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.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Pianists - it's all in their hands, or is it?

Sorry it has been such a long time since my last blog post – but here, as promised is my long-awaited post about pianists and the joys and pitfalls of working with them, with an orchestra.

When I first started on this journey to becoming a conductor, I made a conscious effort to programme as many piano concertos as possible. It would have been very easy for me to “ease me way in” by programming endless violin concertos, having the knowledge of either learning the solo part myself or, at the very least, knowing the piece extremely well. It made more sense to me to learn as many concertos for other instruments as possible, broadening my repertoire and knowledge base.

The joys are there for all to see! The piano concerto repertoire is full of great masterpieces, pieces which not only challenge the pianist but also challenge the orchestra, full of solos and great to play. But what are the challenges for the conductor, that only arise when working with pianists?

Firstly, the position of the piano. Unless you are planning on having the piano in front of you, with the lid off, for a Classical concerto, it is always behind you. And this is actually the greatest problem of them all! If you are working with any other concerto soloist, there are usually next to you and you can see them. To be able to see a string players bow is to be able to see when and how they are going to play, how long the note will be etc. To see a wind or brass soloist is to be able to see them breathe, to be able even to see their embouchure and see when they about to play. And with singers to see them breathe and even to watch their lips and throat is a must.

With a pianist, unless they are absurdly flamboyant, you cannot even see their hands! Of course, there is often body language that can be read but, in the main, you get very little help. So we must rely on our ears, almost totally, for all the clues we need to be able to get the orchestra to successfully accompany them.

Easy, surely? Yes, it would be, if it were not for problem number 2.

Problem 2 is chosen what to listen to! Often a piano part can be a bewildering blur of millions of notes in the right hand, whirling around and seeming to try to distract the conductor. Possibly the hardest of all passages is the slow Movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2.

On first hearing, you might be forgiven to think that it is a bit of a lottery to catch every nuance and every change of harmony, if you listen mainly to the filigree work in the right hand. One conductor famously said " it can be a little like taking a jellyfish for a walk on a piece of elastic"! But on a second hearing, concentrate hard on the left hand (with an open ear still on the right) and you will find it is much easier. The left hand is your friend when accompanying a pianist with it more often than not giving you the simpler rhythms to follow and discern how the pianist is thinking. But can we practise that before the first rehearsal?

With the advent of Spotify and YouTube, we can. I know some conductors will know sneer at this but the best way of practising is to find a recording you don’t know, put it on and follow it. Actively conduct along with it (What!! Conduct along to recording??? Philistine!).  Why would I advocate this? Well, as I’ve said, you will get very little visual help so we must get used to listening even harder and get used to reacting to every slight change of tempi, every instance of rubato and even every bad musical idea the pianist might have dreamt up in his lonely practice room. The best “accompanist conductors” keep their beat small yet constantly moving, allowing them to react quickly yet be accurate and clear.

Apologies if all of this is old news but to some they might find it interesting and even helpful – in 20 years as a violinist in the CBSO I have seen more conductors make a dogs breakfast of accompanying pianists than any other type of soloist and I’m sure it’s no secret that orchestral musicians spot this immediately!

Until the next time, happy following.

Monday, 2 April 2012

A tour I will never forget

I did promise at the end of my last blog post that the next post I would write would be about pianists. I’m afraid that will have to wait as the last ten days have been so exciting and different and therefore worthy of an extra blog post! Settle down for a very long yet hopefully, riveting read..........

On March 10th the CBSO left Birmingham to embark on one of its longest tours for years. Seventeen days with 13 concerts all over Europe, with our Music Director, Andris Nelsons. For me, this tour would involve conducting off-stage in a performance of Tristan & Isolde in Paris and then playing violin for the remaining 12 shows.

Whilst on tour with the CBSO I am often asked to go out into a hall and check the balance of the orchestra for Andris. We also often swap these roles with me conducting and Andris going out into the hall and hearing things for himself. It is a role that I am comfortable with and thoroughly enjoy. It means I need to be familiar with all of the scores but not necessarily “note perfect”. For instance, Andris asked me in advance to conduct two specific bits of Tristan in the rehearsal so that he could go out into the stalls of the Theatre Champs Elysees and hear how the opera sounded. It gave me time to quickly study those passages before I helped out.

The performance went very well indeed. I ended conducting quite a long way away from the stage in a stair well out near the artists entrance!

