Sir Mark Elder Interview – Part 2


Sir Mark Elder talks at length to Seen and Heard International

You have to believe don’t you? You have to believe in what you do!” – Mark Elder

Interview with Sir Mark Elder at Manchester in November 2011 by Michael Cookson.

Part 2:  English Music

2.1  Elgar Oratorios and their Debt to Parsifal

2.2  Neglect of English Music in Concert Programmes

2.3  The Relative Merits of Sir Malcolm Arnold and Sir Michael Tippett

2.4  Sir Simon Rattle Programming English Music in Berlin

2.5  Elgar Symphonies

Sir Mark Elder, credit Simon Dodd

Sir Mark Elder CBE is the pre-eminent, home grown conductor based in Britain today. It was good of Sir Mark to agree to the interview at his Manchester apartment. I can only hazard a guess at the constraints Sir Mark’s diary must place on his available time. The previous evening Sir Mark had conducted his Hallé Orchestra at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in a programme of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 and Elgar’s Cockaigne overture with the Dvořák Wind Serenade directed by Andrew Gourlay.

Now in his twelfth season as music director Sir Mark has had great success in rebuilding the Hallé Orchestra’s international reputation. From his first concert as music director in 2000 the Hallé under Sir Mark has gone from strength to strength. The partnership achieved a double success in the 2010 Gramophone Awards winning both the Opera and Concerto categories with their live recording of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and the Elgar Violin Concerto with soloist Thomas Zehetmair.

Another success for Sir Mark and the Hallé has just been announced with the 2011 Gramophone Award for Elgar’s The Kingdom in the Choral category.

Opera is a clear passion for Sir Mark who said that he discovered opera in the late sixties whilst still a student at Cambridge University where he would attend productions at Covent Garden. After university as a protégé of Sir Edward Downes he cut his teeth conducting opera at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Later from 1979 he became music director of English National Opera a post he held for 14 years. Sir Mark appears regularly in a number of international opera houses; in particular the Royal Opera House London, the Metropolitan Opera New York, and the Opéra National de Paris. He became the first British conductor to conduct a new production at the Bayreuth Festival. Sir Mark’s enthusiasm for English music is well known with each Hallé concert season including a number of works by composers from these shores. I cannot think of another conductor around today with a profile as high as Sir Mark who programmes as many works by English composers.

In recent months Sir Mark has been an integral part of the much talked about BBC 4 flagship series Symphony presented by Simon Russell Beale. As well as commenting eruditely on this musical journey charting the history of the symphony Sir Mark has been conducting the Hallé Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

2.1  Elgar Oratorios and their Debt to Parsifal

MC: I can’t thank you enough for championing English music both in the concert hall and in the recording studio.

ME: I’m the only English conductor of an English symphony orchestra.

MC: Yet, I’ve seen a press comment about you conducting Elgar’s The Kingdom at every opportunity; as if this was wrong. I felt it was unwarranted and I was wondering what you made of it?

ME: Four years ago I conducted The Kingdom for the first time in my life on my sixtieth birthday. Two years ago now I conducted it here again Manchester, we recorded it and that recording won a Gramophone award as you know. Last year I conducted it again at the Barbican. So I’ve conducted the work three times in four years.

MC: Three times in four years doesn’t feel obsessional to me. (ME: No) Of course once you get to know the score it becomes easier to do the next time.

ME: Yes, because you do it better. That’s the point.

MC: All the preparation has been done.

ME: It’s like laying down a wine and not drinking it too young. Every time I conduct it there’s more richness there, more understanding. I know how to get the players with me to do it more beautifully. I know what the problems are. These oratorios of Elgar… well I’ve lived with The Dream of Gerontius all my life. It was an A level set work when I was a school boy. I didn’t understand it then but the music has lived with me all my life. Whereas the music of The Kingdom and The Apostles has not. I took ages to decide whether or not I could do them. Now next year we are going to do The Apostles.

MC: They are much overshadowed by Gerontius.

