Friday, 21 February 2014

Time to bow down and pick up the baton

I have been threatening it for ages but the time has finally come – I will play my last concert as a violinist on July 2nd this year, after nearly 23 years as a second violinist.

So what has prompted me to stop playing and what will it mean? 

Quite simply put, it is something I have to do! Conducting is my passion and it is what I see myself doing for the rest of my life. Nothing makes me feel happier and more alive than conducting orchestras and I want to do it 100% of the time.

It must be said that my whole outlook on conducting has been influenced greatly by my time in the Second Violins of the CBSO. I first started playing with them in July 1991 and since then I have sat in every seat within that section, played virtually every piece of standard repertoire, under literally hundreds of conductors in countless different acoustics. I draw on all of that experience almost daily as a conductor and use it to my advantage, wherever possible.

There is no conducting course or class available that can begin to replicate 20 years experience within a professional violin section. Notwithstanding the amount of notes I have played, it is the countless hours watching conductors rehearse and perform from only feet away that have counted so greatly. I have been lucky enough to have seen some of the greats conduct from only a few metres away – Rattle, Oramo, Nelsons, Boulez, Gergiev and many more. To see their stick techniques, rehearsals, attitudes and professionalism, let alone their musicianship, has been the schooling of a lifetime.

But I have actually learned just as much from the “bad conductors”..... what?.... Bad conductors, I hear you say? Sorry to have to tell you this, but not all conductors are brilliant. As one of my CBSO colleagues says to me regularly, “Mike, you have no excuse – you have seen what not to do, now go out and do the opposite!”

It is my staunch belief that my time within the CBSO as a violinist has made be a far better conductor. It could be argued that I should have retired sooner as a violinist but I would argue otherwise. The last few years under Andris Nelsons have been invaluable to me – whether assisting him in the opera performances of Wagner and Strauss, personal help and assistance or watching him directly, Andris has taught me more about conducting and music making in the last 7 years than you could ever imagine. 

The biggest thanks must however go to the players of the CBSO. To be able to tap into the thousands of years of experience they collectively possess, to ask their advice and to feel their support has been something I have been grateful for. The support I felt from them when I stood in for Andris, on tour  in 2012, was amazing, especially in the concert with Jonas Kaufmann

I could not have the conducting career I have without them and want to publicly thank them for that. I also want to specifically thank the members of the Second Violins for their support and friendship over the years – if nothing else, their lives will be a lot quieter soon, in so many ways!

Will I miss playing?

Yes and No – I will miss the camaraderie and friendships, touring, playing certain pieces, the thrill of playing something well, but there are also many things I won’t miss. A better question might be, “if you had to give up playing or conducting, which would it be?” – as much as I enjoy playing for an orchestra like the CBSO, there is only one answer. Having conducted the CBSO for the first time in concert on 7th March 2003, conducting was all I wanted to do! 

I intend to carry on serving the CBSO as their Associate Conductor for as long as they will have me, along with my other regular orchestras. While never having been denied time off to go and conduct, I will now have more time to plan concerts, learn scores and hopefully get the chance to take on longer projects, like opera. I’m very excited about the future and I am looking forward to seeing where my conducting career takes me. If it is anywhere near as exciting as the first 22 years of my career, then I will be very happy!

Monday, 30 December 2013

2013 - Nuns, Vicars and Requiems

As 2013 draws to a close, it is time for my annual review of the year. It has been a really exciting and varied year, with many highlights and memorable performances.  Many of last year’s frustrations linger on, but changes to my career are imminent, and I look forward to 2014 with real anticipation!

Before all of that, the statistics......

48 Concerts with,
35 different soloists or collaborators (not counting an opera cast!)
13 different orchestras.

And so to the highlights.......

Favourite new orchestra

This year saw only two new orchestras. This is an area I need to improve on in 2014 but it is also a sign that I am returning to other orchestras more regularly, which is something I am particularly happy about. More of this later.
In February, I made a trip to Millfield School and conducted their orchestra. The invite was to conduct a concert featuring their talented pupils as soloists and they did not disappoint! The highlight was a performance of Mozart K.488 with 3 different pianists, all very skilled and musical. 

