AN INTERVIEW WITH THE CONDUCTOR: GAVIN SUTHERLAND
RB: What was your family background?
Gavin Sutherland: I was born in Chester-le-Street,
County Durham. Father was a factory inspector, mother a secretary for
the local Council. In the North East arts were considered inappropriate
as a profession – you were essentially bred as factory fodder – light
engineering and so forth – and I couldn’t face that.
Were your parents or family at all musical?
Well, I think it’s fair to say that we were a family
that appreciated music, and the house was certainly full of music, but
the only direct musical contact was my mother. She played organ at our
local church but stopped before I was born (and actually stopped playing
completely as a result). My father liked to sing around the house, and
at many of the "go-as-you-pleases" – a forerunner to karaoke
in many a working men’s club! My sister liked to sing (though used to
regularly slide down in pitch from the key in which she started!!) and
learned to dance, and so was a regular in several operatic societies.
Your education ...
I started to play our piano, unbidden, by ear, at the
age of three. This slowly developed through the years, although I was
still branded as self taught. It’s almost right to say I could read
music before I could read, although I think my musical interests needed
harnessing. Thus it was that I was given lessons on the trombone (we
had no piano teacher in our education authority) from the age of seven.
This got me into the county youth bands, and I found this wholly to
my liking. I did all of my grades on trombone (all distinction, I’m
embarrassed to confess!) but just let the piano wend its way of its
own accord. My real early musical education was practical – sitting
in the bands and orchestras – watching, remembering, absorbing. To this
end I wish to pay tribute to two of my mentors from this time – Derek
Scollard, my first trombone teacher, who arranged and conducted one
of the bands I worked with. He gave me the impetus to start dabbling
with arrangement, although my first few efforts (the first dates from
the age of 7!) were lamentable…but I stuck at it and that’s where my
love of writing and arranging music was born. The other leading light
at the time was the late Jack Stobbs – a rather eccentric and totally
fascinating teacher. I think he knew my interests and focused on them
– plus his love of English music opened up my ears to the music of Walton,
Elgar, Warlock, Finzi, Arnold, and so on. Added to that his encouragement
and energy got me "to the next stage" as it were – a stage
that is often difficult in a musician’s life, where one battles with
the soul and, as Dave Allen famously put it, "the braincells become
haemorrhoids" and Neanderthal tendencies creep in!! To this end,
I didn’t really have time to notice that, as my quest for more experience
led me to local amateur operatic societies and choral societies, first
as accompanist then as conductor (I musically directed my first show
at the age of 11, and, whilst the participants can’t take you seriously
at that stage, at least it got me moving in the direction of conducting.).
On the amateur operatic front I think I worked on over fifty productions
until I went to university, and all the while it got me working with
people. The music business doesn’t just stop with the total grip on
thorough knowledge of your craft – social and people skills are profoundly
important too, and I’m glad to say I made most of my mistakes and received
most of my knocks when I was young enough for it not to hurt!
I do have to say my other school studies possibly suffered
a little but I was apparently oblivious to that. I did get a lot of
jealous stick from my peers at school, and found solace in being able
to lock myself away in a music practice room and simply play. It’s still
a comfort blanket to this day!
Have literary sources influenced your style or approach?
You mean musical books? I had lots of them – Frederick
Prausnitz’s "Score and Podium", William Lovelock’s "The
Elements of Orchestral Arrangement", Piston’s famous orchestration
tome, Adkins’ "Treatise on the Military Band", and so on.
I have to be honest and say that although I tried to devour them, thinking
it would be a bigger help than it subsequently was (!), I found the
real way to learn for me was simply to practise and absorb other conductors.
As for arranging and composition, scores were the great textbooks to
me. Anything currently in our repertoire in the bands, full scores of
classical and contemporary works, all of these came hurtling through
our local library at a rate of knots!
What direction did your musical studies take?
Well, I tried for Durham University for my mother (who
was determined I should get a job as a music teacher – something I think
I could never ever have done!) but, as I only had qualifications as
a trombonist on paper they couldn’t possibly consider me. I even offered
to go and play for them, but that wouldn’t work! Newcastle said they
didn’t really want to take many local students, as they were going more
for foreign applicants (charming!). So it was that I headed south to
see what was on offer. I was offered unconditionals by several of the
main music colleges, but actually settled on Huddersfield University
(Polytechnic for my first two years there) as it seemed to offer the
most adaptable course and also pleased my mother as being "not
Can you tell us more about your musical training?