ME: Yes they are overshadowed by Gerontius for reasons one can talk about if you had the time to compare them. Basically it’s because of the narrative. The journey that happens in Gerontius is one that everybody can immediately relate to. It comes over very strongly. The path, the journey that the soul makes to death and after death is a story, is a narrative idea that everybody can relate to. The music of course is I think absolutely wonderful. Some people, even dear friends of mine, think that there are weaker moments in it. But as a conductor I don’t know where those are.

MC: So you can’t identify those so called weaker moments?

ME:  No I can’t. In Gerontius I never get to the point where I think, ehm, he didn’t work hard enough at that bit. No. 

MC: Maybe an audience doesn’t have the concentration and insight that the conductor has to have?

ME: That’s right, to get the organic flow in the music. Now The Kingdom is more meditative than Gerontius. They both have a slight amount of narrative but really the form of the work is more narrative. And the words are taken piecemeal from all through the Gospels; indeed some of the Old Testament too. You have to find the line through it and that makes it less immediately powerful for the public. But I think what he left us with The Kingdom is a great, great work. It’s important to remember that Wagner’s Parsifal was a huge influence on him and he went to Bayreuth twice or was it three times in the years after Parsifal was premièred?

MC: It’s remarkable just how many composers from all over Europe were attracted to Bayreuth at that time. I know that Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Stanford attended Bayreuth more than once.

ME: That’s right, that first Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1876 must have been an amazing event. But what’s really important is whether people want to share this journey that I’m trying to make with this music. The last time I did The Kingdom it was with the London Symphony Orchestra and it was sold out.

MC: You see a real demand from the public for this music?

ME: Yes, if you can unlock the secrets. We’ll do The Apostles here at the Bridgwater next spring.

MC: Is this the first time?

ME: Yes we haven’t done it before. It’s been cast for ages. We have to work two years ahead.

Sir Mark Elder at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, photo Laurie Lewis

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2.2  Neglect of English Music in Concert Programmes

MC: I’d like to ask you about the broader subject of English music. Recently I was at a concert and they played Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto. A fine work from the teenage composer but not as melodic or memorable as his Second Concerto and not as challenging or as dramatic as his Third Concerto. This got me thinking how many English piano concertos would have been just as worthy for inclusion in the concert programme. Narrowing the field down to the Royal College of Music alone I can think of John Ireland’s Piano Concerto; there are also Howell’s two Piano Concertos; then the Parry Piano Concerto and two Piano Concertos by Stanford; I’m also thinking of the Bliss Piano Concerto and also his Concerto for 2 Pianos. There are Sir Arthur Somervell’s Normandy Symphonic Variations’ and Highland Concerto and also Frank Bridge’s Phantasm. All works that are rarely played; if at all. As you know Stanford’s large number of pupils at the Royal College wrote in most genres and with the exception of the works from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Holst most are totally ignored; laying forgotten. Of these there will be many worthy works that never get a chance in the concert hall.

ME: Of course, I understand your point. Last night we did Elgar’s Cockaigne overture and Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5. It would have been fine by me to have done Ireland’s Piano Concerto as well but the audience would have been substantially smaller. [Note: John Ireland was born in Bowdon near Altrincham just eleven or so miles away from Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.]

MC: Last night English music was well served by yourself and the Hallé. I certainly acknowledge that you do more than your fair share. But I’m concerned about getting other conductors and orchestras to follow your lead and play more English music. I cannot imagine countries such as Germany and France neglecting music by their home grown composers to the extent we do in England.

