one chooses to centre the sound, and how to balance and structure chords – they must all be approached differently. Ultimately, as a conductor, I must be clear to inhabit the appropriate world and not let one bleed through into the other, and strive to bring the orchestra with me in that regard.

What is it that makes Debussy’s style of impressionism distinctive for you?

I think particularly the use of light. He not only finds a breath-taking array of colours, but dances with the interplay of light, pretty much throughout La Mer. Like a series of brushstrokes, his rhythmic cells, dabbed across the entire orchestra, create a constantly shifting aural tableau which is then viewed from different angles, each time with different light. It’s not just the sea he captures in La Mer – he also captures the changing light.

Critics have also noted that the score of La mer in many ways anticipates those of film scores. Do any particular episodes from la mer strike you as such?

Well, I guess all those colours can easily be re-purposed for film. In truth, it doesn’t strike me so overtly like film-music, perhaps apart from some general tones and colours. The Bruckner does far more so, to me – harmonically so, and in terms of instrumental colour, for example strings and horns: think John Barry or Hans Zimmer (depending on circumstance)

Debussy resisted calling the work a symphony outright – but many since have labelled it as such? How do you think it resists or perhaps even supports such a label?

In that way it’s a curious juxtaposition in this concert, being placed with Bruckner – something we’d regard as a “typical” symphony. Whilst La Mer may embody the true original meaning of the word, being as it is packed full of sounds and motifs, all developing organically, I don’t view it symphonically

From just one rehearsal with you it was clear that you have a particular affinity with Bruckner. Could you briefly sum up why that is in a few sentences?

Harmony. Pure and simple. Yes, there’s FAR more to Bruckner than that, I know. But most conductors are harmony geeks (I certainly am) and he accesses parts of the brain – and heart, if you like – that few others reach. Plus there’s this naivety in a lot of it, coupled with melancholy (not quite as much as Elgar – no one’s in that league) which I find desperately touching.

You mentioned a striking relationship between Bruckner and Schubert – immediately after you said that, a lot of the music suddenly made sense to me (the shifts in harmony particularly) – could you describe the effect and how Bruckner achieves this?

It’s about seeing Bruckner as the natural heir to Schubert, rather than Wagner, despite the obvious connections between the 7th and his idol. Because his writing can be (superficially) so “blocky”, many interpreters sacrifice his extraordinary sense of line, and the shifts of colour and balance he creates throughout such long spans become lost. One often hears a monolithically sculpted edifice of sound. This, to me, is more suited to Shostakovich – and maybe the early Bruckner symphonies where his architectural sense is less developed.

Finally, what is it that individuates Bruckner 7 from his other symphonies?

Maybe it’s light – and how appropriate that is, when we’re coupling it with La Mer. He lets more light shine through this symphony than the others which surround it, and that’s apparent right from the very opening bars: bright, radiant and somehow incandescent to the symphony’s very end.


Not a new website

Anyone passing by these parts lately will have noticed my site was down for about a week. Until today.

I decided on a total overhaul. Things were getting old, a bit out of date – I was getting limited as to what I could update. So, I chose what I thought was a good time, without pressing gigs, mountains of admin and loads of meetings lined-up, and got to it. The wordpress coalface. Of course, no sooner had I’d pulled the old site down, leaving everything useless and tattered and bleeding, that the diary filled up with, well, the things diarys always fill with. Stuff.

I had a message from the googlebots yesterday telling me to sort things out because they were getting errors. They informed me that if I didn’t put all my lovely pages back pronto they were off to pester other websites. Mine would get left out in the cold – unindexed… unscanned… and unloved.

The bold plans for a daring new website have had to be slightly modified. Only temporarily, mind. I know what I’m doing, pretty much, and how I want it to look. It just takes time. So. Much. Time.

You can see the shell of it wrapped around this post, more or less. In fact what you see is a combination of the framework for my new site, and the nuts and bolts of the old. For example, the News page shows all the same old (same old) news items – what do you mean, it’s no longer news then?? – just placed in a more up-to-date theme. But at least the googlebots are happy.

Once my concert diary clears a little – there’s a trio of exciting gigs around the middle of this month, including the són Midsummer Night’s Dream with master artist James Mayhew, and then summer tours to prepare for – I’ll revisit the site and pick up where I left off. And then there will be parties and fireworks and a whole new website.

If anyone’s reading this (congratulations!) and has any feedback about the site as it currently stands, please leave a comment below. I’d love to know your thoughts.