Huddersfield was a real eye-opener. Amongst many fine
musicians, all of whom like me had applied and got in on their merits,
I felt suddenly rather nervous. From the safe and cosy atmosphere of
regular fun work in the North East it now all took on a more serious
feel. As it turned out, I think I matured considerably at Huddersfield,
both musically and personally. Some teachers became good close friends,
one got me my first regular professional job (I had had a bit of freelance
playing, conducting and arranging just before I got to Huddersfield,
but not on a regular basis).
I suppose I was counted as "a funny ‘un"
since some of my teachers did not want to undo what I’d achieved musically
and technically so far in my life. As a result I was taught more about
interpretation as a pianist (with the marvellous Bernard Robertson),
pushing out the boundaries of composition (with Peter J.Lawson – a real
hero) and performance development as a conductor (first with John Gulley
and then with another of my key influences in life – John Longstaff).
But what of the trombone? Well, I’d had enough – I’d
got a new instrument but it wasn’t making any difference at all – I
really knew I wasn’t good enough, so it went back in its case just after
I turned 19.
I must have done something right, for I ended up getting
a first, two prizes (the Krucynski Prize for Piano and the Davidson
Prize for Distinction brought to the Institution) and, through John
Longstaff, regular work as a pianist with Northern Ballet Theatre. To
end up playing a piano concerto in my last end-of-year concert (Gershwin
in F, of course!) must have angered many of the fine pianists in my
year, for which I apologise, but I had left Huddersfield with a much
better idea of my future, thanks to an assured and energetic training.
As a conductor are you associated with a particular
This is actually a follow on from the question about
training, since one of Northern Ballet Theatre’s then staff conductors
was about to leave (this was about 1994/5) and, thanks to both John
Longstaff (their Head of Music at the time) and John Pryce-Jones (their
Music Director), I began to conduct more and more for the company (I
had started playing piano for them during my second year at university),
finally being appointed as a full-time staff conductor in 1995. My introduction
to the world of ballet had occurred much earlier, playing for a ballet
school for five years during my teens. Funny thing, fate…
I did a very large share of the conducting with the
company during this time, eager to develop and full of enthusiasm. After
three and a half more years I decided to move on, and thought of London
as the place to base myself, it being the epicentre of arts in the country.
During my last season with NBT I had made my first CD – "Brian
Kay’s British Light Music Discoveries" for ASV, with the Royal
Ballet Sinfonia. I seemed to hit it off with them, and, on learning
I had conducted for ballet, they offered me performances of "The
Nutcracker" with Birmingham Royal Ballet at the end of that year.
This then led to a current association with this fine orchestra, in
the ballet pit, occasionally on the concert platform, but mainly in
the recording studio.
The funny thing is I form associations with many orchestras
(the joke being "Gavin is always invited to conduct the orchestra
at least twice – the second time to apologise!") – a recent one
being with the Australian Pops Philharmonic Orchestra, for whom I’ve
arranged and conducted a lot. I also became associated with the Royal
New Zealand Ballet, and have conducted significantly for them. My associations
are always truly meant, and strong bonds are often important to maintain
a stability in a hectic life such as mine.
Given a free hand which ten works .. previously unrecorded
would you want to record. and why in each case?
- Three Rivers Fantasy by Arthur Wilkinson – as a child I adored this
piece, played as it was at the start of the day’s transmission on
Tyne-Tees Television. A bright and joyous celebration of North Eastern
folksongs and tunes, the printed music is sadly lost (like so many
works). I have reconstructed it, along with TV startup pieces from
the other ITV regions, for an ongoing project to record all of them
on CD. They really do reflect a cross-section of the biggest names
in British Music.
- The Mansell Concerto by Kenneth Leslie Smith – I came upon this
piece during my early years as a radio listener (we had Radio 2 on
until about 3 then the television was turned on – what better musical
upbringing could a person have?) with the late Bob Docker and the
BBC Concert Orchestra, and found it really fascinating, with some
lovely harmonic shifts.
- Symphony by Eric Rogers – I found this score amongst Eric’s papers
whilst researching "The Carry On Album" and it looks a most
impressive piece. I must say that we are actually going to record
this in September, so slowly but surely the ambition gets there!
- Westward Ho! by Hastings Mann – Similar reasoning to (1), but used
for the (then) Westward TV area during the 1960s.
