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!


person in black hoodie holding blue stick

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!


Robin Browning conducting de Havilland Philharmonic

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


people walking on street near building during daytime

Never thought it'd be Smetana

Maybe I knew I'd start a blog one day. Maybe I imagined it'd be bright and brilliant, full of erudite observations. And followed dutifully, bootifully by hoardes of admirers. Maybe I thought I'd post the odd video of someone conducting something. But, you know, I never ever dreamt that my first video post would be Vltava, from Smetana's Ma Vlast. (It is, by the way, if I get that far - this isn't a red herring).

Maybe it would've been some Mahler, or some Carlos Kleiber, in my imaginary pre-blog blog. Or Tennstedt. Or Jeff Buckley.

Then, for all sorts of reasons, I was reminded today of this incredible musician, this poet with his hands (and, in rehearsal, an alchemist of words and imagery). Straight away, it was obvious what my first video would be - Ferenc Fricsay, one of the most extraordinary conductors. He makes this music sound almost unbearably alive. Achingly full of character, dance, and - excuse the pun - flow. His spirit and energy are still convincing today. Infectious! Even in monoaural monochrome.

Such a tragedy his life was cut short. And that there aren't more conductors around today to take these kind of risks...


Mravinsky, Arthur Bliss & Schmoo

Ok, ok - I promise this is the last test while I set up this blog. And the last cat. Probably. I can never resist a cat on a piano stool, especially with a Colour Symphony score in the background (does anyone know this? I'm considering it for later this year...)