Mahler - and a bit about Life

Not everyone "gets" Mahler. Whether they're musicians, or not.

Some people can't spend a day without it. Remember that scene in Educating Rita, where Julie Walters is met at the door by Maureen Lipman - complete with Mahler 6's finale blaring away behind her? Indelibly etched upon my memory of childhood was the phrase "wouldn't you just DIE without Mahler?"

 

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And then there are plenty of musicians who can't stand the stuff, avoid it like the proverbial, ask for time off the orchestral schedule whenever it's on the programme, that kind of thing. I'm most definitely not one of them. I suppose there must be people out there who are placidly indifferent to Mahler, although quite how that's possible is beyond me - Mahler is all-involving and consuming (if you're doing it right), and remaining dispassionate is, well, I just can't imagine. Mahler is like Marmite: you either love it, or you hate it.

I've just conducted two performances of the 6th symphony, and have No 5 coming up the weekend after I write. Here's a little audio-glimpse into the recent performance (a film - with some longer extracts, rehearsal, and interviews - is planned for later in the spring.)


These Mahler 6 performances were with the fantastic young musicians of Southampton University Symphony Orchestra. All 109 of them, on stage, for an 85-minute epic. What strikes me now, only days later, is how many of them feel the gaping hole in their lives, now that Mahler isn't filling it. I know this because of that eternally-accurate arbiter of fact and knowledge: people's facebook statuses. Many of them write as if they've lost something, or even someone. Gloomy and despondent. Truly a post-Mahler malaise.

Thing is, for the vast majority of them, it was their first experience playing Mahler, any Mahler. Imagine never having really heard Mahler before, let alone played any - and suddenly being hit with the ferocity of emotion that is Mahler 6. At the first rehearsal I told them that this will be a journey - and at its end there will be tears, and longing for more. Few, if any, believed me at the time, but I know how poignantly many of them will be feeling it now.

And here's the crucial point - this is only the START of the journey. There are another 9 symphonies, of course, and songs, Das Klagende Lied... In turn, Mahler will lead to Berg, Shostakovich - and over the shoulder to Bruckner. It can unlock all kinds of things. Imagine the harmonic possibilities suddenly unleashed inside a Mahler-fuelled brain... Or klangfarben, as vivid and intoxicating to a musician now as it would've been to (say) a young Schoenberg, or Bruno Walter, a century ago.

Deep down, some of the players will now be different musicians than when they began this Mahler journey. Somehow, they will approach their craft differently. And not all the members are studying music, either. Few things warm me more than reading that a medical student has listened to the entire symphony twice more in two days, and that a geographer can't wait for her next fix of Mahler. They'll flock to the Proms this summer - always plenty of Mahler there. Who knows.

It will have changed lives - only a little tiny bit, perhaps, but it all counts. This is the power of music, and of Mahler. 109 young musicians may be wandering around like lost souls right now, but it'll pass. What is most vital is that they'll remember it for the rest of their lives, no matter where they're destined, and however high they climb as musicians.


Mayhew and Marvelling Young Minds


Just recently, I was lucky enough to share the stage with the fabulous James Mayhew. Every year we work together, preparing, rehearsing and performing our incredibly successful series of Family Concerts. These are a highlight of the de Havilland Philharmonic season, attracting huge crowds - largely, but not exclusively, made up of youngsters with their parents in tow. Grown-ups come along with their kids - and end up loving it. And the children adore it too: a telltale sign of this is how quiet they are, particularly during the music. As a conductor, even with my back turned to the auditorium 99% of the time, I can always tell when an audience is really listening, deeply tuned-in to all the activities on stage. 

Undeniably the star of the show is artist, presenter and master story-teller James Mayhew. He has a quietly engaging charisma, drawing audiences into his fantastical world, whether through speech (often delivered as verse, and always adhering to the true character, plot and drama of any classical masterwork) or through those wonderful paintings.

Thanks to the technical marvels of 21st century HD-cameras, coupled with a clever technical crew and a well-appointed concert hall, James is able to paint on a massive canvas. All his work is projected super-size above us all at the back of the stage: just watch the film above to see it all in action. There's even a glimpse into the technical box, mid-concert, during our performance of Superman.

James is not only a deeply expressive, brilliant artist, but a warm, involving speaker and presenter too. Like me, he cares deeply and passionately about classical music... about its depth, colours and delivery. James and I won't compromise, abridge nor water-down any of the orchestral "classics". We feel that children, and adults, not only can but should experience a full-size symphony orchestra performing classical masterpieces. Either in their entirety, or as close as we can get. No trimming. No sanitising. No dumbing-down. 

