Thursday, 10 November 2011

Never work with kids or amateurs?

When I first started conducting, I was told a story by a conductor who regularly works with amateur orchestras. He had been advised by a very well-known British conductor to stop working with amateur and youth orchestras as it would harm his conducting. The argument was that it would change the way he worked with and reacted to, professional orchestras. I might add that the conductor who told me this story thought the advice was rubbish, but I thought it might be a  good idea to look into why this advice is total drivel!

[DISCLAIMER – For the remainder of this post I shall refer to all non-professional musicians as “amateurs” and all members of Youth Orchestras, juveniles, young people etc, as “kids”. It is not meant in any way to be derogatory, I am just being lazy and cannot be bothered to type out all the alternatives!]

So, where was I? Oh, yes, why should a conductor avoid working with kids and amateurs? Well let’s take the major thrust of this argument, that it changes the way you work with professional orchestras. Well that point is all about......

The easiest way to avoid any problems swapping between the many types of orchestras is to treat them all alike! Treat any orchestra as you would wish to be treated. If you treat them with respect there is a greater chance that they will treat you with respect.

I have been conducting the Sinfonia of Birmingham for nearly 10 years now and we have a great working relationship. It is based on trust and on the premise that we are striving to achieve professional results. Sure, there are times when those results might seem difficult to achieve but treating them like amateurs isn’t going to help! I fact the opposite is true – the more you expect them to behave, play and perform as pros, the more often it happens.

This sort of leads on to the next point - if you expect them to play like professionals, you should conduct like one, never compromising your.....

Another point used against working with kids and amateurs is that your technique will suffer. Will it? Really? Well looks look at why it might suffer.

When I started at the Sinfonia I made it clear from Day 1 that I expected them to play together as an orchestra and not rely totally on my beat to do so. I wanted them to listen more, be more aware of what is going on within the orchestra and then use those tools to play together and not rely on sticking rigidly to my beat. This is not because I cannot beat in time, but because I wanted them to be able to play as a group autonomously (as all the great orchestras do) and then react to my balance and phrasing gestures etc. It is exactly the same attitude I take with me into the CBSO Youth Orchestra and the Birmingham Schools Symphony.

It doesn’t mean I try not to be clear – far from it, but it does mean I don’t just stand there and impersonate a drum major! It is often a phrase I use ( and sometimes a gesture I use ) to remind them to listen harder and play together.

So if I use a professional attitude and my technique is no different, what am I going to gain by conducting kids and amateurs? Where are the.....

First of all, unless you are one of those conductors who is either a young competition winner, an international soloist who instantly declares that he is now a ‘conductor’ or a young whizz-kid with a major conductor overseeing your every move, you need to practise with somebody! You need to not only get used to rehearsing and shaping a performance, you need to practise your technique ‘in battle’ and surely the more you do it, the better it gets.

And during those rehearsals you will have plenty of chances of learning how to get the results you require. You will encounter every rhythmic problem known to man, I guarantee! You will have to learn quickly how to tune a woodwind or brass chord. You will have to learn something about bowings and how the bowings can enhance or ruin a performance.
You will also have to learn how to get the sound you want. Yes, you can stand in front of a professional orchestra and ask for the sound to be “more ethereal”, “more stentorian” ( I had to look than one up in a dictionary, which is more than the conductor who used had done!) or “more like bathing in chocolate” – chance are all of those phrases will get some change in sound. If you used those phrases with a Youth Orchestra or amateurs you might also get a change in sound but you have to know how get it technically if those phrases and metaphors don’t work. If you don’t know how to get the sound to change technically you will struggle – you will just end up sounding like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus and the sea of blank looks will get bigger!
Then there is the question of repertoire. I can tell you that when you spend an intensive week long course or a whole term on one programme, you know it, backwards! It is also a great place to try out repertoire before you take it into a pro orchestra – a trick the great conductors have used and are still using.

To be honest the positives are endless – so are there any......

The only one I can think of is the fact that some managers and agents will look down their noses on some conductors for working with kids and amateurs. I am convinced this happens and I am equally convinced that some conductors would benefit greatly by doing more YO and amateur work.

