Sir Mark Elder Interview – Part 3


Sir Mark Elder talks at length to Seen and Heard International

All the time, everyday I’m thinking about how I can present music to my audience in a way that will interest them, keep their curiosity and draw in more people.” – Sir Mark Elder

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

Part 3: Attracting and Maintaining Audiences – Broadcasting Live Performances

3.1  Making Concert Programmes Interesting

3.2  Attracting Young People to Concerts  

3.3  Hallé Educational Programme

3.4  Broadcasting Live Concerts and Operas to Cinemas and Internet Streaming.

Portrait of Sir Mark Elder with kind permission of the artist June Mendoza

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.

3.1  Making Concert Programmes Interesting

MC: If I may I’d like to ask you about the subject of making concert programmes more interesting, more inviting. In September I attended a concert at the Berlin Philharmonie with Sir Simon conducting Mahler’s colossal Symphony No.8. To begin the concert Sir Simon programmed two sacred works for unaccompanied choir: Lotti’s Crucifixus and Tallis’s Spem in alium. Two devotional scores that at first sight in the programme might seem incongruous yet I think was a superb contrast. (ME: So do I.) I enjoyed the way that you arranged last night’s programme playing the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5 as the opening work and positioning Elgar’s Cockaigne overture as the concluding work. In addition you placed Dvořák’s Wind Serenade, in effect a chamber work, in-between. It was all most refreshing to have something presented differently and it worked so well.

ME: Absolutely, all the time, all the time, everyday I’m thinking about how I can present music to my audience in a way that will interest them, keep their curiosity and draw in more people. I’ll give you another example. A month or so ago I came back from Paris to open the Hallé season. The main work was The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. But we are doing a Beethoven cycle this season, ok. We didn’t do a Beethoven symphony last night but we did the Third Symphony last Saturday and next week I will do the Fourth Symphony. So with The Rite of Spring and because it was the first concert of the season I did the Beethoven First Symphony. Actually it’s quite rare to start a concert with Beethoven’s First Symphony. Then we did the Bartók Piano Concerto No.1 played by András Schiff which nobody knows and it’s almost never done because it’s very hard. Then after the interval my first flute played Debussy’s Syrinx which is just a little piece for solo flute; as you know. But she was playing off-stage whilst the whole orchestra was on stage with the lights dimmed waiting to play The Rite of Spring. So this whole crowded auditorium was completely still listening to one flute player. Then when she had finished we brought the lights up. Everybody applauded her, she came on stage, joined the orchestra and we began The Rite of Spring; which starts with one bassoon and all the other instruments gradually join in. So Syrinx, as Simon did in your Berlin concert with the Tallis Spem in alium, served as a lead-in, like luring your ear into The Rite of Spring.

MC: Yes, the principal works so well.

ME: Oh yeah. We did it a few nights later in Leeds and for me it was even more effective because of the smaller hall. Everyone was captivated saying where is this sound coming from? They didn’t know where the flautist was… Then we did our Mahler Eight in May 2010 at the Bridgewater Hall. The idea in our Mahler cycle was to precede each symphony with a new commission; to have a world première. I was very concerned thinking what can one do before Mahler Eight? In the end I decided the best thing to do would be to get Olivier Latry the organist from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to come over because there’s a big organ part in Mahler Eight and I wanted him to play it. But Olivier refused saying he didn’t have the time to get to know the Bridgewater Hall organ. But before we played the Eight Symphony Olivier improvised on the plainsong melody that is the first movement of Mahler Eight, Veni Creator Spiritus. It was amazing, he just improvised. He played the tune and just started improvising and Olivier is so good at that. It was a whole event in itself and it took twenty minutes. It seems to do something to attune ones ears. So those are the sort of things that I’m trying to think about. Simon and I are very close friends and we’ve talked about all this for thirty years. You see I started at the London Coliseum as Simon started in Birmingham.

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3.2  Attracting Young People to Concerts

MC: At last night’s concert with the Hallé from the stage you introduced four groups of children and teenagers from schools in the Greater Manchester area. Many of whom might have been attending a classical music concert for the first time. It’s a great initiative and it’s so important to be introducing young people to classical music; our audience of the future. Last May I recall attending a Munich Philharmonic Jugendkonzert a youth concert in Munich. It was a full house and maybe sixty to seventy percent of the audience were young people in their school groups. The organisers didn’t compromise giving the same programme as the previous night for a predominantly adult audience. The programme was Dutilleux’s Métaboles; Kodály’s Dances of Galánta; Stravinsky’s The Firebird as well as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Really the only concession was engaging a popular children’s presenter from German television who bounced about the stage energetically with a microphone introducing the works and joking with several of the orchestral players to an amused audience. The young people loved the concert and they cheered and cheered. I’m not one of those who think that people at around the age of forty suddenly put down their Springsteen and U2 discs and move over to classical music. You see I’m concerned for the audience of the future.

