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.


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... :-)