I shall finish with one final statement, one I have using since I first conducted. Working with amateur and youth orchestras is an amazing experience, one that is  full of energy and commitment – there will always be times in the performance when the orchestra sounds like the Berlin Philharmonic – you just don’t know when and for how long!

Friday, 7 October 2011

What's new, Buenos Aires OR how many steaks does it take to get into the Colon?

So what was I doing in Buenos Aires , other than eating lots of these.....

Virtually all conductors spend a lot of their time ‘guest conducting’ –  travelling the world conducting orchestras with which you have no official position for anywhere between 3 days and two weeks and then moving on to the next town or city and doing the same. In my relatively short career I have done a small amount of guest conducting but it something I enjoy and it is something I want to do more often.

If one is lucky enough to have a full diary, a conductor could make sure that he only guest conducts with orchestras he has a real empathy with and in cities he enjoys visiting. But early in a career a conductor can find that either he and the orchestra don’t ‘hit it off’ or he has to spend up to a week in a city that he doesn’t enjoy being in. Or worse, which I have to admit has happened to me once, BOTH!

Whether chatting with some players in the Ulster Orchestra over a pint of Guinness, exploring the delightful town of Odense between concerts or just catching up with people I’ve known for years in Bournemouth or the BBC Symphony, some trips are always enjoyable. The precarious nature of our business does sometimes throw up the occasional place that you would love to return to yet the orchestra would be happy if they never saw you again, but that’s another post for another day!

My favourite guest conducting trip has to be to Buenos Aires. I have been there three times now and loved every trip I have made. I was invited initially in 2008 to conduct the Buenos Aires Philharmonic in a one-off pre-season concert. I have to admit to have been slightly scared by the prospect of rehearsing and working in Latin America – I had heard it could be somewhat different from the well-behaved rehearsals I was used to! This was heightened after my first meeting with the orchestra’s General Manager who warned me over a pre-rehearsal coffee that if the orchestra didn’t like me, there would probably be riot within 30 minutes! Fortunately we got on very well and my nerves soon went.

Whilst we rehearsed in the Teatro Colon, the concert itself had to be in a different venue as the theatre was undergoing refurbishment. I had played in the Colon in 1997 with the CBSO and Simon Rattle and remembered it as being both acoustically fabulous and visually stunning. A return visit one year later as part of the main season came along but again I missed out on the Colon, this time conducting two all-Mendelssohn concerts in the Teatro Coliseo.

My contact over in Argentina is the same man who warned me about the potential riot and that, “rehearsals will not be what you are used to – you are in Argentina, you know!” His name is Eduardo Ihidoype and he has since become a firm friend. We have something in common – he had been for many years the 2nd Clarinet/ E flat with the Philharmonic but had latterly ‘swapped sides’ and become their manager. We chatted about the difficulties of doing both jobs as he, like me, was still playing now and again with his colleagues in the Philharmonic. 

Well it was Eduardo who invited me to go to Buenos Aires again last month but to conduct a different orchestra. Would I be willing to conduct the Orquestra Academica del Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colon, with the concert in the Teatro Colon? Just so long as I didn’t have to remember the full name of the orchestra, my arm had been twisted!! I was finally going to work in this great opera house...

Eduardo had moved from the Phil to run the Instituto at the Colon. It is an organisation that gives further study and opportunities to students from 18 to 25. It not only gives lessons to orchestral players but also has faculties in Opera, Dance, Drama and Art. The benefit to the Colon is that they can nurture the best young talent and then draft them into the Teatro Colon as orchestral players in the opera, or chorus singers, stage builders, scenery painters etc. The Instituto orchestra consisted of about 40 players aged between 18 and 27, with about half already getting professional dates with the Phil or the Colon orchestra.

I can tell you that they can play! They all had good technical ability and they are all good players in their own right. The problem lay in getting them to play together! A lot of time was spent just working on rhythm and ensemble – something that I am particularly fastidious about – before we could get to the finer points. It seems that a lot of time is spent teaching their musicians to get to a very high level of technical ability but they are not trained in the art of orchestral playing from an early enough age. The problem is still there in their professional orchestras, not as pronounced, but still there.  But once the “nuts and bolts” have been worked on , there is a real spirit and commitment in their playing that comes shining through and makes all the work worthwhile.