And we trust each other implicitly. Having performed together so often, we know what works for one another. "I think we make a great team, Robin and I," says James. "He is that rare thing - a conductor with a sense of humour. The sense of fun is palpable to the audience and our concerts together are the highlight of my year." Thanks James - that's praise indeed!

He, too, is a joy to spend time with - whether talking about comic timing, brush strokes and speed of delivery on-stage... Or where he gets his sheriff's badge from:

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Of course, James and I don't simply play the music. All I do is rehearse it, conduct it, perform it. That's my whole (wonderful) career in a nutshell. Sometimes I speak to the crowd, introduce James, or act as a temporary stage-prop. Together we pace the concert - me syncing with him - like accompanying a good soloist. He uses verse, commentaries, little asides - whatever the drama needs, and I time the music to the cadence of his text. In turn, James times his artwork neatly and deftly with our music-making. Watch the showreel above (or any of the footage here) and you'll see this very thing in action: look at the very end of Superman, where James times the final swoosh of the superhero's flowing cape elegantly in sync with the final musical cut-off.

Classical music is the most extraordinary experience for young children and their families. If our concerts make just one youngster pick up a cello or trombone with increased fervour, or pushes a young lad or lady to revisit a half-finished composition, then the whole venture has been a success. No question. Anything that connects youngsters with their inner, musical pilot-light - making them yearn for music, to make music, to experience music - can only be a good thing. 

With the axe about to fall on music services across the UK (as I write, Bromley, Redbridge and Wiltshire are facing this - they could easily not exist by summer: what a TRAGEDY that would be) - anything which gets the power of music over to youngsters is desperately needed. We all need to work on cultivating the audiences, and musicians, instrumentalists, singers, of tomorrow. All of us need to do this, starting now. Like we mean it. With passion, integrity, and humility. I'd like to think that James and I do our little bit in this regard, but I'd love to do much more.


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"Working with Robin is the highlight of my year," James says. "I couldn't wish for a better colleague for this mission we both share." And I feel exactly the same. The reason we both do this is because we love what we do: getting the magic of music across to people of all ages, particularly youngsters. When we each watch the youngsters marvel at what they witness unfolding on stage, we know it's the single best drug there is, for professional musician and professional artist alike. This is why, no matter how many books James may write, and how many Mahler symphonies I may conduct, our projects together remain a cornerstone of my concert life, and of James' artistic work. And it's why both of us long to do many more - so we can see those marvelling young minds, first-hand, loving every minute of the music and the art.

And thank you James - for all our concerts together. Here's to many more to come. Long may it continue!


"Heroes & Villains" Family Concert

complete repertoire:
Copland - Billy the Kid Suite
Grieg - Peer Gynt (Morning Mood, Death of Åse, Solveig's Song, Hall of the Mountain King)
Rossini - William Tell Overture
Williams - Superman Theme


Beethoven and Beethovathon

Despite being a celebratory year for those two Scandi-giants Sibelius and Nielsen, a number of my opening concerts this year have a distinctly Beethovenian theme. Take this weekend, for example: an all-Beethoven evening on Saturday, with an award-winning soloist, in aid of Macmillan Cancer Care. We open with Coriolan - it's always a huge joy to conduct this overture. A display of pure rhythm, yet partnered with one of the most touching second subjects in the repertoire. I still remember sitting there, dewy-eyed, minutes after the postman delivered a box-set of Carlos Kleiber DVDs. This was the first time I'd seen his live performance of this piece, only days after DG released it, with Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

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The 8th symphony completes the first half, undoubtedly a more challenging undertaking for all - including the conductor. And (to quote Paavo Järvi - one of my teachers - in a rehearsal I was lucky enough to catch in Bremen) "clear proof that, by this point in his life Beethoven was profoundly deaf" - referring, tongue-in-cheek, to the insane timpani writing in bars 480 & 490 of the finale. Go check it out. It always makes me smile, as it did in Bremen. Of course, it was helped by the superb timpanist in the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Stefan Rapp. He never needs much excuse to play insanely.

