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David Curtis: Hungarian Symphony Orchestra Miskolc
1. You have recently conducted a Concerto with Tamsin Waley-Cohen playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 (21-22 November 2017). You both had already produced a marvellous CD with the Violin Concertos by Mendelssohn in 2013. What are your considerations on these two different series of Violin Concertos? Is there some sort of continuity or not? What has been your experience during the recording sessions of Mendelssohn and when preparing the Concertos by Mozart?
The set of 5 Mozart violin concertos composed from 1773 to 1776 form a core part of any violinist’s concerto repertoire, especially numbers 3, 4 and 5 though the first two are also worth exploring. As with all of Mozart’s repertoire they are deceptively difficult, extremely sophisticated and require playing and musical understanding of the very highest degree. I was recently invited to a semi-final of the Singapore International Violin Competition, the Mozart Concerto round, and it was indeed highly revealing.
The Mendelssohn early concertos for violin and violin & piano with string orchestra present their own challenges for the soloists. Unlike the Mozart concertos, probably composed for him to perform as concertmaster in Salzburg, the Mendelssohn concertos were first performed by violinist Eduard Rietz with Mendelssohn at the piano. They are clearly more juvenile and less sophisticated than the Mozart and, in some senses, are more reliant on the soloist having a sympathetic understanding of the composer’s intention.
The great conducting guru Jorma Panula is always insistent that «a conductor’s role is not to interpret but realise the composer’s intentions» and soloists of the calibre, sensitivity and understanding of Tamsin Waley-Cohen and pianist/composer Huw Watkins clearly distinguish between these two.
That said the Mendelssohn concertos are a genuine delight to perform and to listen to when played with such freshness and joy as on this disc with Huw and Tamsin. I believe they, and the strings of Orchestra of the Swan, absolutely capture the essence of the music and the composer’s intention. The music has, in my view, a certain youthful energy, charm, naivety and sheer exuberance, semi-quavers rushing around like a hormonal teenager. I don’t believe it is the most sophisticated music and to treat it as though it were somehow rather misses the point. Even a composer of Mendelssohn’s extraordinary gifts and genius must still have had youthful enthusiasm.
Trying to capture the music, as opposed to the notes, in any recording can be difficult and the challenge in recording the Mendelssohn concertos was to ensure that we kept alive to the youthfulness and charm of these two early gems and as the CD is the BBC Music Magazine’s Recommended Choice others seem to agree!
A live performance is very different and Tamsin and I have performed concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, all 3 Mendelssohn, Mozart, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams and Huw Watkins, in over 35 concerts in the UK, Istanbul and Mexico and I think this has develop a mutual respect and trust between us. Rehearsal are a continual exploration of the score, our approach is always collaborative and, perhaps reflecting my background as viola player in the Coull Quartet. for 30 years, and her chamber music experience, I think be both bring a chamber music approach to our performances, achieving both an intimacy and a directness. I never try to get in the way and one of my most memorable reviews was from Chris Morley, Senior Music Critic at the Birmingham Post who observed during a performance of The Lark Ascending that «Curtis is a conductor who clearly knows when not to!» I took that as a compliment to both me, Tasmin and the members of the orchestra.
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Tamsin Waley-Cohen
Pre-Concert Talk Mozart Concerto November 2017
2. You have produced also a beautiful CD Album with the piano concertos KV413-414-415 composed by Mozart. and you always have, in the repertoire of your various seasons, works by Mozart, Haydn and also Dittersdorf. What is your relationship with the music of the Classical Era and what attracts you most about the music of this period?
I think the answer to this question lies in my studies at the Royal Academy of Music with Stephen Shingles, former principal viola at the Academy of St. Martins, and Sidney Griller, professor of chamber music at the RAM and leader of the Griller String Quartet from 1931 – 1961. The Coull Quartet had chamber music coaching from Sidney pretty much every week for there and a half years before leaving the Academy to become Quartet in Residence at Warwick University in 1978, a 3 year contract that, 40 years later, still continues!