- Devonshire Dances by Paul Lewis – I don’t think these have been
properly recorded (they’ve certainly been performed a lot) but I am
an enormous fan of Paul’s music (and we remain close friends) and
these sparkling pieces for harp and chamber orchestra are really beautifully
worked. Paul’s gift for melody must come from the need in library
music to establish the mood, right from bar one. A rare talent.
- The Phoenix Tree by Philip Lane – Philip has been, without a doubt,
the single most important person in my career thus far. His production
skills are fantastic, and we’ve developed a real rapport in the studio
and away from work too. I am a very big fan of his music, since it
always screams optimism! His choral and orchestral writing has been
long acknowledged as excellent, and this piece, written for performance
by Aled Jones in 1990, is exemplary.
- Fantasia on "Auld Lang Syne" by Ernest Tomlinson – It
was Ernest that brought Philip and I together in the first place,
and for that I’m eternally grateful. Added to that I’ve always enjoyed
Ernest’s music and the generosity and warmth of his spirit. I first
heard this piece in a concert conducted by my old friend John Wilson
at the Royal College of Music, and was captivated by just how many
tunes fit with the New Year anthem, and each other! There is also
a version for two pianos (and, most importantly, two turner-overs!)
but I’d dearly love to commit this piece to disc as it is a work of
- Pastorale Montage by Gideon Fagan – This piece is actually recorded
on an old Chappell music library disc, but was used as music for one
of the old BBC TV Interlude films, depicting a slowly turning windmill.
A gorgeous miniature which fitted the pictures so well.
- London Medley by Arthur Wilkinson – written for the interval of
the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest from the Albert Hall, and conducted
by Norrie Paramor, this piece is delightful and very approachable.
It also continues with my interest in Arthur Wilkinson and was in
fact composed in the last year of his life – a warning to workaholic
- Selection from "Over She Goes" (Billy Mayerl, arr. George
Zalva (Cruikshank)). I had known Billy Mayerl’s music for many years
as a pianist, but had little idea that he had written songs and musicals
also. This musical starred the wonderful Stanley Lupino, a comedian
whose work I was introduced to by one of my best friends, Martin Fenton.
Typical of show selections, it actually does heighten a lot of fine
tunes with exquisite nuance of orchestration – something lost in some
arrangements these days.
What would be your advice to a person considering conducting
as a career?
Go for it. The business is so diverse now that there
are so many different avenues to pursue. Alongside the problem of gaining
experience comes the fact that orchestral musicians can come over as
the biggest cynics in the world. The only way to handle them is to be
yourself and be clear. Technique can be taught, but people skills only
come with trial and error.
You have touched on this a little already but what
qualities are necessary in a great conductor?
This ties in with the previous question – being down
to earth, energetic and enthusiastic, being able to breathe with the
orchestra (Henry Wood often said that the best conductors would be string
players – I rather disagree, as breathing in phrasing comes far more
naturally with the techniques of a wind player). Along with this comes
all the stick technique you can muster in back up to keeping things
calm and easy to follow – all the greats had this gift.
What is your attitude to the recording studio?
One of my favourite working environments. The focus
of concentration every time the light goes on is a feeling I adore.
To know that at the end of a session your thumbprint is on every piece
on that disc (or soundtrack, or whatever). The other thing is consistency.
The preferred method of working for the discs I’ve done is to try and
get down two complete takes, then go back and cover any "patches"
that may need tightening. To do this one must feel the music since if
a patch is to be dropped in to a track the tempi must match, as must
the feel. The many discs I’ve done with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in
particular are blessed by such fine playing and a really comfortable
atmosphere in the studio that rehearsal can be kept on the economical
side. When things start running against the clock, though, and we are
pushed for time, the whole attitude shifts to sorting things out immediately
in the most time-saving way possible, whilst trying to keep calm.
How did you become involved with ASV and other record
It started with Ernest Tomlinson bringing Philip Lane
and I together in late 1996. I possessed the scores to the "Carry
On" films and Philip, already well respected as a record producer,
told me he was keen to record a disc of them. We met for the first time
at his house in Cheltenham, and further discussions took place in London,
Bath and even in a hotel in Batley! The record companies he had tried
thought the idea too parochial and so the idea was shelved for a while.
Meanwhile Philip had began work on a series of British Light Music discs
for ASV. I think Kenneth Alwyn wasn’t available, and Philip, having
seen my work on the ballet podium and knowing my love of light music,
asked me if I was available. Thus it was that I took two days off work
at NBT (the first I had taken off in three years) to go to London and
record the disc (this was April 1998). One disc led to another, which
led to another, and so on…"The
Carry On Album" finally got made in February 1999!