My “new orchestra of 2013” prize goes to the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. I visited them in July to conduct a concert of music highlighting their 2013/14 season. The programme comprised of 15 different pieces of music, ranging from John Williams to Britten. As I have written in a previous blog post, this type of programme is a real “conductors exam”, with many styles and genres, but one I was happy to take on.
The NSO were on great form, with a really friendly approach to rehearsing but also a willingness to listen and work hard on problems. They are a very talented orchestra, with many great principal players, a good string section and warm sound. Conducting the Storm for Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ alongside some of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ really excited me and made me want to go back and conduct them in some meaty repertoire!

So what about the other orchestras? Well, as I mentioned, it has been nice to make return visits to orchestras and continue a relationship with them. I returned to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and particularly enjoyed performing Elgar’s Enigma Variations with them.

I also took my concert tally with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra up to 9 this year – I have tended to be involved mainly in Family Concerts with them, they are great fun to work with and I feel that there is now a level of mutual trust and respect for each other. I’m looking forward to 11 more concerts with them in 2014.

I returned to the RTE Concert Orchestra this year and again, because we trust each other, we worked together well and put together a very tricky programme with great results!

The Ulster Orchestra is an orchestra I love working with. This year, in just one week, we performed music by Grant Still, Dello Joio and Schubert, all broadcast on BBC Radio 3, all to a high standard and all with a really nice atmosphere of trust and respect but also with friendliness and a real sense of wanting the very highest possible results. I will be back with them in January to conduct my 350th concert.

Favourite Soloist

As I said, 35 soloists or presenters, and that doesn’t include a whole opera cast! So many to choose from, so many highlights!!
Starting at the end of the year, I was lucky to work with a stellar team of soloists for Britten’s War Requiem with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and the CBSO. With Emma Bell, Peter Hoare and Neal Davies, the performance was in safe hands, beautifully and expressively sung and with so much character! Thank you to all three and I hope to work with them all again soon.
I was also lucky enough to work with Claire Rutter and Ruby Hughes in 2013 – both wonderful singers. Ruby was a late stand in with the Ulster Orchestra when we did some Schubert songs (more later about this concert) and Claire sang 5 opera arias from the movies with the CBSO and myself. Accompanying her in Korngold’s “Gluck das mir verblieb” will remain with me for years!
It was a privilege to work again with Ian Bostridge. It had been quite a few years since we had last worked together but we got on again as if it was just last week! And Ian singing Britten – does it get any better than that?!
If any orchestra managers or Chief Executives are reading this, I can highly recommend the Estonian pianist, Mihkel Poll. We worked together twice this year (and will again in 2014) and he is fantastic. In both the Liszt and the Grieg concertos, he didn’t put a finger wrong, with a really musical approach and attitude. See you for Rachmaninoff soon, Mihkel.
During 2013, I had the pleasure of conducting Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 twice. The first time was with my good friend, Ben Dawson – a pianist I worked with twice this year and one I love working with. Ben played it with such musicality and personality. It was also a great chance for the Sinfonia of Birmingham and myself to get to know the piece before we performed it again one month later with Stephen Hough.
Stephen had been booked by the Sutton Coldfield Philharmonic Society to appear with us and it was my favourite collaboration of the year. He was so inspiring to work with, really kind to the orchestra and myself, but more importantly, trusted us to respond in the concert when he really turned it on! The orchestra played their socks off and the whole performance was one that we all will treasure forever.