Post-interval, the Violin Concerto, with Joo Yeon Sir - currently a junior fellow at London's RCM and embarking on a bit of a Beethoven odyssey herself. It's one of my favourite concertos, for any instrument, by any composer. I remember as a kid, aged about 13, stealing mum's knitting needles and swiping my way through it in my bedroom, accompanied by that famous recording with Schneiderhan and the Berlin Phil. Mum blamed me for bending all her needles. I blame that recording, and this piece, for kickstarting my conducting career.

The week after, on Saturday 7th Feb, I accompany another fine soloist in another marvellous concerto - Cordelia Williams in the fourth piano concerto. Again, breathtaking music - and I can't wait. Full details of this concert, and the Macmillan all-Beethoven programme, are HERE on this website. I'd love to see some of you at one of them!

Finally, to another charity event - a huge project in aid of Comic Relief Red Nose Day 2015. On Saturday 21 March, along with many conductor colleagues, I'm involved in the Beethovathon - a simply wonderful, not to mention utterly, utterly bonkers project to perform all nine symphonies. Yes, all nine. In one day. And in order. Which is, by the way, if you're going to undertake such a thing, the only good way to do it (today's top tip for those planning to emulate this project in future).

We're performing in the acclaimed acoustics of the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton, in four little (or not so little) concerts, spanning the whole day from 11am until after dark. Full details of this are HERE on the Beethovathon website - please take a look, and don't leave that site until you've (a) bought tickets; (b) popped the date into your diary; and (c) clicked on Ludwig's red nose. Disclaimer: I abdicate all responsibility for this crude ploy, as I didn't design the site. It is rather amusing, though.

This is a potentially huge fundraiser. We're determined to raise well over £10K -- but can only do that with your help. Please would you get involved? Come along for even a small part of the day, especially if you're a physiotherapist or osteopath (!) - and send some money via the just giving page.

I love the fact that Beethoven's incredible music - concertos, symphonies, and all the rest - is raising passions, and raising for charity more than ever. Long may it continue - may every year be a Beethoven year!


New Year, new website

January is a funny month. Always is. After a whirlwind of travelling, concerts, meetings and whatnot in the autumn, I'm now enjoying a reclusive month. I quite like it. I wish I could report I've spent most of it studying Mahler, or cruising the podiums of the world but - alas - that would be a lie. I've spent it, hermit-like, sitting at my desk, face-palming, banging my head against a wall of googlebots. But I've learnt something nevertheless. And you will learn, too, if you read on - if only why there's a picture of a shed up there.

Yes, it's a shed. Don't let that trouble you. It's part of my master-plan.

For reasons unbeknownst, I chose the no man's land between Christmas and New Year to change my website. I thought it would be a low time, with few if any hits on the site. So, no problems if it all imploded - nobody would be looking at it anyway. I shut down the old one, and moved the new one over. I'd been building it on and off, for a while. In a kind of wordpress dry dock. Now, anyone who follows me on twitter will testify that NONE of this was simple. I thought it'd all be plain sailing. Oh no. No, no. I thought it would take a couple of mouse clicks and - quicker than you can say "subito!" - my new mega-site would be unleashed on the world, lights flashing, sidebars scrolling and photos gurning. Ahhh, how charmingly naïve!

Quite apart from the traumas of shifting the site over, there were more to come. Google snubbed me. Totally blanked me as soon as I switched over. Nice. Then I realised my site was getting slower and slower. Loading the media gallery was like watching the end of 2001, over and over. Perplexing, and frustrating. Basically, I'd gone from a perfectly OK site (but one which I couldn't really update too easily) at the very top of google, to a site which was invisible to search engines, and took longer to load than a Celibidache Bruckner performance. Something had to be done.

I plunged into a fiesta of speed-tests and SEO optmization, befriended spiders and bing-bots, and essentially went a bit mad. I persevered, however, and emerged from the other side of the tunnel, my sanity more or less intact. I now have a respectable website, up-and-running. Here it is, all around you!! It isn't perfect. Not yet. But it's OK, I guess. I'm pretty happy.

Anyway the point is - and pay attention because this is the moral of the story - this whole shebang is something which I've built myself *, entirely from scratch, with no professional input at all (unless you count reading blog posts about SQL databases). I built this. I am genuinely proud. I've got a kind of warm glow as if, say, I was good with my hands and had built, oh I dunno, a SHED. Let's say a SHED. From scratch. That kind of glow.

I realise this is all rather self-congratulatory, but I've not built anything for a long while. Certainly not a website. And very definitely not a shed. There's a tangible sense of achievement. I can look out of the window at my shed at my website and think, "yeah, that's OK, not bad for a first go".