The concert went well – I was glad about this as I had been to see the opening night of Wagner’s Lohengrin the night before and the audience in the Teatro Colon are pretty hardcore. They like to sit there in total silence throughout (much hissing and admonishment should you make a sound!) and if they don’t like you, they let you know it! The conductor and Lohengrin received full-throated boo’s, something I was anxious to avoid! But we were well received and the orchestra were very happy, or so they told me when they whisked me off for beers and steak after the concert!

Here is photo taken of the end of the concert - who is that bald bloke in front of the orchestra???

And a quick resume on Buenos Aires? Well I think it is the mixture of Spanish / Italianate architecture, tree-lined avenues, big city hustle and bustle, all mixed in with that Latin American feel that I find so exciting. Oh, the food helps, as does the Malbec red wine and one of my favourite beers, Quilmes, and the endless amounts of dulce de leche..........

Maybe some of my Argentinian experiences and stories will make another post – they are too long and wordy to add to this post but you might find them interesting??

So that was that! Belfast, Brum and B.A. – three different projects with three great orchestras and three great experiences. What’s next, you may ask? Well, it’s all up on my website but in short, it doesn’t get any less interesting! A residential course in Shropshire with the Birmingham Schools Symphony Orchestra, the CBSO share the stage with The Enid and the final of the Dudley Piano Competiton – I am sure I’ll find something to tell you about from that little lot.....

Until then, please post a comment or two and please suggest future post topics. I have few ideas, what do you think of these potential subjects?

  •   Do conductors have hobbies? And if not, why not? 
  • “Never work with kids and amateurs” – true or bollocks? 
  •  Batons – Yes, No, if so, which? 
  •  Time – the use of it, misuse of it and what some conductors use to tell the time!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Belfast, Birmingham and Buenos Aires - PART 2

Part II of my trip through major cities beginning with B took me back home to Birmingham. Friday consisted of a four hour rehearsal with the CBSO prior to Saturday’s performance at Artsfest, Birmingham’s free arts festival, which annually takes place over the second weekend in September. The CBSO and I usually give an outdoor concert on the Saturday evening which culminates in a fireworks finale.

These concerts are great fun. The audience often number into the thousands and they cheer and applaud very enthusiastically, often after a little lubrication of the throat! It is one of our chances every year to perform to the Birmingham public for free and showcase the orchestras’ talents as well as thank them for their support throughout the year. The orchestra also use it as a chance to advertise the upcoming season and highlight some of the programmes the CBSO will be performing. A great idea and one I think has been successful over the years.

This leads me however to discuss the ‘fireworks concert format’ and the pitfalls within for the conductor. As I said at the end of my previous post, I really do believe it to be almost a conducting ‘exam’! I shall explain why...

Let us take the programme we did this year. Here it is in full,

Beethoven – Egmont Ov.
Dukas – The Sorcerors Apprentice
Barry – Goldfinger
Barry – Diamonds are forever
Puccini – Doretta’s song from ‘La Rondine’ (Soprano – Maureen Brathwaite)
Prokofiev – Wedding and Troika from ‘Lte Kije Suite’
Sibelius – Finlandia
Tchaikovsky – Waltz from ‘Swan Lake’
Puccini – El lucevan el stelle from ‘Tosca’ (Tenor – Joseph Guyton)
Puccini - ‘O soave fanciulla’ from La Boheme
Berlioz - 'Un Bal' from Symphonie Fantastique
Mussorgsky – The Great Gate of Kiev from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’
Wagner – The Ride of the Valkyries

Great music to conduct and much fun to be had! But let’s look at it again and see where the problems might lie.

Firstly, just learning all of this takes quite a lot of time, if you do not know all of it already, of course! But even if you do know it, it is always worth spending a little time reminding yourself of how it goes, where the problem corners might be etc. Often with this particular concert the programme is not finalised until quite late, usually down to the fireworks company, which means that you have to learn it all at a fast pace, which is never ideal.

Secondly having absorbed it all, the rehearsal period is often quite short. I am lucky with the CBSO in that I now get a rehearsal the day before and then a small rehearsal on the stage on the day of the concert. This is necessary as in previous years we have lost up to 90 minutes of rehearsal time due to weather or the stage not being built! But even with this luxury, one has to have clear gestures regarding balance and tempo as often there is simply not the time to stop and talk about it. And regarding balance, we move on to the third point...