For the first year or so with Sidney my recollection is that we learned a new Haydn string quartet almost weekly, later complemented by Mozart, early, middle and finally late Beethoven! Although this may seem an unorthodox route to train as a conductor in retrospect I think it was absolutely invaluable. Those sessions with Sidney and my subsequent career in the Coull viola player really gave me an understanding of the roles of the various voices in a quartet and given my view that an orchestra is simply a larger quartet, the same holds true. My approach with chamber and symphony orchestras is very much a collaborative chamber music based ethos, if an orchestra really listens and play as an ensemble then the role of the conductor is transformed.
In answer then to the question What attracts you most about the music of this period? is that as all the great orchestral repertoire springs from the well of this period, an understanding of Haydn, Mozart et alii is essential to developing a sound orchestral technique on which to build.
On a personal note I’m often dismayed to hear performances of Haydn symphonies which lack charm, wit, humour and humanity, all too often these performances are given by major symphony orchestras with esteemed maestros… who have clearly never played a Haydn quartet. I’ve often been asked which composer I would most like to have as Resident Composer to which my answer is always Haydn. Mozart would be impossible to work with, Beethoven simply too terrifying but Haydn, here was a composer who wrote not for his patrons, not for his audiences but above all for his musicians.
I also mentioned Steve Shingles and the Academy of St. Martins and one of the earliest influences I had was hearing the Academy, with Steve as principal viola, on a recording of Mozart Divertimento K136 when I was about 10 years old. I had simply never heard playing like it and had no idea that an orchestra could sound like that. I still have the LP in my collection and the vitality of the early Academy recordings has been a huge inspiration and influence in what I have tried to achieve.
Steve Shingles used to play a Lavazza viola I later bought from him and played on in Coull Quartet for many years.
Julian Bliss presents Weber Clarinet Concerto with Orchestra of the Swan
3. You have conducted a series of concerto-events in collaboration with BBC for the recent celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare. And also this year 2017 your Orchestra of the Swan has been involved into special Shakespeare oriented events in collaboration with the RSC, like Musical Transformations (October 2017). How do you see this synergy Shakespeare & music and are there other projects of this kind for the future?
Being based in Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon there are clearly potential major influences on Orchestra of the Swan’s programming, Shakespeare’s influence on composers from his own time to the present day is difficult to over-estimate and I have in my bookcase a four volume index and cross reference of music relating to Shakespeare whether it be major works such as the Romeo and Juliet overtures and ballet suites to far smaller songs and incidental music for the plays.
Much of the music composed has been for large scale symphony orchestra, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Verdi immediately spring to mind which are obviously not practical for a chamber orchestra, however there are less well know works and of course, as a champion of new music we commissioned a series of new works for the 450th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 2014 and a major new work for choir and chamber orchestra from Dobrinka Tabakova, Immortal Shakespeare, which we performed in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday 23 April 2016. The church is of course Shakespeare’s final resting place and the performance was the day after St Georges day so exactly 400 years and 1 day since the bard’s death. The performance was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and I hope to record Immortal Shakespeare at some future date, watch this space.
For the 450th anniversary I commissioned new work from Roger Steptoe, Huw Watkins, Roxanna Panufnik and Pete Wyer and I also ran an international composition competition won by Kristina Arakelyan and her setting of Sonnet 115.
We also performed repertoire by Finzi, the Love’s Labours Lost Suite, a much under-rated work, Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing Suite and Howard Blake created a special version of his suite for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and of course, Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with four narrators taking key roles.
We later performed the Mendelssohn in the Istanbul Festival with leading Turkish actress Tilbe Saran taking the role of narrator. For me this was an interesting experience to say the very least. Tilbe was reading the script in Turkish and I had on my stand my score for the orchestra, her script in Turkish and the original Shakespeare. Tilbe and I decided at a rehearsal with piano the previous day that we’d smile at each other and make it work. It certainly seemed to as after the performance I was congratulated on my clear understanding of Turkish as I’d been able to follow every nuance of Tilbe’s delivery. Smiles really go a very long way in delivering a great performance!