ME: But then you have to have English musicians conducting. It’s very rare for a non-British music director or non-British conductor to really believe in a piece of English music. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, it does happen all the time. Cristian Mandeal is Romanian, he conducts the Hallé each year and he loves Vaughan Williams. He has done some performances of British music and I think that is very exciting. I find the Russians like British music too. Evgeny Svetlanov who was a great conductor took the London Symphony Chorus and English soloists to Moscow and did The Dream of Gerontius. But I suspect your point is slightly different; it is how can more English works begin to be part of our repertoire? You see the Rachmaninov First Piano Concerto that you heard is a popular piece and people feel comfortable seeing it on a programme. This is a brilliant virtuoso concerto by a famous virtuoso. Rachmaninov has great appeal to the public. But of course I understand your point that there is a lot of music that is just as worthy. That’s one of the reasons why a few years ago I recorded Bax’s Spring Fire with the Hallé. It’s a masterpiece a huge orchestral piece. It’s on the CD that we brought out titled English Spring.

MC: Yes it’s a splendid recording. Those Bax symphonic poems are superb works they have all been recorded but are hardly heard in the concert hall. You’re saying that there is nothing to prevent other orchestras programming more English music but there are not enough orchestras that have English music directors. Then there is the financial side to consider also.

ME: You see when programming such works our director of marketing at the Hallé would say that’s a lovely programme and I’m looking forward to it already if that’s what you want to do. But you must understand that you will have three-hundred less people in the audience than if you did a more popular work. Now the difficult job of planning the concert season with an orchestra is how to balance that and it’s perfectly possible to say, I’m going to do say for example Winter Legends by Arnold Bax and not Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto because we’ve all heard the Beethoven so often let’s do something different. But then you have to recognise that not so many people will be as confident about enjoying the concert enough to buy the tickets. So you have to budget that concert lower. Now that’s fine, and we do that every year, we budget it lower, but you’ve got to know that later on down the line you have concerts that you have to budget higher to make up for it. Do you see what I mean? Otherwise you are going to be out of pocket.

MC: So when planning a season’s programme you cannot let your heart rule your head.

ME:  Right. It’s getting the right balance between business and artistic vision.

MC: Just looking down a list Stanford’s composition pupils at the Royal College of Music I can see over thirty of them. Some of their music is now being recorded but is still virtually ignored in the concert hall.

ME: The fact that a lot of this music is recorded now is great. It leads to people like yourself being passionate about it but it also gives the planning part of the music profession more confidence to schedule it in concert programmes. I’m the only conductor in the world who conducts Bax’s Spring Fire; I know because there is only one set of parts and I’ve got them.

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2.3  The Relative Merits of Sir Malcolm Arnold and Sir Michael Tippett

MC:That’s really admirable for the cause of English music. I just wish there were more conductors willing to venture into this area. Maybe others will follow your lead? Recently there was festival of music by Sir Malcolm Arnold where all his symphonies were performed. It was held in Northampton to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of his birth and they used amateur orchestras. I was wondering what your view is of Malcolm Arnold’s music?

ME: Every few years someone says to me that I ought to listen to this piece by Malcolm Arnold either this symphony or this concerto whatever. I listen and it doesn’t mean anything to me. It just doesn’t get to me.

MC: That’s interesting. The curious case of Malcolm Arnold. Why do you think that is? Is he not serious enough? Does the lighter nature of some of the music put you off?

ME: On the contrary. Actually he’s a very skilful composer and the lighter pieces are very good; his sets of Dances and the Tam O’Shanter Overture are very effective pieces. But when he starts to write something more substantial I just find a lot of his musical invention weak. That’s all I can say… His music just doesn’t appeal to me. I think Michael Tippett is a much greater composer so I would always do a work of his rather than one of Malcolm Arnold. Nobody plays Tippett’s music nowadays.

MC: No, his music seems very much out of fashion. He didn’t help himself by using contemporary effects for example in his opera New Year there was break-dancing in the choreography and trendy ‘street talk’ of the time.

ME: It dates so quickly doesn’t it?

MC: So you have more depth to work with in Tippett than Arnold?

ME: Yes. I think he’s a great mystic; like Vaughan Williams. I think Michael’s music goes somewhere that very few people actually get to. But not in all his pieces.

MC: Like many people you find his music uneven in quality?

ME: Very.