From my seat in the Second Violins I have often watched conductors (who shall remain nameless!) painstakingly balance the CBSO, often trying to produce “ethereal” and “magical” effects that quite frankly are never going to be heard! Whether you are playing to 3000 enthusiastic Brummies in Centenary Square or 10000 revellers in the back garden of a stately home, two things have to be considered. Firstly you are playing outside, usually in a glorified tent and secondly, the orchestra will be amplified and it highly likely the sound engineer’s last gig was with a rock band! In an ideal world the conductor should have the time to go out and listen to the sound quality and make suggestions to the sound engineer about balance but it is very unlikely. And when the fireworks start, all they are going to do is turn it up to eleven!

I remember one CBSO conductor giggling during the 1812 Overture as he couldn’t hear anything, and vividly remember trying to play the ‘Danse Sacrale’ from The Rite of Spring with Simon Rattle as a fireworks company showed off their entire catalogue all at once!

I am not saying you shouldn’t balance the orchestra at all, that would be foolish. What I am saying is that you need to be ready to change dynamics and balances depending on the level of pyrotechnic mayhem and sound quality you encounter on stage. For instance, the amplification for Artsfest usually comprises of many microphones individually placed near the Wind, Brass and Percussion and one big mic over the Strings. This of course is far from ideal and leads to having to make some subtle changes. The start of Dukas’ Sorcerors Apprentice has a pp string pizzicato followed by multi divisi violins. Great in Symphony Hall but these notes will not be heard unless you ask them to play louder. Likewise with our two great soloists from Birmingham Opera – a friend who had gone out to listen told me the orchestra could not be heard whenever they sang as the sound guy had turned them up and us down!

And then finally, there is the element of the unexpected. What do you do when the stage is not built yet, how do you handle a situation where the sun is blazing into “the tent” and varnish is starting to melt? When do you stop playing because the rain is now blowing into the tent? These are all situations I have faced and last Saturday the latter was the problem. It rained so hard during the Dukas (yes, ironic timing!) that I was conducting whilst watching Artsfest and CBSO managers having very earnest discussions just offstage, waiting for a signal. As it happens, the rain abated and we carried on.

All of this brings me to my final point. It is this very type of concert that most up-and-coming conductors get offered (or a Family concert which has as much repertoire and different styles of music but at least indoors!) as a first gig with an orchestra. And in so many ways, they are the hardest concerts you ever do! They are exciting and exhilarating yet challenging and frightening. I wouldn’t miss them for the world but they are the equivalent of a conducting exam. 

I understand why orchestras do this – they want to try a new conductor they have heard about and want to see him in action. The conductor wants to work with new orchestras and hopes he can show them his qualities and attributes during the time he has with them. In many ways the conductor could show an awful lot more of his skills and passion for music if they had been booked for a normal “Overture, Concerto, Symphony” concert in the luxury of the concert hall but often this could be a risk the orchestra are not willing to take. They hope to see enough potential in a new conductor from one of these concerts and then maybe book them for something more prestigious.

The drawback for the conductor is that if you are good at,
  1. Managing the time efficiently
  2. Being clear with your gestures so as to balance and get your point across without need for long diatribes and lectures to the band
  3. Coping with any problems that might arise and doing so with a smile on your face
then there is a real danger you will be pigeonholed as being the man they turn to for their ‘conducting exam concerts’ and never quite get to the next stage. Whilst it is great that orchestras can feel they can turn to you for these qualities, most conductors want to be inside conducting those great orchestras without fear of rain, pyrotechnic displays or sound engineers!

Here is a clip of the end of our concert last week.

Thanks for reading and, as usual, all comments are welcome.
Next time, Buenos Aires!


Friday, 16 September 2011

Belfast, Birmingham & Buenos Aires - PART 1

The life of a conductor can often be a varied one, especially when one is starting out on a career. Not many fledgling conductors have the luxury of jetting into an orchestra, performing a concert(s) consisting of overture, concerto and symphony, and then jetting off to the next venue and doing much the same again with a new group of musicians. The fledgling conductor often finds that he has to take on many different types of project and be ready to adapt to any situation.