The next time I was asked to help was in the famous Musikverein in Vienna. I listened in one rehearsal and then conducted bits of Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe in another rehearsal. I do at least have evidence that I have conducted, if only briefly, in the world’s most celebrated concert hall!

And so, as we neared the end of the tour, all seemed well. The audiences had received us well, concerts had been very well attended and the orchestra were in fine form, on and off the platform! And with three concerts to go we had reached Dortmund.

Having arrived, I went for lunch with my good friends of the lower brass. I then got a phone call from Andris asking me where we were all eating and I guided him to the restaurant. We chatted and all seemed fine - he had just bought some new clothes for his baby daughter, Adriana and seemed in fine spirits. I returned to the hotel to have a shower before the 18.45 - 19.15 rehearsal.

I left the hotel at 18.05 and my phone rang. The call was from Stephen Maddock, CEO of the CBSO. The thrust of the conversation was that little Adriana had been rushed to hospital and that Andris was going to fly home as soon as possible but probably tomorrow. Would I mind conducting the last two concerts of the tour? After mentally working out the repertoire and how much time I had to learn some of it, I agreed and then asked what was happening that night. At that stage Andris was still conducting that night in Dortmund!

By the time I had got to the hall, it had changed! Andris was now not going to conduct that night as he had to go immediately to Frankfurt in order to catch the earliest available flight home. I had 20 minutes to get my head around conducting the concert that night. As it happens, I had conducted two thirds of that nights programme before - both Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius Symphony No.2 were pieces I had conducted fairly recently. The only problem was the opener I had rehearsed Britten's Four Sea Interludes with the CBSO YO a few years before but never conducted them in concert.

Two minutes before the short seating rehearsal, I met with the soloist for the Beethoven, Rudolf Buchbinder. We had worked together before and in 30 seconds we discussed two places in the concerto and then he said that it would "all be fine"! I then rehearsed the CBSO for 30 minutes, mainly on the Britten but also in a couple of corners of the Sibelius. Then 45 minutes to relax and then it was concert time!

The problem was that I had so little time to get my head around the change of role! Firstly flicking through the scores and making a few discreet notes for yourself. Then trying to get as much water inside me as possible - I find I need much more water to cope with the added activity that conducting demands than when I am playing. Then just trying to keep focused while all around you people are flying about making sure that everyone knows what is going on. Both the CBSO management and the Dortmund concert staff couldn't have been more helpful and I thank them for keeping everything seemingly low-key and stress-free for me.

That night I experienced a level of support and collective will from the CBSO that I have never experienced with any other orchestra ever! They played superbly and with real panache, swagger and power. Rudolf Buchbinder was incredible and so supportive - always glancing up at me and smiling and coupled, as ever, with the most beautiful of touches at the piano you will ever wish to hear. The audience seemed to like it - a standing ovation! To top it all off, free beer for the orchestra afterwards from the Konzerthaus.

The following day was a 4 hour coach trip to Heidelberg. Often the conductor on a tour will travel between concerts in a limo but I have to say I was happier on the coach on this particular occasion, and here is the reason why.
The previous night had been a whirlwind that had happened so quickly that I had not got time to be nervous. Now I had 4 hours to sit and digest four scores I had never conducted before and some nerves were starting to appear! I wanted to be somewhere familiar, somewhere I could relax and divert my attention should I need to. The back of the bus was the ideal spot, with my friends around for company and not just sitting in a car on my own worrying myself stupid!

So what did I need to learn in those 4 hours? I didn't need to "learn" anything - I needed to see the scores for the following pieces, which I was due to conduct over the next two nights,

Wagner - Prelude & Liebestod from 'Tristan & Isolde'
Debussy - La Mer
Mahler - Kindertotenlieder
R.Strauss - 6 songs for Jonas Kaufmann and orchestra

I had played all of these pieces earlier in the tour and most of them many times over the last 20 years in the CBSO. The music was clear in my head. What can put you off however is never having seen them on paper and, more importantly, seeing someone else's markings on a score.

Andris, like myself, is a voracious marker of scores but his style differs from mine in so many ways. Conductors have many different ways of marking things in scores, almost to the point where you have your own "code"! This is the place where a conductor writes down his thoughts on balance, tempi, historical references etc. - and his scores are no different. The biggest difference was that they were all in Latvian! Conductors also have their own language of lines, squiggles and geometric shapes all of their own - what I had to do was try to decipher Andris's code whilst keeping my own thoughts on the music as clear as possible!