Favourite new piece

Not as many new pieces this year but some notable highlights.
My first fully staged opera performances took place in 2013, with the Symphony Orchestra and Vocal Dept. of the Birmingham Conservatoire. I loved every second of learning and conducting Puccini’s Il Trittico!
Still at the Conservatoire, our series of concerts at Symphony Hall in collaboration with the CBSO has thrown up quite a few great pieces over the last few years and 2013 was no exception. ‘The Garden of Fand’ by Bax is a beautiful piece and is a work that is unjustly neglected. Britten’s ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’ is programmed but is surely one of his masterpieces. It is also a piece I hanker after doing again very soon, hopefully as well as we did back in March!
As I mentioned earlier, I conducted some Britten with Ian Bostridge. It was my first Les Illuminations, one I thoroughly enjoyed.  Such great writing for the strings and voice!
My favourite new work of 2013 was Bruckner Symphony No.4. I conducted it with my old friends, the Birmingham Philharmonic, back in February. It was my first “Bruckner” and it was a joy to work on. I had been longing to conduct some Bruckner for many years and it was worth the wait. I loved the architectural challenges, the challenge of making the orchestra sound warm and grand enough, while keeping warmth and beauty, the pacing and grading of is why I do this job!

A special mention must go the BPO horn section – this amateur orchestra has a horn section that some professional orchestra would be happy with! They played so well, barely a foot wrong, with a big, grand sound and sureness of attack. Thank you!!

Favourite Concert of 2013

So which will win this year?
Amongst the highlights were.....
My CBSO Subscription concert of Elgar and Britten with Ian Bostridge - the CBSO on top form in Elgar’s In the South & Enigma Variations coupled with a stunning performance of Les Illuminations.
The Sinfonia of Birmingham tour of Abruzzo –  three really fun concerts, with 3 different soloists but also three performances of Beethoven Symphony No.1 to cherish, all set in that wonderful part of Italy.
Making 5 different audiences of schoolchildren laugh by doing this in front of the CBSO!

This video was shot from the 3rd trumpet chair during a CBSO Schools Concert. The audience were asked to copy my every move and you can just see the children laughing and trying to copy me. Since posting this on Facebook, it has been seen by nearly 39000 people! Whether it has done my career harm or good is debatable but it does show I can conduct!!

Scoring 74 not out to help the CBSO beat the Birmingham Clergy was definitely a 2013 highlight, if not actually a musical one!
The performance of the War Requiem with the CBSO and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus in December was one to treasure. Thank you to the chorus for being so welcoming and working so hard, but also thank you to the CBSO for following me so diligently, especially after so many performances of that work in 2013!
Second has to be a concert I conducted in Enniskillen, with the Ulster Orchestra, as part of the Happy Days Festival. Ruby Hughes sang four of Schubert’s Lieder in the first half and the second half contained Mahler’s arrangement of Death and the Maiden. It took place in a tiny hall, with the audience almost sitting on our laps, all recorded for BBC Radio. The orchestra played with such skill and passion and the audience was rapt in its attention and responded so enthusiastically!

But the winner for 2013 is Il Trittico at the Birmingham Conservatoire. To be involved from the casting, all the way through to the end, and watch everything slowly evolve and come together was a life changing experience for me! To conduct 4 performances of the complete Trittico over 3 days was, on paper, an exhausting task, but in actuality, it was a joy. Yes, it was tiring, yes at times it was “fraught” both onstage and backstage, but it is possibly the highlight of my career so far! I learnt so much about my conducting technique, about music making, about psychology......the list is endless. All I can ask for is to get back in the pit again very soon and do some more opera.
My thanks must go out to all of the students who sang in these performances – they were all so committed and passionate about the whole project. It is my real belief that amongst the cast for the 3 operas were some stars of the future!

So that was 2013! What lies ahead?
At some point in 2014, my violin case will be shut and I will be going “fulltime” as a conductor. It is something I am talking about with my employers and it will happen this year. I will be making the announcement as soon as the details are sorted out but I feel it is something I have to do and the time is right.
Up to that point there is plenty for me to be getting on with and, time permitting, I intend to keep writing blog posts about my conducting career. It is my real intention for this year to take off and for me to start knocking people for six........

Yes, that was me!
In the meantime, have a great New Year and see you in 2014

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Making your mark

Apologies for the long delay between posts but I finally have a little time to write. At the end of my previous post I promised to write about score marking, so here it is!

What do I mean by "score marking"? Well, contrary to the opinion of some orchestral musicians, conductors scores are not filled with diagrams and comments like this.........

So if a score is not filled with such helpful diagrams, what does a conductor write in their score?

