Young composers sit at their computers ...

Mahler 9. Circuit training’ll be a dawdle after this. What a play. What a play-fest. Ilan (Volkov) (above left) skippered us through it in Glasgow and Leeds last week. The last time the band played it was 1976 – that’s the year Ilan was born. Christopher Adey conducted that time. It was one of his last gigs with us during his tenure as ‘Assistant Conductor’. He was desperate to do the piece, the producer couldn’t really budget for it, so they agreed (i.e. they forgot to discuss it with us down at the coal face) to do it on half the rehearsal time.

The next ‘Assistant Conductor’ was Simon Rattle, and he tried the same trick with Mahler 7, but he programmed two studio recordings instead of the quick bash for one. Surprise, surprise: when we got to the first recording he announced that we weren’t ready and cancelled the recording in favour of a day more rehearsal before the second session. And they docked his pay! Which didn’t leave much, considering the pay those assistants got. In his two year tenure, Simon introduced us to a number of the big expensive orchestral showpieces – fantastic times.

The Assistant Conductor post has disappeared now. It was a good enough institution for the likes of Simon,
Alex Gibson, Bryden Thompson, Christopher Seaman, Andrew Davis and many others. As young conductors they got to do a whole load of stuff that wouldn’t be available to them on the open commercial conductor circuit. Can you imagine the auditions for the post? We had a day in which six hopefuls would turn up with the same repertory excerpts and an hour in which to prove their worth.

There’s a grim side to any audition process, but if the hopeful can’t keep his cool under that pressure, then he’d best find that out quickly. ‘Lesson one’ would be: can they beat through a series of complicated time-signature changes, e.g. the slow movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C? We knew the answer by the second bar, but we had to be very professional for the rest of the hour!

Nowadays, many young composers sit at their computers, having left their brain in the bathroom, and unthinkingly use the computer to churn out the most ridiculously complicated sequences of time-signatures, further complicated by speed changes at every bar and notation within those individual bars that contradict the time-signature anyway. We have to take this in our stride now, though you will have gathered from my tone that we might get a tad irritated. But a conductor who can’t take this in his stride – he’s a no no.

When do conductors get to ‘practise’ their instrument – which is a skilled professional band that can actually play the piece? Bear in mind that we, the players, don’t want to appear in public as cannon fodder for inexperienced or weak conductors. What’s the answer?
Cellist Anthony Sayer tells it like it is on the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra blog, and as I've said here several times before, they are a band on a roll, after a near-death experience.

My header photo, from NMC. shows Ilan Volkov, composer Stuart MacRae and violinist Christian Tetzlaff at the recording sessions in Glasgow City Halls in 2006 for MacRae's Violin Concerto, which was a BBC Proms commission. I hasten to add I am sure Anthony Sayer's comments about young composers don't apply to Stuart MacRae, it just happened to be a nice shot that fits the story!
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JMW said…
Oh, how woefully true about what supposedly can and cannot be done on the pro conducting circuit. I had a meeting with a well-known manager at a premiere New York management agency. Said manager inquired about my predilections, to which I answered a number of composers including Karl Weigl. He responded matter-of-factly "you can't do Weigl". The incredulous look upon my naive visage probably explains the subsequent course of my musical life!

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