What are your recording plans?
I’ve just done a disc of Matthew Curtis’s music (my
30th disc made to date) with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia at
Whitfield Street in London (with a man of whom I must make special mention
– Mike Ross-Trevor, award-winning and highly respected recording engineer,
and above all a very nice guy!) and then I made the cast recording of
my musical "Little Women" (which enjoyed a short run at the
Bloomsbury Theatre during July). The next projects are a further volume
of British String Miniatures (I think it’s Volume 3 or 4!) and an interesting
disc of the works of British film composers, but works they wrote for
the concert hall. We feature works by Leighton Lucas, Bruce Montgomery,
Anthony Collins, Eric Rogers and others. Other discs planned for the
future include the music of Montague Phillips, Charles Williams, a tantalising
disc known at the minute by the working title "The Denham Concertos"
after the famous film studios (pieces written very much with the success
of the "Warsaw Concerto" in the film "Dangerous Moonlight"
in mind) , a possible disc of the music of Angela Morley, oh, and Carry
On volume two!
Have you been steered away from some composers by record
Not really. The record companies listen to people such
as Philip, with his thorough research of suitable works for balanced
discs, and his astute business skills make their recording viable.
....Or to some composers by record companies
Safest to say "see above"!
What would be your ten desert island CDs and why?
Dream of Gerontius conducted by Sir John Barbirolli – simple –
my favourite choral piece, my favourite conductor.
- "The Great British Experience" – an EMI compilation by
David Ades that is a real bedrock disc for any light music collector.
- "The Sound Gallery" – it’s not all 40s and 50s
light music that I like, you know!
- "Brian Kay’s British Light Discoveries" – partly to remind
me of that very first session, partly because of the moving nature
of some of the pieces we recorded, like Maurice Johnstone’s "Tarn
Hows" and the beautiful "Little Suite" of Richard Rodney
- "The Carl Stalling Project" – all film and cartoon music
fascinates me – the intricacies of it leave me spellbound at times.
Stalling was the master, and his witty scores always make me chuckle.
- That Conifer double-disc set of the music of Robert Farnon – another
hero, with such a genial style that any light music lover can only
marvel at his gifts.
Music Festivals – A sense of humour in music, whether in the writing
or in the performance, is very important to me. I love to laugh, and
I think light music has to "smile" – there was no one more
keen to see it do so than cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung.
- Any disc by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 – I also like Latin music,
and the sultry pulse of the bossa nova. Mendes’ arrangements were
fantastic and provoke a really exciting reaction in my body.
- Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys – perfect production values, beautiful
songs, excellent performances.
- ANY CD of Eric
Coates – for preference I’d have to say the first of Malcolm Nabarro’s
series on ASV, as the performance of the "London Suite"
is the best I have ever heard.
Oh, and my luxury would be a bag of crisps! GS
Reviews on MusicWeb
LANE (b. 1950) Orchestral Music
London Salute [3.08] Diversions on a Theme of Paganini [13.40] Cotswold
Dances [14.53] Divertissement for clarinet, harp and strings* [9.49]
Three Christmas Pictures [11.41] A Maritime Overture [7.58]
Three Nautical Miniatures for strings [8.33] Prestbury Park [3.16] *Verity
Butler, Clarinet Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Gavin Sunderland
Recorded in the Henry Wood Hall, London, 19 21 February, 2001
MARCO POLO 8.225185 [72.57]
British Light Music Discoveries.
Music by Sir Malcolm Arnold, Philip Lane, William Blezard, Eric Fenby,
Raymond Warren, Adrian Cruft, Anthony Hedges, Paul Lewis and Arthur
Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland
ASV CD WHL 2126 [74:08]
LIGHT MUSIC DISCOVERIES 4:
John RUTTER: Partita Richard Rodney BENNETT: Suite Française.
Malcolm ARNOLD: Padstow Lifeboat March. David FANSHAWE: Fantasy on Dover
Castle. William BLEZARD: Battersea Park Suite. Michael HURD: Dance Diversions.
Paul LEWIS: A Miniature Symphony Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland.