As luck would have it, over the last 10 days I have had three distinctly different projects to handle. This post will deal with my trip to Belfast to conduct the Ulster Orchestra for two days – but hot on its heels will be my thoughts on conducting in Birmingham and Buenos Aires. Three different cities, orchestras and projects, each with their own problems, solutions and joys.

This was the third time I had worked with the Ulster Orchestra but, barring one rehearsal day 18 months previous, the first time I had worked with them in their home, the Ulster Hall.

The first time I worked with UO was in January 2009, at a time when the Ulster Hall was being refurbished and the orchestra was rehearsing in many different venues around Belfast. During my stay I chatted to several players, usually over a pint of ‘the black stuff’, who almost unanimously agreed that they couldn’t wait to get back ‘home’ and play in the Ulster Hall again.

Well, two and a half years on and they are firmly back home and what a home it is! A conventional shoe box shaped hall with a really clear, bright and lively acoustic which, during the ‘dark days’ of playing in converted churches and other all-purpose venues, they must indeed have longed for!

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any acoustic ‘anomalies’, but I will come to those later.
The lions’ share of the project was to rehearse/record Nielsen Symphony No.2, The Four Temperaments. This really was a joy for me – one of my favourite symphonies and one I had conducted a lot before. The first task on Day 1 was to rehearse the orchestra in readiness for the following days recording session. We were allotted 4 hours to record both the Nielsen and the incidental music and overture from Weber’s Turandot. This means everything needs to be rehearsed and in order so that during the sessions we can all focus on getting the best performance in the short time available.

At this point I must say that rehearse/record is not the ‘ideal’ way to make a recording! I have sat in countless recording sessions, of all types, and there better ways. Ideally one would like to make a ‘live’ recording in the concert hall of your choosing after having performed the piece many times previously over an intense period. This is the way that many of Sir Simon Rattle’s later recordings with the CBSO were done and is the preferred way of the CBSO to record under our new Music Director, Andris Nelsons. I don’t care what you say, something happens in a concert that never really happens in the artificial conditions of a studio recording. Of course, unless you have a record company ready to go, and willing to record the repertoire you programme ( or vice versa ), this way of recording is a luxury that rarely happens.

The next best option is to record in a ‘studio’ ( often a concert hall ) after having performed the piece in concert. Many great recordings are made that way and the luxury here is that the rehearsing is already done, the piece has been performed, many mistakes are ironed out and many interpretive ideas have been tried and tested by conductor and performer alike. There is also often many more hours allotted to get the thing ‘in the can’. The conductor has more chance to go and listen to takes during the session time or overnight, the recording engineer has more time to get just the right balance and quality of sound. The orchestra is less pushed for time, meaning more breaks between takes, getting less tired and being able to produce better results. I don’t know an orchestral player who doesn’t go to one of these sessions armed with a book, newspaper or iPhone loaded with games, such is the amount of time sitting around!

Finally we come to the ‘rehearse/record’. It is the least favourable of all the scenarios but sometimes time and money insist that it is the only option. The great thing about the orchestral player, and one I think the UK is proud to be probably the best at, is that they know the game! They know we have 4 hours to make a recording of a 30 minute symphony and 20 minutes of incidental music and to make it sound as good as scenario 1. And true to form, the UO did just that – during the many takes we made they kept their levels of concentration up to the highest degree with a friendly yet professional manner and we got the job done.

As I mentioned, the recording process did throw up a couple of acoustic anomalies. Because of the way the stage is built, the brass are up quite high over the strings and as the hall is so responsive, it can be quite difficult to balance the orchestra correctly in many passages. It has to be said that Mr Nielsen doesn’t help – in the early stages of his career he often just marks the entire orchestra fff which leads to having to mark the brass down. The problem is that they can only go down in dynamic so far before they feel they can’t play freely or even at times feel like they are not wanted! This couldn’t be further from the truth yet due to the halls layout we did have to be careful. The flipside to this is that in many acoustics the Woodwind struggle to be heard – not in the Ulster Hall. They come over clear and clean with any trace of needing to force their sound. When I went to listen to some takes during lunch, both Marie Claire, the BBC producer for this project, and myself agreed that the balance was clear and that the orchestra were sounding very well over the speakers. Let’s hope that transmits over the airwaves when the BBC use these recordings sometime later this year.