We had an hours rehearsal in the lovely hall in Heidelberg but this time I had to squeeze in two pieces I had never conducted before at all - the Wagner and Debussy. We also had to give the radio company a little of both the Britten and Beethoven for their balance engineer and, in such a tight hall, this was a necessity!

The orchestra again played superbly and Rudolf was the dictionary definition of cool again! Having listened to the broadcast (sadly I cannot find a link to it) the highlight was probably the Storm from the Sea Interludes which prompted a "Whoop" from one lady in the audience!

And finally, Baden-Baden. The same symphony (Sibelius 2) but the whole first half was taken up with Mahler and Strauss, sung by superstar tenor, Jonas Kaufmann. Frankly I was nervous about meeting him but he was such a lovely man and so helpful, singing during the one hour rehearsal and happy to help explain corners and tempi with me as much as I wanted. He arrived with messages of support from both Simon Halsey and Simon Rattle, who he had been working with the day before.

That concert will live with me forever. The CBSO played the Sibelius with extra zeal and vigour and again accompanied like stars. The concert however will be remembered for the actions of one particularly excitable member of the audience! After the first song of the Mahler, this particular music lover shouted to Kaufmann asking him to step forward so that the whole audience could see him. He was standing like this, (picture of the actual concert, courtesy of Badisches Tagblatt)

Jonas seemed visibly and rightly disturbed by this but chose to address the person concerned. The gist of what he said was, "Sorry you cannot see me but we need to stand like this so that the conductor and myself can see each other and the conductor can see the leader". This drew a justified round of applause from audience, orchestra and myself! How he then managed to sing the rest of the first half so beautifully after being disturbed like this is beyond me? It was sublime singing of the highest calibre.
I shall cherish his hug at the end of that half - it meant a lot to me as someone who had been quite nervous earlier in the day but by the concert had just decided it was better just to have a ball and make music with this great tenor as best I could.

Two more concerts back home followed, one in Manchester and one at home in Brum. I am still overwhelmed by the personal votes of confidence and best wishes from my colleagues during these concerts and also amazed at the level at which they played over these 5 concerts - just staggeringly good! But of course all of this pales into insignificance compared to the feelings we all have towards Andris, Kristine and little Adriana. All of us at the CBSO, as well as our loyal supporters, wish them all the best for a speedy recovery and look forward to seeing all three of you in Birmingham as soon as we can.

Next time, pianists!! It will be shorter next time, promise..........

Mike Seal

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Why Mahler, why??

Over the last few months I have been studying and then rehearsing Mahler’s Symphony No.10 and one particular movement has caused me more sleepless nights than any other – the second movement Scherzo. It is a question that I am sure almost every conductor who has performed or studied the Deryck Cooke performing version of Mahler 10 has asked – why? Why did he write it as he did?

For those of you who don’t know this movement, here it is, played by one of the foremost advocates of the Deryck Cooke version and arguably, its greatest interpreter, Sir Simon Rattle.

So, you may ask, what is the problem?

I did a cursory count (and excuse me if my numbers are not 100% accurate, but you’ll get the drift) and the statistics are as follows,

522 bars long
344 bars of 3/4
109 bars of 4/4 or 2/2
51 bars of 5/4
18 bars of 2/4
10 bars of 3/2

In these enlightened days of the 21st Century, post The Rite of Spring, these figures should not be shocking. But in 1909/10, these figures would have been a shock, had the world ever got to see the score for Mahler’s 10th Symphony. Most of these time changes appear in the first and last thirds of the movement, but even taken as an average, the scherzo changes time, on average, every 2.77 bars (the 3/4 tally divided by the total of the rest). 

Before we answer the question of “why”, we ought to look at the evidence – how much of this Scherzo is Mahler and how much is Cooke? The preface to the printed score clearly states that this movement was laid out in full score but was sketchy at best. Cooke himself says in the preface the special difficulty with this movement lies in connection with the multifarious changes of time signature. Mahler wrote hardly any specific time signatures and Cooke just had to establish them from the notation.  A facsimile page of the short score shows that Mahler was clear in his intentions – every bar is clear as to how many beats are in it.

The question of the scoring is different, and one I will not dive into in this post. This Scherzo does seem to have needed more “fleshing out” than the movements either side of it but I believe it had little or no bearing on the time signature issue to which I refer.