Our commission programme celebrating Shakespeare even extended to our tour to Mexico in November 2016 when Anglo Arts Mexico commissioned the young Mexican composer Alejandro Basulto to compose a new work for the tour. His Jig Variations, based on an original Elizabethan melody with nine variations each based on contemporary Mexican dance rhythms, celebrated Kemp’s jig from London to Norwich after he fell out with Shakespeare and devised this publicity stunt.
Shakespeare’s influence is very much alive and well!
Immortal Shakespeare – Dobrinka Tabakova (21 April 2016)
4. What’s the origin of the name of your Orchestra Orchestra of the Swan and what’s the story behind its foundation over twenty years ago? You have recently received your new position as Principal Guest Conductor of the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra (Miskolc) and the overseas touring of your Orchestra is increasing considerably in these two years: what are your projects in this wider scenario? When you work with these different orchestras in different countries and you are preparing a new series of concerts, what are your pieces of advice to the musicians on approaching Mozart and on approaching Haydn? What do you think fundamental for a marvellous performance?
The story behind Orchestra of the Swan is very simple and perhaps surprising…
… In 1995 I was approached by the then director of the Stratford Music Festival who asked if I could fix a small string orchestra for a concert in the festival that would also enable his very talented daughter to perform the Mathias clarinet concerto. On a whim I agreed and called various friends to see if they’d like to play in the concert, several agreed but also asked who would conduct, my reply simply being that as there was no budget for a conductor I’d take it on myself to wave my arms around. So, we had a date, a soloist, a programme, a conductor, players fixed… but no name for the orchestra. Several of us met some months before the event and threw around various names; Stratford Chamber Orchestra, Midland Chamber Orchestra, Shakespeare Players etc., finally someone, it may or may not have been me said, «there are swans everywhere in Stratford, how about Orchestra of the Swan?»…
… As it was by then getting late and we’d all had several glasses of wine we agreed that would do.
The concert seemed to go well, everyone had a good time and the following year we were back at the festival again when it occurred to me that perhaps Stratford could support a small chamber orchestra series so the following season I promoted series of 6 string orchestra programmes and I believe I persuaded pianist Alan Schiller, with whom I’d worked with in the Coull Quartet, to perform the 3 Mozart concertos K412, 413 and 414 with us; plus ca change plus ca la meme chose!
Since then OOTS has grown organically but in some ways I’ve tried to hold true to the original idea, find a group of players who want to enjoy making music together, nurture young and emerging talent, perform great repertoire from the classical canon and work with outstanding soloists.
As I leave OOTS to concentrate on my other projects and conducting I can reflect that 22 years later it seems to have done the trick!
My approach with other orchestras is fundamentally the same, though most of the repertoire with the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra (Miskolc) is rather larger scale, this season my programming has included Holst Planets Suite, Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, Dvorak Symphony No. 8 and contemporary work by Roland Szentpali – concerto for 4 saxophones, Theo Verbey – Fractal Symphony, Frigyes Hidas – concerto for 2 trombones then in March the Oscar Navarro – clarinet concerto (www.mso.hu) and a new commission from American composer and colleague Peter Lieuwen, Heartland (www.mso.hu), which draws on American and Hungarian folk influence and will be premiered on April 27 in Miskolc with the composer present, do join us!
5. Your favourite work by Mozart and your favourite work by J. Haydn.
How on earth to choose single favourite work from these two great masters, these are the really difficult questions but for Mozart I would choose his opera The Magic Flute.