At this point, I should note that some conductors write little or nothing in their scores. Some find it a distraction, some are lucky enough to have a photographic memory (I believe Lorin Maazel is in this category) and some just add some very small pencil markings where necessary. This is perfectly acceptable - there is, in my opinion, no right or wrong when it comes to how you treat and use your scores.

Other conductors, like me, write all manner of information in their scores. Why? Firstly, it is a really good way of learning a score. Not wishing to sound too big-headed, but after 20 years of playing the violin professionally, I know most pieces in the repertoire very well. But even with this exposure, you find things in a score every time you look at it, your ideas and thoughts on a piece change, so it is worth writing it down.

So, how do I start?

Firstly, I do my preliminary work. I go through the score from start to finish drawing a red line between the systems, should a page have more than one system on it, like this......

 But while I am doing this, I add another marking. Here is an example......

This is a little marking telling me that on the previous page, Fig.70 is one bar away. Or, should I say that the first bar on this page is 2 bars after Fig.70. The reason for doing this is apparent when you are rehearsing. Often, when looking for somewhere to start, a conductor will leaf through his score trying to find a rehearsal figure – often they are far apart, often they are just over a page. Knowing where these rehearsal marks are helps cut down on time wasted but there is a second benefit. As I said, the first bar of that page is 2 after Fig.70. But if you didn’t know that, you could have asked the orchestra to go from 8 bars before Fig.71, as this is equally true. This means less time spent for the musicians to count out their bars and avoids the inevitable smart ass comment, “you mean 2 after 70?”

Trust me, it takes time writing them in, but it saves rehearsal time!

So having done the “boring stuff”, what next?

I use coloured pencils to mean different things. I use red to signify anything I to do with beating time, tempo, accelerandos, rits etc. Some typical tempo markings are shown in this next photo......

You may also have noticed some blue – any blue markings are for dynamics, articulations and balance. Often all I am doing is making the composers markings more visible, especially in smaller sized scores. It is good to glance down  and see something clearly and quickly when required.

Next are cues. Some publishers don’t list the instruments on the left hand side of every page, and some cues need marking in any way as the player has been inactive for a long time.  For this I use a normal 3B pencil and mark something like this.......

What you see here is my sign for timps, clashed cymbals and tam-tam. You can use any abbreviation you like, but I use the following, which, I hope, are fairly self explanatory!

Fls ( or Fl 1 for just First Flute)
Obs (Ob1)
Kls (K1)
Fg (Fg1)
HNS (H1, H2 etc)

As I said, you can use your own, but it is a good idea to make them easily recognisable at a very quick glance. You could argue my markings for Trumpet, Trombone and Tuba look a little similar but I am stuck with them now! (I could, and maybe should have used POS for the trombone?)

There, in a nutshell, is how I mark my scores. Extra to this, I write in bowings, slurrings, phrase shapes, historical references if needed, notes to myself on balance, misprints I might have discovered over the years (and they are many!), colours I might strive to achieve, tempo thoughts and how they relate to the architecture of the piece – the list is endless! I am big enough to admit that whilst a lot of this is carried around in my head, some of it is not and it is worth noting it down and having it there for posterity.

One word of caution – if, as happened to me in 2011, you have to use someone else’s score, or you lose yours (or an airline loses it for you!), you must be flexible enough to quickly put some simple pencil markings in a new score at a moments notice.

In the end, marking up a score must serve one purpose more than any – to help you learn the piece to such an extent that your head is no longer in the score! It seems a little bizarre to say it, but it is true. The greatest feeling of all is conducting without a score, but until then, and especially in rehearsal, your score should be your bible and your friend and if it takes markings to help, then so be it.

I promise my next post will be sooner rather than later - until then, happy marking!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Fighting the bulge.

If, like me, you are a conductor with a weight problem and have opened this post looking for enlightenment, or support from a kindred spirit, then I'm afraid I have misled you. This post is not about conductors weight problems, hair loss or fashion tips - it is about something that has driven me mad over the last 20 years as both a conductor and professional violinist, the bulge!