* Before I continue, can I clarify this - I couldn't have done things without my long-suffering, much-put-upon and extremely diligent assistant, Tess. She has been the voice of reason during the lengthy gestation of this site. Now let's move on, before this sounds like an Oscar's speech.

As a busy conductor, obviously I spend a good part of my time immersed in some abstract intangibles. You know, this bit of phrasing, that dynamic nuance. Even my teaching work is like that - I'm dealing with people, information, passing on knowledge. I am helping to build something, yes. Maybe a performance of a Mahler symphony. Or someone's left hand technique. But this feels totally different. I feel like a new man. In my new shed, in the new year. 

Happy 2015 everyone! Now, go and enjoy this lovely website... :-)

 


Kleiber and the PlayStation3

Yes, I reckon that's an unusual combination too. But it hooked you in, right? Or maybe you've been googling something else, and have ended up here by mistake. In which case, welcome - you're amongst friends here. I promise. I won't judge people for their opinions on the great Carlos Kleiber, even if they're wearing Korn t-shirts and sunken eyes (cue further embarrassing stereotypes).

So, I may be a conductor, but that doesn't preclude me from having a PlayStation. In fact I even use it, from time-to-time. Particularly on those rare weekends with NO GIGS, like the one just gone. I hardly ever use it for gaming, mainly for DVDs, and streaming all sorts of nonsense. I realise that's the equivalent of playing only one octave scales on your Strad, or using the microwave solely for heating coffee (guilty), but I don't care.

Yesterday I entered a new kind of PS3 nirvana. Whilst trying to find something mind-numbingly puerile, to pacify the remaining brain-cells, I came upon....
YOU TUBE FOR THE PLAYSTATION 3.

Oh yes.

This may mean nothing to you, but it nearly brought tears to my eyes. For - LO! - I can now watch all that YouTube-y goodness in shiny HD widescreen IMAX whatnot! I can listen to concerts with sound that eclipses the tinny screetching from the computer, a sound that engulfs me in rapture, rumbling from the HiFi instead of the bottom of an iMac.

Good. Now, that's the way to waste an entire Sunday afternoon. Better than Gears of War or GT5. Mainly because the first thing I watched, I mean properly, and couldn't tear myself away from, was that extraordinary film - about an extraordinary bloke called Carlos Kleiber. If you've not seen it, drop EVERYTHING and start now. Even if you have seen it, nothing makes it more impressive than viewing from the sofa (if you're reading in the US, that's "couch") - where, as we know, all the best TV-watching happens, and not when you're at a desk staring at a computer.

(subsequent edit: now, that film has - quite rightly I guess - been eliminated from YouTube. You'll have to go and buy it, like in the old days. I've popped an equally extraordinary snippet of Mozart below instead. It'll look & sound just as good on the PS3, TV or anywhere)

Thanks, PlayStation3, and the YouTube people, for making a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon more sun-filled than you can possibly imagine.

And, thanks Mr Kleiber, too. Again.

Happy watching - even if you're at a desk.


Guivier's batons

Morning everyone. Straight to business! There's a rant coming. Perhaps the first of many.

I penned my first blog-post in months the other day, and one of the topics I mentioned was batons. I assumed my next post - i.e. this one - wouldn't quite be so soon after the first, but then I didn't count on one of my batons displaying appalling qualities whilst in use. Let's start from the beginning. Make sure you're sitting comfortably.

I bought a couple of batons from Guivier's only a matter of weeks ago. I used to use them a lot, over the years. I ordered two model P sticks. The kind Rattle is often seen sporting. I'm sure Andrew Davis also lunges with these babies too. That's not why I bought them, mind. I'm not swayed by celebrity endorsements! I bought them because I like them, and they feel right. I buy them long, and cut the ends off - can't stand those spindly little whiffs of sawdust at the tip - I like a log up at that end.

But enough about my proclivities.

I spent a dull (ok, it wasn't; it was really oddly satisfying, in the same geeky way an oboist loves whittling away at their reeds) afternoon on Monday chopping and sanding the ends. In the middle of teaching Holst's St Paul's Suite to a student the following morning, one of them broke. SNAP. At exactly the same point as exactly the same batons always used to break years ago, which is exactly why I stopped using them in the first place. Why on earth did I go back and try again, thinking their quality-control had improved???

Essentially, what you've got is two bits of wood, sandwiched together and held in place merely by anti-matter, and the invisible force-fields emanating from minor 6-3 chords. Or it may as well be, because f*** all else holds it together, and the slightest twitch from the wrist renders the bits asunder.