For me Mozart is at his greatest when writing for the voice but so often we hear this in other repertoire, particularly the piano concertos which perhaps come closest to his operas. For me this also determines my approach to conducting Mozart, my question is always «is the music singing, is the tempo right for the music to sing?»…
… Wagner is reputed to have said that 90% of conducting is finding the right tempo (Wagner: The whole duty of a conductor is comprised etc., 1869) and yes, I believe that’s probably pretty accurate and with Mozart if the performance is too fast to hear the voice or to slow to sustain the line then, it’s probably too fast or too slow!
Haydn is even harder to answer, there are so many great works, an obvious choice would be The Creation, perhaps one of the late great Paris or London series of symphonies or an earlier, quirkier symphony such as the Farewell, certainly a great favourite of mine, even if F# minor/F# major does pose some problems for the performers as well as probably taxing the ears of the court at Esterhazy!
So, I’m going to choose one of Haydn’s quartets that I performed on many occasions with the Coull Quartet, the Sunrise Opus 76 No. 4 (with the Coull Quartet I had also recorded Haydn’s quartets Op. 33 Nos. 1-6).
The Sunrise Quartet is such a great work, a joy to perform and to listen to and I love Haydn’s some typical self-deprecating comments, like «Ah, yes, but it still reminds me of great amount of work that remains to be, even by someone like myself».
6. Do you have in mind the name of some neglected composer of the 18th century you’d like to see re-evaluated?
I think that Christian Cannabich (1731 – 1798) is a composer and violinist who certainly deserves to be more widely recognised, not just as a composer of numerous operas, ballets, symphonies, concertos string quartets and piano trios, but even more importantly as the director of the Mannheim court orchestra, a role he assumed on the premature death of Johann Stamitz with whom he’d previously studied.
His role as Director of the Mannheim Orchestra from 1774-1798 saw a flowering of one of the finest orchestras of the period which perhaps laid the foundations of modern orchestral technique. The Mannheim orchestra was renowned for its excellent discipline, the individual skill of its players and their performance style which included new dynamic elements, crescendi and diminuendi which allowed of the full orchestra to accompany a soloist without covering them since the Mannheim orchestra members were all virtuosi, the composers who wrote for them could create new orchestral sounds by capitalizing on this new development.
It’s hardly surprising that from 1777, 3 years after Cannabich assumed his role as Director, that Mozart visited Mannheim several times beginning and became a good friend of Cannabich, indeed Mozart lived for a time in the Cannabich household and gave almost daily keyboard lessons to Cannabich’s daughter. Mozart greatly admired Cannabich, writing in his letters «Cannabich, who is the best director that I have ever seen, has the love and awe of those under him» (9 July 1778) and in a letter to his father he wrote; «I cannot tell you what a good friend Cannabich is to me».
For Mozart to speak so highly of Christian Cannabich speaks volumes to me and surely justifies re-evaluation of his music and place in the development of orchestra technique.
7. Name a neglected piece of music of the 18th century you’d like to see performed in concert with more frequency.
I’d like to cheat a little here if I may and choose a work premiered on 7 April 1805, the Symphony in Eb by Anton Eberl.
Eberl (1765 –1807) studied piano and composition from Mozart and as well as being a prolific composer he was an outstanding pianist. Most of his works are now sadly lost but during his lifetime his work was so highly regarded that it was frequently passed off as being by… Mozart.
This so appalled Eberl that he finally published the following notice in a newspaper «However flattering it may be that even connoisseurs were capable of judging these works to be the products of Mozart, I can in no way allow the musical public to be left under this delusion».
Contemporary critics also wrote in the Berlin Musical Journal that; «Since the symphonies of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, nothing but this symphony has been written which could be placed alongside theirs».
The reason for my choice of Eberl’s E flat major Symphony lies in the significance of the date of its premiere and companion work in the same programme.
The Eberl symphony is indeed a charming work and, at the time was reviewed rather more favourably than the other symphony in Eb that was also performed in that same concert, the symphony in question being of course Beethoven’s Eroica…
… I choose this symphony not in any way to diminish Eberl’s reputation, his work deserves to be more widely played, but I’d invite readers to consider this. After hearing a very charming but essentially rather light-weight work by Eberl, consider hearing perhaps the world’s greatest symphony being premiered. Nothing demonstrates to me more strongly that this was a pivotal moment in music history.