Going back to different types of recording, one ‘throw away’ comment from a player really got me thinking about the process, attitudes and approaches to rehearse/record. This player said,

“It’s only a studio recording, not a CD!”

As I said, a ‘throw away’ comment. But it left me bristling inside because, for me, it was more than that. This was my chance to get down on tape my interpretation of a well-known symphony with a top-class orchestra and it meant the world to me! I am a firm believer in the fact that a recording can only ever be a snapshot of your musical thoughts on a work – a thought frozen in time as, later in life, my thoughts on Nielsen 2 are bound to be different. But at the moment, that is how I believe it should go and I was taking it very seriously.

So should there be a difference between a ‘studio recording’ and a recording for commercial release? No, not in my eyes. Every time we make a sound we are there to be judged technically, musically, interpretively etc.
It wasn’t a comment I took to my heart – I am used to the ways of the hardened UK orchestral player! But it did lead to the formation of this post and thoughts on recordings....

Next time (and probably quite soon as I have a lot of free time here in Argentina!) a look at another aspect of an up and coming conductors career – the outdoor fireworks concert OR, as I like to call them, the conducting exam!

As usual, all comments welcome, good or otherwise!

Until the next time, I'm off for a rehearsal and then one of these - cannot wait!

Mike Seal

Monday, 29 August 2011

Let's start at the very beginning.....

as, in the words of Julie Andrews, it's a very good place to start!

I am Michael Seal and I am a professional musician. For the last few years I have been trying to establish myself as a professional conductor, having been a professional violinist now for 20 years. I have been lucky so far - I have just been promoted from Assistant to Associate Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, have conducted many great orchestras and have been involved with many fabulous concerts and projects. So how did I get to this point and why do I want to conduct?

It would be a lie to say "I always wanted to conduct"! I know some had a calling from an early age but with me that just wasn't the case. From the age of 14, all I wanted to do was play the violin in a professional orchestra. It stemmed from watching the BBC documentary about life in the LSO, "Life of an Orchestra". I couldn't believe that people got to do what I loved as a job and travelled the world doing it. All of my efforts went into getting in to a pro orchestra and on September 7th 1992, I started as a member of the CBSO. I had got there and intended to play for the rest of my working life. But one day in 1999 changed all that....

Four of us were given the amazing opportunity of conducting the CBSO for one hour each, in repertoire of our choosing. Now, what would you do? Conduct a piece which you know they can play on their own or conduct a piece you know they don’t know that well? I’d had lessons at music college and conducted an amateur orchestra in a concert but this was going to be different! This was the CBSO......

I chose the riskier option – I chose Nielsen’s Symphony No.2, a piece the orchestra hadn’t played for over 5 years. After finishing my hour, I was exhausted but exhilarated beyond belief! I remember thinking at this particular moment, “just enjoy this, you might never do this again”.......

Well, it turned out I would do it again. After that day the CBSO gave me a Schools concert, and a Family concert and I then stood in for the Music Director, Sakari Oramo when he cancelled some concerts at very late notice. It was this that led me to be announced as the Assistant Conductor of the CBSO in 2005.

But after many years as a player, why do I want to become a fulltime conductor? For me it was all about the music. Even with some of the great conductors I often sat in my chair in the Second Violins wondering “why are you conducting it that way, why are you balancing it that way, surely it should be faster / slower” and occasionally with some conductors, “I can do better than that”! I felt I had something to give to the music and that if I wanted my voice to be heard, I would have to “put my money where my mouth was” and try to become a conductor. My musical thoughts were never going to be heard from within the Second Violins and there was no point moaning and groaning about things, I just had to do something about it for myself.

I intend this blog to be a journal of my experiences past and present, as well as my thoughts as I continue my journey towards my ultimate goal – the day I have to shut my violin case for good as my diary is too full for me to continue as a player. The next post will be about my next engagement – two days studio recordings with the fabulous Ulster Orchestra. And by a lucky coincidence, we will be recording a piece that is rather close to my heart, Nielsen’s Symphony No.2!