A view from the rostrum

James Kelleher

The view from the rostrum - James Kelleher Following the performance of the three orchestral pieces and the suite by the Millennium Sinfonia under James Kelleher in 1995

I have read the many wonderful remarks about our performance in the last Newsletter, and none was more gratefully received than that from Marat Bisengaliev. Both I and the orchestra felt honoured to work with him - not only is he a musician of great feeling, but his technique is incredible; to cap it all, he seemed supremely unflappable in the face of a work that must be among the most difficult for his instrument.

Having read all the various reactions to the concert, I thought I would offer some of my own in the hope that some readers may find them of interest!

Pantalon and Columbine ‘improved’ on second performance. When I first conducted it I appreciated the late-Romantic beauty but perhaps saw too little of the Brian humour which I brought out this time. The Violin Concerto is well known to most readers, I am sure; a very taxing work, not only technically (especially as regards balance because of the dense scoring and polyphonic writing) but formally. There is a large scale form, but the ‘pillars’ are so far apart (and so varied themselves) that bringing out a link between them is very tricky, so Malcolm McDonald’s critique that entire movements had a flow was a compliment indeed! (in a previous Newsletter I commented about difficulties in interpreting metronome marks in Brian’s music - I am glad to say my feeling that they were to be taken with a pinch of salt is supported by Brian’s underlined handwritten note on the front of the Concerto score ‘Metronome marks only approximate’!).

Putting ‘my mark’ on the complete extracts from Turandot was a great feeling - unlike many of the other world premieres I have conducted, it felt like music that was very well worth performing, and I plan to programme it in a future concert. Malcolm MacDonald makes reference to the lack of ‘Chinese-style’ writing in the opera; I venture to disagree slightly - I feel that the atmosphere of the East is strongly evoked in many passages (partly by the musical language and partly the orchestral colouring) but in a way which is wonderfully subtle and therefore does not tire our ‘Western’ ears. It is actually far more pleasing and successful an evocation of the Orient than Puccini’s music, although Puccini’s succeeds due to his inborn gift for ‘great music’!

I do share Malcolm’s reservations about the structure of the second movement, taken out of the operatic context, and this wonderful movement gave me the most problems structurally of the whole concert. Despite its wonderful colouristic touches it often lacks a ‘foreground’ thread to lead the listener through. Mainly because of the length and complexity of the second movement the first three pieces do not stand alone well, although the first by itself would prove an excellent overture item in concert programmes. (I also draw attention to one of the several unplayable passages: demi-semi-quavers for the first trumpet at crotchet = 160 (1 before figure 3) - I hereby issue a challenge to any trumpeter alive to play that passage; I am offering a reward of £100!)

One technical point which emerges, which UMP and Malcolm may like to consider editing, is that many of Brian’s markings, particularly accelerandi, are open-ended, and although sometimes it is not clear where they end (eg fig 53 stringendo_ends at figure _55 Tranquillo), some are not (eg accel molto before fig 6, which could go all the way to fig 7, but which I treated as being of only half a bar’s duration, with a steady fast tempo taking over from there to fig 7, or the accel e cresc molto at fig 76 which I treated as a gradual one right to the end of the third movement). Also many other expression marks are nonsensical (for instance fig 13, where most of the orchestra has forte diminuendo subito in words and a hairpin followed by a crescendo in signs, all to be played simultaneously).

The third and fourth movements spoke for themselves, and the fifth movement (Minuet)is delightful and very delicate (a characteristic I had not previously associated with Brian), but suffered from balance problems in the opening nine bars - solo cello against forte crescendo strings and winds alternating is difficult to achieve, and as a result the thread was lost slightly in this section. The luscious music for the _Entrance of the Princess Turandot_was on a par with Brian’s most lyrical moments (such as the _Lento_passage after fig 7 in the first movement of the Violin Concerto).

The Nocturne posed a problem. Malcolm MacDonald spotted that we only had one harpist and the passage requires two for full effect, even though the single player adroitly captured some of the second harp’s music. However this is the only passage where a second harp was essential and I felt justified in not paying £150 of the HBS’s money for nine bars of music. In a perfect world… As with many passages of

Brian’s slow music, I felt the tempo marking was too fast. Also, using two bassoons in unison on a solo plaintive melody above harps may be a necessary tool for the opera pit, but in a concert situation leads to loss of rubato possibilities and extra tuning difficulties which bassoonists could well do without. And yes - the percussionist did misread the marking in the concert and play the bell passage on the glockenspiel. So the £32 paid for hiring a bell specifically for this passage was wasted!

I share all of Malcolm’s reactions to the Lugubre Marsch. An incredible piece, so haunting. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I fell for its mood, and did not feel it to be tongue-in-cheek - perhaps Malcolm’s view comes from knowledge of the piece in the context of the opera, or perhaps I am only taking the music at face value – whichever, I felt the movement was a magnificent end to a collection of pieces that are amazingly diverse in character and colour and yet all linked by the same underlying language of Brian. (I was given Malcolm’s approval to ignore the diminuendo in the last bar in order to give a greater feeling of ending - it was also suggested that two short ff chords be used; in the event I aimed to keep long heavy notes at a loud dynamic - somewhat thwarted by the fact that the cello section obviously missed what I hurriedly told them at the end of the rehearsal and tried to diminuendo; they seemed very puzzled by my ever-larger arm movements!).

One of the most pleasing things about the Turandot music was the relative ‘ease’ of performing it. Alright, so the orchestral players had a tough time technically, but the textures were very transparent and details seemed to emerge by themselves; a very different story from the struggle I encountered getting details to emerge from the 16th symphony last year!

The concert was recorded (on DAT using excellent microphones) - the aim of this exercise was to interest the BBC in broadcasting the concert, which they are now considering, although primary indications are that the quality of the DAT (having some background noise) may be inadequate for broadcast use.

I am glad that the audience enjoyed the concert (I certainly did!), and I shall certainly continue to programme Brian’s music in future concerts. Many thanks to UMP as well for their help - the computer-set parts, which I understand caused much agony in preparation, were worth their weight in gold, and are a very valuable step towards increasing the chances of interesting other performing bodies in Brian’s works. I was disappointed that the press were conspicuous by their absence. I hope that our perseverance in presenting Brian will eventually fall on fruitful ground, though, and before the HBS Treasurer starts to panic, rest assured that we won’t always come begging to the HBS for funds…

NL120 / © James Kelleher 1995

Newsletter, NL 120, 1995