What, you may ask, is a bulge? I'm tempted to say that if you are a string player and you don't know what it is, you are a bulger! But if you are not and want to find out why it drives me round the bend and what can be done about it, then read on.

This is a bulge.......

and in this case, it is exactly what Mahler wanted the First Violins to do in the Adagietto of his 5th Symphony. How do we play it?

Usually we start at the extremity of the bow (either the heel or the tip), draw the bow slowly at first, then quickly speed up (sometimes adding extra weight to the stroke, sometimes vibrating more with our left hand, and sometimes both!) and then rapidly decelerate just before reaching the other end of the bow. And there, in a nutshell, is how to play a bulge.

Why does this bother me? It doesn't, when specifically asked for. It bothers me when string players do it all the time! Which leads to another question, a much more involved question......

 Why do string players bulge?

I think there are many reasons why. In no particular order they are

1. Rhythmic uncertainty
What? How can rhythm effect the tone? Well it can, mainly within a section of players. If the player is unsure of where to place the note, one way of hiding that uncertainty is to "bloom and blossom" the sound momentarily after creeping in, ie. a bulge. The player doesn't want to show they are unsure where to play rhythmically yet want to show they are "committed" and "contributing to the section sound" so the best way to avoid coming in wrong or causing section instability is to bulge. Common in unsure trialists and extra players.

2. H.I.P. practises being misunderstood
H.I.P. is short for Historically Informed Performance. For a long time the bulge made many appearances (along with its sidekick, poor intonation) in recordings and performances of Baroque music, sometimes creeping in to Classical pieces as well. Why? The player is told that vibrato was not being used at that time in history and for some this is a problem! For some, vibrato is the primary colouring method for phrasing, for others the only method!
When their vibrato is "banned", these players have a problem. How can they make a note beautiful without their old friend vibrato? They bulge! But if they had learnt to phrase with the bow first, rather than rely on their vibrato, this would not be necessary. I used to make all of my pupils learn a Bach Solo Partita or Sonata, playing with no vibrato yet learning to phrase with the bow, preferably a Baroque bow. It meant that they could build and shape a phrase of music without relying on vibrato, relying only on bow speed and distribution.

3. "I'm making a beautiful sound" syndrome
For me, this is the most inexcusable! Every string player knows how satisfying and amazing it feels when one can get the instrument really ringing and vibrating, sinking into the string and drawing out the fullest sound we can get - it's why we play them!
The problem is that some players get hooked on this "open sound" and think that if they can get that sound on every note that they are being musical and "wowing" us with their gorgeous tone! They forget to listen to how the phrase should go, how it should be shaped, how each note should lead from one to another culminating in a beautifully sung line of music. Their phrases last exactly one bow long, each bow being a bloody great bulge! It doesn't matter how many notes you play like this in a phrase - the phrase can only last for one bulgy bow!

So, how can we avoid this? What can we do to rectify it? My first suggestion would be to......

Record yourself.
And not only students! Anyone who suspects they are bulging should switch on a tape player, or even the Memo App on their smart phone and listen to themselves play a long melody. I used to make all of my students do this and if that didn't work, which was rare, I made them sing the phrase to me. In the end it doesn't matter what instrument we are playing, the phrase must have shape and structure. Each phrase, however long, has its high point - the note on which the composer would set the word "love" or "death" in a song. Often some players get so stuck on bulging that they lose sight of where this note is and bulge happily away on the words "of", "it" or "and"!

So, having listened to your playback and been nearly sick listening to your bulges, what next?

We need to look at two things coupled together to battle the bulge - bow speed and linking between the bows.
For me the speed of the bow is paramount. When one listens to a great singer or wind soloist, we listen to a phrase of music which builds and dies evenly and without extraneous bulges. This is because they are sending the air through their vocal chords or instrument at a constant speed or skilfully increasing or decreasing the speed to effect crescendos or diminuendos. Imagine listening to your favourite opera singer singing your favourite aria whilst having someone jumping up and down on their diaphragm - this is what a string players bulge can sound like!
If the player can learn to control the speed of their bow, they can at least make an even sound. Even speed, even sound.
Then, if the phrase needs a crescendo, the end of one note must crescendo so that the start of the next links with it. This needs the player to again control the speed of the bow but also colour with vibrato so that the end of one note and the start of the next sound the same - this is impossible if you bulge, impossible! If you want an exercise, play Kreutzer Study No.1 at 120 BPM, starting on a down bow. You will soon learn how to distribute your bow, your bow speed and your vibrato.