ME: So am I; desperately so… At that concert that I mentioned to you earlier, my opening concert of the season with The Rite of Spring preceded by the Debussy, we had five hundred students all sitting around the orchestra in the choir stalls and in the front row of the stalls. Somehow that programme had got through to their imagination. We only charged three pounds but the point is that they came. We have to hope that they come back again and won’t find it stuffy. That’s why I stopped wearing tails. (MC: But you still look appropriate) Yes, I agree.

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Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder at the Bridgewater Hall, credit Halle collection

3.3  Hallé Educational Programme

MC:Please tell me about the work that the Hallé does in the field of music education.

ME: Our educational work Michael if you don’t know about the range of it you should seriously think about speaking to our education director Steve Pickett who was a bassoonist like I was. He’s a brilliant, brilliant man, a composer himself who writes music for kids and the orchestra. The work that we do nationally I don’t think we could do more. Of course we never have to be complacent, we have to go on trying to be better at what we do and understand more what will unlock a child’s creativity. What we do in this area is absolutely phenomenal. It’s not preaching to children, I don’t believe in that, I believe in example and by showing children how they can create music themselves that, however timidly, they can actually have the power to create music themselves. (MC: I agree children love to make music) I know, I know and they love to dance too. They all want to dance. If you can combine their sense of humour with their physical movement and their aural imagination and let them understand that you don’t have to have a university degree to do this you can do it just as you are. But you need good people to lead it and Steve Pickett is a great leader. My experience in working in Birmingham as well as London, but especially in Birmingham with the CBSO and now here in Manchester with the Hallé is that these two orchestras are full of people who if you give them the right lead-time and you say what you want, people who in the orchestra might seem quite shy or quiet or routinely doing their job, put them in front of a group of kids and they became a different person.

MC: You certainly have some players at the Hallé who are talented communicators. Earlier this year your horn player Tim Redmond gave a really confident pre-concert talk, very impressive and I’m sure that he’s one of many who can do that.

ME: Oh yeah, there are lots more. Tom has a great ability to present. He introduces some of our family and school concerts; he’s wonderful at it.

MC: It’s certainly heartening to see a younger audience and last night many of the youngsters seemed to be having a good time.

ME: Yes, that’s the main thing. That the young people don’t feel too restricted. I think that the main problem is not to say, don’t move, don’t cough, don’t look around or you’ll kill it.

MC: I remember interviewing Andrew Manze in Munich last year. He expressed a view that young people might be put off attending classical music concerts saying, similar things to you. That the concert experience might appear too conventional, that you might have to dress in a certain way, that you have to sit still and don’t talk to your friends, that you have to clap in the right places all restrictions that can be off-putting. [Note: Andrew Manze conducted the Hallé in three concerts in December 2011.]

ME: Young people should dress how they feel most comfortable with. You don’t want young people to feel that there is a sense of stuffy formality; an old fashioned formality that’s different from concentrated listening. Children listen in different ways. I think that a couple of them may have dozed off last night. I don’t care about that; it means they were relaxed.

MC: I believe that typically young people have such an open minded attitude to various types of music that are played at classical concerts. Looking back at that Jugendkonzert in Munich, in my view they don’t really differentiate between the contemporary music of Dutilleux and the traditional music of Mendelssohn. Maybe they lack the prejudices that older audience members can develop.

ME: You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I’ll never forget some years ago I went and worked with a youth orchestra in Australia. We did an enormous amount of music with them. I remember doing an American programme. We did Gershwin’s An American in Paris which is great, immediate, fun music. I did Charles Ives as well; two pieces from his Holidays Symphony which are very complicated and very difficult to understand. I did Washington’s Birthday and The Fourth of July which are movements representing different seasons of the year. They are brilliant pieces and those two are the ones that I have done the most often. So I came in one morning and said to the orchestra “Right we are going to do the Gershwin now” and the youth orchestra said “Ok, Gershwin that’s fine.” Then I said to the youth orchestra “Right now we’ll do the Charles Ives” and the youth orchestra said “Ok, Charles Ives that’s fine.” Now when I was in America with the renowned Cleveland Orchestra I said “Now we’ll do the Charles Ives” and they said “Why are we doing this stuff maestro?

MC: And Charles Ives is one of their own composers; born and bred in the USA.