MC: Which piece of Tippett’s do you like in particular?

ME: The Midsummer Marriage is one of the greatest English operas.

MC: I’m thinking of that wonderful set of four Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage.

ME: Yes the Dances but the whole opera which I have done twice is a great, great piece with a poor libretto. But then there are lots of great operas with poor librettos… I think King Priam his second opera is a very good piece; in a very different style. I think the Symphonies are good; particularly Two and Four. The Piano Concerto is marvellous and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra too. I think the Triple Concerto is a pretty good work but it’s hard for the public to get. I gave the first Chicago performance of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last year. They absolutely loved it and it was very, very exciting to do it. I think the first half of his career produced more lasting music. My feeling is, although it might seem arrogant of me to say this, is that Michael lost his way a bit as he went through the sixties and the last part of his life. The music just doesn’t have the same power actually, although, The Rose Lake is a fine work and right from the end of his life. The first thing that I did here in Manchester before I became music director of the Hallé was his huge oratorio The Mask of Time which is a very, very fine work. I think he manages to bring off this enormous piece for the whole evening. The Mask of Time is about a wide range of subjects through history; it’s a whole evening. It’s a very different piece from the earlier oratorio A Child of Our Time which lasts for half that time. It’s his most popular oratorio but I’ve never responded to it. I’m not interested in it although it’s an important work. But The Mask of Time is a piece of vision. Now I would rather spend time working on a great Tippett work than a work by Malcolm Arnold for example but that’s only my taste. You have to believe don’t you? You have to believe in what you do!

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2.4  Sir Simon Rattle Programming English Music in Berlin

MC: It’s good to see that Sir Simon Rattle has got English music in his programme with the Berlin Philharmonic this season. (ME: Ah, good) He’s already conducted the world première Jonathon Harvey’s Weltethos and Walton’s First Symphony has been played by the orchestra. Then there’s Elgar’s First Symphony; The Dream of Gerontius and the Enigma Variations in there too. I did notice that Sir Simon was only conducting Weltethos and Enigma himself.

ME: Simon has championed contemporary English music all his life. He’s done a great deal of commissioning new works.

MC: I sense that his passion is more for introducing new music these days rather than exploring the English late Romantic repertoire.

ME: I think that’s right. He has done the big pieces of Elgar and he likes them but I don’t think they are as dear to him as they are to me. Which is fair enough. I’ve spent hours on those Elgar symphonies. I’ve done them all over the world and I think they need to be heard and played. The first time it all seems a bit daunting, long and involved and you can’t quite get it. So you need to go on playing them so people get used to them. We went to the Bregenzer Festival in Austria this summer where they perform opera on the lake. My friend David Pountney runs that festival and I did two concerts there with the Hallé. The second concert was Elgar’s Falstaff and the First Symphony. The symphony made an enormous impression on the public and many must have been hearing it for the first time.

Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder, photo Joel Chester Fildes

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 2.5  Elgar Symphonies

MC: On the subject of Elgar I recall reading that you think the Second Symphony is the stronger of the two.

ME: Both are very great works. I think there is greater depth and maturity in the whole work of the Second Symphony. I think that the slow movement of the First Symphony is one of the greatest things that he wrote. I think that it’s an absolutely amazing achievement, very beautiful and very moving. But I think there are some weak moments in the two symphonies. Like the middle of the concert overture In the South his developments weren’t always the best bits. You have to bring them off and not allow people to think about them. Keep on going as Elgar did himself when he conducted. I think there are fewer weaker moments in the Second Symphony. I find the Second Symphony one of the greatest symphonies ever. You know that I am doing this television series Symphony for BBC 4. Well in the last of the four programmes I actually get to Elgar’s Second Symphony; I do two extracts from it with the Hallé. I think that it’s a very important work.

Michael Cookson

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Part 1:  Sir Mark talks about Wagner and other Operas and Musicals

Part 3:  Sir Mark Elder talks about Attracting Audiences and Broadcasting Live Performances