This is a problem I encounter at every level I conduct at - with Youth Orchestras and amateurs I sort of expect it but I often experience it in the professional arena! I am not saying we should never bulge, far from it! Some composers demand it but not every composer. All I am asking for is that more players listen to the sound they produce for longer than one bow and think harder about their bow speed and control.

Why am I getting all upset about bulging? Because just one loud bulger can wreck a phrase of music in a string section. The best string section I have ever played in is a hand-picked orchestra whose players all use vibrato wisely, do not use portato (another bugbear of mine) and do not bulge. The difference when everyone players like this is obvious and it sounds so much more unified in approach, tone and phrasing. It is not out of reach of every orchestra to use these fundamental skills to make their string sound more homogeneous.

Next time - marking up a score - should we and if so, how?



Saturday, 22 December 2012

2012 - a most exciting year.

As I did last year, I thought I would review this year and give you my thoughts and recollections. It has been a very memorable year for me, one with many twists and turns, a frustrating yet satisfying year!

First, the stats.......

49 Concerts with
26 different soloists or collaborators
12 different orchestra ( including 3 "new" orchestras )

which amounts to conducting approximately 170 pieces of music during 2012! A lot of notes and a lot of time spent in my study learning them, as well as learning 9 pieces on the back of a coach in Germany, but more of that later!

So, the highlights? Here they are, in no particular order.

Favourite new orchestra
I went to 3 orchestras this year for the first time and enjoyed them all very much.

The first new orchestra was the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. We travelled to Beijing to play at the closing ceremony of the 2nd Beijing International Film Festival in April. It was my first trip to China and one which was certainly very memorable. The orchestra played brilliantly in a programme of music mixing very familiar Western film music repertoire with music from Chinese cinema. I will always remember the view from my dressing room, which was inside this rather famous stadium.....

and I looked out at this impressive view from my dressing room window!

And my abiding memory of that view will be seeing 3 members of the RPCO running the 100 metres in full concert dress just before the concert!

My next new orchestra was the RTE Concert Orchestra, in a concert entirely made up of the music of John Williams. They are so slick, great inner ensemble, bags of energy, just what you want for a concert like that. A sold-out concert, with music that always goes down well and that orchestras seem to love playing - you can't go wrong! I hope to be back there again soon, maybe with John Williams 2?
Here we are opening our concert........

And finally, I worked with London Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time this year, in a concert of Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens and Dvorak Symphony No.8. They were friendly, quick, ultra-professional (as you would expect!) but also so musical, especially in the Dvorak, which will live with me for a long time.

I know it's a "cop out" but I can't choose between the LPO and the RTE Concert, so they both get my vote.

Favourite Soloist
I have been lucky in 2012 to work with great soloists, some "old friends", some new who have become friends.

Highlights have been numerous - I loved working with Igor Levit and the BBC Symphony earlier this year. We recorded Mozart K.414 together and he was such a joy to work with.

I also treasured working with two of my CBSO colleagues this year for the first time. Chris Yates played the Walton Viola Concerto with Birmingham Schools Symphony and myself four times this year and each one was different, exciting and fresh. A real highlight was doing Prokofiev Violin Concerto No.2 with Zoe Beyers and my friends at the Sinfonia of Birmingham - great energy, lyricism and beauty.

I was lucky enough to work with 3 great violinists and the CBSO this year, Tasmin Little, Veronika Eberle and Baiba Skride - all 3 memorable in their own way, all 3 world class.

And while we are on the number 3, I stood in 3 times this year for Andris Nelsons when the soloist was Rudolf Buchbinder. In both Brahms 2 and Beethoven 4 he was incredible - so easy to work with, unflappable, cool and quick to make me feel at ease. Quite simply the best Beethoven 4 I have ever heard!