ME:  I know. And these Australian kids were completely unfazed. They saw it as difficult, they worked at it and they played it beautifully. But what was noticeable was how they accepted the music without prejudice. That’s what I believe in, trying to get people to throw away their prejudices and not to have fear. We had a marvellous example on Saturday night when we played Harmonium by John Adams a composition for chorus and orchestra. It was written for the conductor Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, oh, some thirty years ago now. It’s a setting of three poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson and it lasts just over half an hour. It’s very hard for the chorus. It’s the rhythms that are difficult to get. We’ve never done it before at the Hallé and I’ve always wanted to. We followed Harmonium with Beethoven’s Eroica which was a fantastic piece of programming because everyone was thinking what the Eroica would be like after that. Now there are friends of mine who I know well and support the Hallé who come to the concerts. I know this because they told me afterwards. They sat down for the concert and said “All right darling are you ready for this? We’re not going to like this one. Let’s wait for the Eroica we’ll enjoy that.” Well they came to me afterwards and said they were completely bowled over by the John Adams. After eleven years of working with the Hallé I hope that people will start to understand that I’m not trying to force-feed them like goose-liver. I’m not saying this will be good for you, come on enjoy it. I’m choosing pieces that I know and that I hope people will respond to, even though they don’t know them. Last Saturday for the John Adams we had a most fantastic response from the audience.

MC: I can understand the attraction in programming the John Adams an exciting rarely heard work combined with the Beethoven a staple of the repertoire that will be a familiar and comforting score to most people. The work you don’t know makes you listen more intently, makes you concentrate, attunes your ear for what is to come next. Rather like refreshing the palate with a sorbet in preparation for the main course to come.

ME: I couldn’t agree more.

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

 3.4  Broadcasting Live Concerts and Operas to Cinemas and Internet Streaming.

MC: Only a few days ago at the cinema with a group of friends I saw a transmission of you conducting Francesco Cilea’s opera Adriana Lecouvreur from Covent Garden featuring Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufman. Prior to that at the cinema I saw Verdi’s Macbeth broadcast live from Covent Garden conducted by Pappano. The New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast their performances live to cinemas and theatres around the world. I believe this is becoming an increasingly important source of income for them. Then there is the Berlin Philharmonic’s excellent Digital Concert Hall on which I’ve watched webcasts of live concerts on the internet several times. They also have interviews and reports and this media project forms part of the orchestra’s education programme; which is a great way of reaching out to young people in schools. I was wondering if the Hallé had considered streaming their concerts live?

ME: I think that it would be a wonderful thing for us to do. But you have to understand that each year we have to raise our money just to survive. When I became music director eleven years ago I said that I wouldn’t come until the finances were sorted out. We’re just on the edge now of tightening our belts really quite considerably. We just hope our audiences keep coming because in times of economic recession people need the spiritual content of their lives to be really engaged in many different ways. People need music and performance so we are hoping that the public will still support us but that sort of initiative would cost us an incredible amount of finance to start up. But you are right we should think about it. We should consider whether or not as the years go by it becomes more crucial for getting the orchestra’s quality known all over Europe.MC: I believe the Hallé’s international reputation as one of the world’s oldest orchestras and their associations with Beecham; Sargent and Barbirolli make the Hallé an excellent brand name. There must also be considerable advantages for being the first British Orchestra to do it.

ME: Absolutely. People know the Hallé name without knowing it was the name of a person; our founder Sir Charles Hallé.

MC: So you would consider getting involved with media streaming. But now is not the right time owing to the economic climate?

ME: Yes. I’m not sure that now is the time unless we could find sponsorship. Really we need sponsorship all the time in order to pay our wages, in order to keep the orchestra alive. When people who invest money all over the world are not getting the returns from their investment they don’t have the slack to give us the funding. [Note: Interestingly, one of the Hallé’s major sponsors is Siemens a leading global technology services company.]

MC: I could tell from your short announcement on the stage before last night’s concert how much you value your sponsors at the Hallé.

ME: We are doing really well in attracting good sponsors. I think we are doing much better than many of our colleagues. I entertained three of our major sponsors the other night just to thank them and to say how important they are to us for giving substantial amounts of funding. We’re appreciative of the local councils too; many of whom were there last night in the audience at the Bridgewater Hall. It’s important that they all come because it’s a public manifestation of the support given to us by all these towns around Manchester… But it’s a tricky time to put it mildly.

[Note: Currently Sir Mark’s delightful semi-staged performance of Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel (abridged version) with the Berlin Philharmonic from 2006 at the Berlin Philharmonie is available to watch for free. Highlights from the performance can be seen in a trailer on their Digital Concert Hall. I just loved the superb performance from soprano Michaela Kaune as Gretel. Link: ]

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

Part 2: Sir Mark Elder talks about English Music