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!