WHAT. RUBBISH.

It really grinds my gears, as that famous conductor on telly says. It is truly, truly dreadful workmanship, and what's more, a rip-off: At nearly £11 a pop, I'd expect a stick to last at least as far as the slow movement (of the piece, or even my career). I've bought a few sticks from Guivier's since December, and they've often been poorly finished, badly balanced, and sometimes bent. Well, ok, I didn't buy the bent ones, but you get the point.

So I've gone back to some little Maestro TR12BW jobbies, which I love, are cheaper, and above all don't break every six bars. Much better all round.

Guivier's should know better than to sell such dross, and I'll be telling them so, once I've gotten all this off my chest. I do hope someone from their company reads this, as I'd love to offer them the right to reply. I'm not attempting to be confrontational, but when our batons are our precision tools, and they end up being far from precise, it p*sses me off big time. Plus, Guivier's have a reputation - in a tricky world, where you can't just grab a stick from the high street - of supplying some of the best batons to some of the best conductors. People travel there from all over, or do it mail-order. Their quality really ought to be better than that. Other company's batons are WAAAAY better. And I'm not talking about poncey Mollards, ultra-balanced Pickboys, or Newlands embossed along the side with their own importance - I'm talking about bog-standard meat-and-two-veg sticks you can get hold of in a tiny music shop.

As you can tell, when I get ranting, I really can vent and vent and vent. So, that's enough. I've got a gig tonight. Which I'll be conducting with a simple cheap baton, the kind I've been using for ages. Which almost certainly won't break. Unless someone attacks me from the viola section (it does happen, I'm told).

Anyone else got any thoughts about Guivier's batons??? Please add comments. Maybe even photos of fatalities.

Happy snapping, folks!


this is a waltz (honest)

So, my dear friend and collaborator James Mayhew has been doodling again. This time from the back of the hall, as we rehearsed on Thursday last week. (For more on this - at least from James's perspective - switch blog channels and read all about his Dancing Paintbrush)

I was on stage, rehearsing. Sorting things out for the de Havilland Phil concert this weekend (see flier below, featuring a very well-known pianist). There must've been an awful lot of waltzing in there somewhere, because there's a lot of waltzing in the programme. So I imagine there's a lot of waltzing in this picture, too. Stands to reason. Ok, so there might be a bit of La Mer in there too, which could just imbue his artwork with a certain aquatic quality, but I like to think that he's captured a waltz here, in all it's glory. Good on you James, and thank you - this is a truly beautiful painting!

So, it's a waltz. Perhaps. Or so I like to think.

Now - the lovely problem is that, of course, capturing a waltz in such a perfect, frozen-in-silver(-rose) kind of way such as this makes it seem so elegant, so light and so simple. Which is the way waltzes are. Or should be. Conducting them like that, hard as it is (ok: it's near impossible) is what I strive for.

But like I say, it's hard! Breathtakingly subtle. In gently trying to inflect them, to turn their myriad corners and bring their inevitable rubato to life, one can trample all over their tender shoots, or snap them completely. Yet, do nothing, and the music dies - as if killed by the dullest of routiniers. Uninspiring, unimaginative. Boring waltz-killers. There are plenty about!

And of course, as a conductor, one has to make the most musical music within a waltz-beat. In other words, in one. Make the music flow, the lines sing, the contours melt and dance - all within just one beat. One fluid motion, containing all. Can't do too much, shouldn't do too little. And you're always on a knife-edge between the two. Yet it shouldn't ever appear like that, or else, again, you'll kill the whole thing. Waltzes + fear don't mix well! I firmly believe they should be compulsory in every kind of conducting competition - not the Danse Sacrale, or some piece written yesterday, but waltzes. Plenty of them. There are, after all, plenty of them...

Well, I'm going back to nursing my inner waltz, in preparation for the concert tomorrow. I'll leave you with one of the few true masters (no, I don't mean Strauss). Please don't miss the point and think "it's nothing to do with him" and "the orchestra do that anyway"! There is truth in that, but it's far from the whole story. And if, after watching all of this, you still feel that way, then I suggest a diet of Zen koans (because they sum up the endless secret of good waltzing). Or maybe some polkas.

Oooh, and before I go, here's that flier. I'll tell you how the waltzes (not to mention the great Emperor with John Lill) go in my next post. There may even be a photo from my dressing room