8. Have you read a particular book on Mozart Era you consider important for the comprehension of the music of this period?
The book I’d choose is not specifically on the Mozart Era but a book primarily written with conductors in mind by the late, and very great conductor Erich Leinsdorf, The Composers Advocate, subtitled A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians and published by Yale University Press.
In his preface he says «the musician is privileged to make a living while dwelling each day with genius». Genius is a description that is now banded around all too frequently but there is no doubt that if we are working with music of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven et alii we are indeed «dwelling each day with genius».
And with that lies a responsibility to the composer, our fellow musicians and of course our audiences and I refer back to Jorma Panula’s distinction between interpretation and realisation again springs to mind.
This is a book that demands that conductors real know and understand their craft, the titles of the 7 chapters almost biblical in their direct simplicity:
1. Knowing the Score
2. Knowing the Composer
3. Knowing What Composers Wanted
4. Knowing Musical Tradition
5. Knowing the Right Tempo: 1
6. Knowing the Right Tempo: 2
7. Knowing the Conductors Role
It couldn’t be much clearer, and I find it telling that he devotes not one, but two chapters to tempo, we’re back to Wagner’s assertion that 90% of conducting is finding the right tempo!
Needless to say, this is a book I strongly recommend to any conducting class I take.
9. Name a movie or a documentary that can improve the comprehension of the music of this period.
My answer here may be something of a surprise, a cliché and perhaps be considered too lightweight but I suggest Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.
Now, I can almost sense the purists shuddering at this choice and the portrayal of Mozart as a vulgar, irritating buffoon and in some respects yes, I agree, the film is not historically accurate, especially in its portrayal of the relationship between Salieri and Mozart which, although the older composer was probably jealous of his rival’s genius, and who wouldn’t have been, was at the least mutually respectful.
However it’s frequently been said that you should never let facts get in the way of a good story and, in the same way that I find James Cameron’s telling of the Titanic story brings the actuality of what happened on that dreadful night to life far more vividly that an historically accurate narrative I think the film Amadeus does reveal a truth about Mozart’s life, his circle, friends and rivals…
… It has also had the effect of bringing Mozart’s music to a far wider audience and for that reason alone I consider it a valid choice.
10. Do you think there’s a special place to be visited that proved crucial to the evolution of the 18th century music?
I’m not sure there is any one place that is a single crucible, there are so many competitors for that accolade, Mannheim, crucible of the Mannheim School, Vienna, home of the Viennese school (both of them), Salzburg, Esterhazy – where Haydn is said to have had to find creativity within himself and which could perhaps be considered the birthplace of the symphony, Prague – where Mozart achieved such success, London and Paris which feted Haydn and Mozart.
However I think that more generally the broader culture and architecture of the towns and cities in Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary can in some more subtle way inform our understanding of our deeper European cultural roots. All artists are a product of their environment and culture and the great canon of repertoire by Haydn, Mozart, Dittersdorf, Vanhal, Salieri, Stamitz, Danzi, Eberl, Pleyel and so many others must be influenced by their environment, in much the same way as it’s impossible to imagine Shostakovich creating his music world had he not been living in the Soviet Union at that particular time in history.
A very personal viewpoint is that I have a favourite café in Miskolc, Café Frei, and no apology for the free advertisement. One of my favourite ways of spending time between rehearsals in Miskolc is to find an outside table in the warm sun, sitting with a coffee and a score or book and listening to the sound of the trams, the piano accordion player on the next block and looking at the beautiful central European architecture…
… Perhaps I have a vivid imagination but in my minds eye I can almost see Haydn walking down the street, pulling up a chair and joining me for a coffee so we can discuss my latest commission from him!
Thank you very much for having taken the time to answer our questions!
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