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.

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.


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...)