So, why after many years of composition did Mahler suddenly write a movement so complicated in meter and so far advanced for its time? In the previous symphonies he had only ever once got close to writing music like this, that being in the Scherzo of this Symphony No.6. But in that movement the use of different time signatures is used in a different way – he lengthens and shortens the phrases with time changes but during the more relaxed and reflective sections. These time changes make the music seem poised, thoughtful and at times, hesitant. The bulk of the rest of that scherzo is, more often than not, in 3 but almost always driving and relentless in feel.

Here are a couple of my theories.

Firstly, in the Scherzo of No.10, the reflective music is almost always in 3. The middle section is a sort of Ländler with its theme being derived from the first subject of the opening Adagio. To me it harks back to Austria and is a haven amidst the more complicated ‘modern’ music that surrounds it which could represent New York. He was writing this symphony whilst being thousands of miles from home in what would have been a fairly alien environment. Maybe the shock of the new infiltrated his psyche and led to the outer sections feeling more jagged and terse, with its feeling of uneasiness?

Secondly, maybe he just wanted to take his macabre Scherzo writing one step further? All of his scherzo movements have moments of the macabre, sometimes mixed in with aggression and sarcasm. He might have had in mind some sort of lopsided, three-legged dance that was out of control from the start and only in the central section is some sort of normality reached!

But I finally come to the reason for this post. I have a third theory and I believe it might hold some water. During his time in New York, Mahler had dealings with another conductor ,Arturo Toscanini. It must be remembered that Mahler had gone to New York to mainly conduct at the Metropolitan Opera and ended up conducting far less opera than was at first envisaged! This was partly down to the Met changing management and hiring Toscanini, meaning that Mahler was slowly squeezed out, ending up conducting the New York Philharmonic.
There seems to be little evidence of Mahler actively personally disliking Toscanini or vice versa. But in these early days of the 20th Century, Toscanini was making big noises over at the Met and the world of the “star” conductor was being born. There would have been the obvious comparisons made in the press between these two great conductors. So maybe, just maybe, Mahler wanted to show the world that he was still the best conductor out there and the best way to do this was to write himself the hardest piece to conduct yet written!
And, let’s face it, that is exactly what he did. Up until that point, no piece of music I can think of has that many time changes in it over such a short period of time. In that short Scherzo Mahler would have shown the world that he was still the force to be reckoned with and that he was to still be taken seriously.

It is not my belief that this last theory was the main reason for the use of many different time signatures. I'm sure he was not that interested in showing off! What I am saying is that he was pushing the boundaires of both harmony and meter in this symphony and that maybe he was also trying to push the boundaries of conducting at the same time? The result would have been that the world would have seen conducting like this for the first time and he would have been the pioneer.

It would be great to show you a YouTube clip of a conductor conducting this from the orchestra’s point of view but sadly it does not exist. There are two complete performances on YouTube, one by Inbal and another by Lintu. There is also this clip of the scherzo in question featuring Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic. During all of these clips, you clearly see the orchestra at times counting like mad! As someone who has both played and conducted this movement, it is also no surprise to me to see real “signs of relief” at the end of all of these clips! I can tell you that it is one of the hardest things I have ever had to conduct technically, if not THE hardest!

Hopefully you might agree with one, two or even all three of my theories. Of course if Mahler had lived a few years longer he may have revised his original thoughts and written something a little easier and less revolutionary?  In the end it doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with me – the world should be thankful that Alma Mahler allowed Deryck Cooke to complete his performing version and the world got to hear one of the greatest pieces ever written, at the very least one of the toughest challenges for any conductor!

Next time, my thoughts on how to accompany pianists in concerti and why this is harder than it at first appears.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

2011 - A Review

As we enter 2012 I thought I would look back on 2011 and give you some thoughts on what was for me, a rather exciting year. Firstly some statistics for those of you, like me, who enjoy such things!

My 2011 consisted of

41 concerts (two of which were recorded for a ‘live’ CD)
26 different soloists
10 different orchestras (4 of which were ‘new’ orchestras)
3 recording sessions

Boiled down to those numbers, it doesn’t seem a lot. What I can tell you is that during those 41 concerts I conducted over 160 different pieces of music ranging from a 4 bar long piece of Weber to Britten’s War Requiem. This of course all has to be studied and I shudder to think how long this adds up to in hours spent in my study!

So, what were the highlights? Like all “end of year” reviews, I’ll categorise them.......