But my soloist of the year has to go to Jonas Kaufmann, in a concert that I will be mentioning at the end of this post. To work with someone of his class, his stature but also his understanding and patience was a dream. Anecdotal evidence has it that, when asked whether I was any good, he said that "he wasn't bad" which, apparently, is tantamount to being a compliment! I'll take that any day!!

Favourite new piece
As you can imagine, I have conducted many pieces for the first time this year. Some of them are a surprise to me, as you would think that after conducting 301 concerts, that I would have conducted some of these long before doing so this year,

Nielsen Symphony No.1
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.1
Brahms Symphony No.3
Shostakovich Symphony No.5
Debussy La Mer

All of those were memorable, especially the Tchaikovsky and Debussy, both being late cancellations and involving a lot of "crash-learning"!

Twice this year I was involved in performances of Jonathan Harvey's Weltethos. This is a piece which needs two conductors and I loved working closely with the main conductor for this project, Ed Gardner. Though to be fair, it required 5 conductors in all to prepare the orchestra and 4 choirs!
(Me, Simon Halsey, Julian Wilkins, Ed Gardner, Marc Hall)

Ed and I have become firm friends since, not only having music making in common but a deep love of the game of cricket. He impressed me so much during these concerts - his knowledge of a very tricky score, his clarity of thought and real drive throughout both performances. Jonathan Harvey will be sorely missed by all.

I once again assisted Andris Nelsons with a CBSO Wagner opera project, this time Tristan & Isolde - I hope one day to conduct it in full!

Two British pieces shone out this year - both Parry Symphony No.5 and York-Bowen's Horn Concerto are worth a listen. Sadly neglected pieces and pieces I intend to programme again.

But my favourite new piece for 2012 was Mahler Symphony No.10 - I performed the Deryck Cooke version in February and loved every second of it. Here are my thoughts on it from a previous blog post but, safe to say, I am ready and willing to conduct that again any time I'm asked to!

Favourite Concert of 2012
I have 49 to choose from but a few stand out.

Mahler 10, with the Birmingham Philharmonic stood out. As I mentioned, it was my "new piece of the year" but to conduct my old friends at the Phil again was great (they gave me my first concert all those years ago) and I look forward to seeing them again in January.

The CBSO Youth Orchestra showed everyone how bloody good they were in the summer with a staggeringly good account of Schubert 9 (if I may be so big-headed!) - with high levels of control and skill aligned to their youthful energy, it was one to remember.

The CBSO "proper" tore the roof off Symphony Hall in April in Nielsen's Symphony No.4 - a concert I was particularly proud of.

But nothing will beat the excitement of the events that took place on the CBSO tour in March - a full account can be read here - and of the three concerts, despite Jonas Kaufmann and all that happened in the concert in Baden-Baden, my favourite concert of 2012 will always be the night I stood in for Andris at 90 minutes notice in Dortmund.

I can remember so much of that concert vividly - musical moments, looks on individual players faces, backstage moments, the ovation at the end - but above all else, I will take with me the feeling I got from the CBSO that night. I could physically feel their support, their energy, them willing it, us, me, them to succeed and their sense of pride at the end. Thank you from the bottom of my heart - I will never forget it!

I hope 2013 can be as good as 2012. Recently I have rather "down on myself" about my conducting career, partly as a consequence of what has happened since Dortmund or rather, what has not happened! One often reads of these moments when a conductor stands in at a prestigious concert at very short notice and their career is catapulted forwards. When that seemingly didn't happen, I got rather depressed by the whole business and, to be frank, considered stopping.

It is only in recent times when I look forward to concerts I am conducting next year and also, in the process of writing this post, look back on what I actually achieved, that I have become reinvigorated and look forward to showing the world what I can do and what I can say "musically" again.

I'm hoping that one of my next blog posts will be a look back at the end of 20 years of playing the violin......

Until then, your comments will be gratefully received and I hope you all a Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous 2013.