ASV CD WHL 2131 [67.00?] Midprice
Light Overtures William
BLEZARD (b.1921) Caramba (1966) Stanley BLACK (b.1913) Overture to a
Costume Comedy (1955) James LANGLEY (1927-1994) Overture and Beginners
(1965) Thomas DUNHILL (1877-1946) Tantivy Towers Overture (1931) arr
P. Lane Herbert CHAPPELL (b.1934) Boy Wizard (2001) Walter CARROLL (1869-1955)
Festive Overture Michael HURD (b.1928) Overture to an Unwritten Comedy
(1970) Lionel MONCKTON (1861-1924) The Arcadians (1909) arr A. Wood
Philip LANE (b.1950) A Spa Overture (1982) Thomas PITFIELD (1903-1999)
Concert Overture (1950) Paul LEWIS (b.1943) Sussex Symphony Overture
(2000) Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland rec 21-23 Feb 2001, Henry
Wood Hall, London recorded with financial support from the Ida Carroll
Trust ASV CD WHL 2133 [66.27]
Flute Concerto op.220. Symphony No.3 in E minor op.189. Sinfonia Piccola
for Strings op.47. Irish Suite op.231. Half Holiday - Overture op.52.
Prelude for Strings op.148a.
Jennifer Stinton (flute) Royal Ballet Sinfonia Gavin Sutherland.
ASV CD WHL 2125. (62' 46'')
Works RTE Concert Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland
MARCO POLO British Light Music 8.225161
No. 1; Three Seascapes. City of Prague Philharmonic OrchestraGavin Sutherland.
ASC CD CS 38
(1903 - 1946)Concert Overture: The Feast of St. Benedict (1934) Ballet
of the Wood Creatures ((1939) Wessex Suite (1937) Suite: Music for Orchestra
(1941) Come along Marnie (1938) Susan, the Doggie and Me (1938) Holiday
Suite (1938/39) Balloon Ballet (1938) March: Dignity and Impudence (1932/33)
Malcolm Riley: organ RTE Concert Orchestra; conducted by Gavin Sutherland
Rec. 4th & 5th February 2000 at O'Reilly Hall, University College,
Dublin MARCO POLO 8.225162 [71.48]
Festival March Suite; Alice through the Looking-Glass Suite; The Toy
Cart Overture; The Taming of the Shrew Suite; 1066 and All That Suite
of five dances from The Duenna Overture for a Comedy The Sirens of Southend
Swiss Lullaby and Ballet from Swiss Family Robinson Suite; Marriage
a la Mode Three Pieces for Theatre; (i) Overture to Much Ado about Nothing
(ii) Entracte from The Critic (iii) Mascarade from The Merchant
of Venice Royal Ballet Sinfonietta
Gavin Sutherland Recorded Whitfield Street Studios, London December
MARCO POLO BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC 8.225184 
BASSOON CONCERTOS Eric FOGG (1903-1939) Bassoon Concerto (1930)
Bassoon Concertino (1998) John ADDISON (1920-1998) Peter HOPE (b.1930)
Bassoon Concertino (2000) Arthur BUTTERWORTH (b.1923) Summer Music (1985)
Graham Salvage (bassoon) Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland (Butterworth
conducted by composer) Rec 26/27 Feb 2001, Whitfield Street Studios,
London ASV CD WHL 2132 [75.21]
Recorder Music Music
by Philip Lane, Sir Malcolm Arnold, Thomas Pitfield,Edward Gregson,
David Lyon ,Ian Parrott and Alan Bullard John Turner (recorders) Royal
Ballet Sinfonia cond: Edward Gregson/Gavin Sutherland Olympia OCD 667
BERNERS (1883-1950) Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (1923) Fanfare
(1931) Caprice Péruvien (1938)Viceroy: Ian Caddy (bar) Martinez:
Alexander Oliver (ten) Balthasar: John Winfield (ten) La Périchole:
Cynthia Buchan (sop) Thomas d'Esquivel: Thomas Lawlor (bass) Bishop
of Lima: Anthony Smith (bass) BBC Scottish SO/Nicholas Cleobury (Carrosse)rec
Glasgow 16 Aug 1983Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland (Fanfare)rec
London 15 Sept 1999RTE Sinfonietta/David Lloyd-Jones (Caprice)rec Dublin
10 Jan 1995 MARCO POLO 8.225155 [79.17]
MONTGOMERY and Eric ROGERS - THE CARRY ON ALBUM -Music
by from the Carry On films 1958-1975 (Camping, Sergeant, Teacher, Nurse,
Cabby, Cleo, Jack, Behind, Convenience, Khyber, Doctor, Doctor Again)
City of Prague PO/Gavin Sutherland ASV CD-WHL 2119 (51:12)