Favourite ‘new’ orchestra

I worked with 4 new orchestras last year (and two new choirs) and had a great time with all of them. My introduction to the Royal LiverpoolPhil was in a Family concert presented by my old friend, Alasdair Malloy, and we had a great time frightening the audience at Halloween.
I also travelled twice to meet new friends and had a brilliant week in Oslo with the Norway Radio Orchestra in a concert of Bollywood/Pakistani/Norwegian/Pop music for Norwegian TV. I will write more about this concert in a future post but they were so friendly and welcoming but also so patient dealing with the logistics of rehearsing with 2 pop groups, 4 different drummers (2 Dhol, a rock drummer and a table player), 4 singers, a choir, Indian violin and sitar! Here is a link to that concert.
I’ve told you all about my visit to Argentina and I am happy to say I will be returning back to the Teatro Colon in 2012 to work with them again. Better go on a diet before I get there then.....

But my favourite new orchestra was the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We did a concert of highlights from the upcoming 2011 Proms season in the middle of Westfield Shopping Centre, to an audience of thousands. They played fabulously (especially considering that the ambient noise of the shopping public was deafening!) and were so friendly and helpful. I’m looking forward to seeing them again for a recording session in February.
And mentioning recordings, during the rehearsals for Westfield, we had time to ‘rustle this up’ for Auntie Beeb........

Favourite Soloist

This is a tricky one. I was lucky in 2011 to work with new friends, old friends and also soloists that I have always dreamed of working with.
Of the new friends, let me praise two singers that I believe have great futures, Matthew Sandy and Susanna Hurrell. I shall be keeping my eye on them and trying to find opportunities to work with them again soon!
It was great to see old friends like Guy Johnston and Chloe Hanslip again. It is nice to share a stage with someone you get on with and, at least as far as I’m concerned, you have some sort of telepathy with! The same goes for HelenWithers – her performance of Marietta’s Lied with BSSO in December will live with me forever.
I had always wanted to work with Mark Holland and Keel Watson and they didn’t disappoint. Great performers who are should be heard more often.

My soloist of the year though has to be Peter Donohoe. We worked together twice (Liszt 2 and Rach 3) and for me he ticks all the boxes. He is always searching for the heart of the music, often challenging ’traditions’ and demanding excellence. He is also very supportive and is quick to praise, but only if praise is deserved. I have learned so much from working with him and can count him now as a good friend.

Favourite new piece

There have been many this year.  I conducted Frank Bridge’s The Sea twice last year and think it’s a shame it isn’t performed as often as the ‘French’ version. Conducting Janacek’s Taras Bulba with the CBSO was a dream that will live long in the memory. The amazing orchestration of the 14 year old Korngold in his Schauspiel Overture is something I shall be showing to audiences a lot more frequently.

I would also like to make a special case for the Violin Concerto by Carl Nielsen. Not a new piece to me as a violinist but I conducted it for the first time in 2011 in a fantastic performance with the CBSO Leader, Laurence Jackson.
But the winner has to be Elgar Symphony No.2. I stood in at late notice for Vassilly Sinaisky with the CBSO in October for three performances of Elgar 2 and it was a life-changing experience. To have the chance to do a piece like that 3 times is not something normally afforded to me and I loved it. It’s a piece I feel is in my blood and after that week it is now etched into my bones!!

And finally (Yes, I know it has been a long post – just one more!)......

Favourite concert

What could it be? So many to choose from......

It so nearly was Elgar 2 with the CBSO. It could easily have been the recording of Nielsen 2 I did with the Ulster Orchestra. A concert with the City of Birmingham Choir and the BSSO featuring Carmina Burana came close. Did the winning concert include working with Katie Derham, Sir Anthony Hopkins or Ant & Dec?


My favourite concert was with the Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Birmingham Town Hall on July 1st 2011. We gave a performance of Britten’s War Requiem which shone out for me last year. Why?
Well, it was another cancellation, this time stepping in for Elgar Howarth. I learned the score in a week and then set about organising the ten days of rehearsal. It was the first time I had conducted something that big and been involved from the very start. Piano rehearsals, chamber orchestra rehearsals, chorus, open lecture rehearsals and finally performance – I just loved it!
The performance itself was an emotional event and unforgettable for me. The whole Conservatoire was involved in one way or another and it was this sense of togetherness that shone through.

So that was that – 2011 all over and 2012 is ahead. Lots more concerts, lots more study, lots more fun.

My next post will be along soon when you have decided what it will be about! Your choices of titles are....

When is music bad for you?
Pianists – how to turn the nightmare into a dream!

Until then, best wishes and have a prosperous New Year.

Mike Seal