Interview with Sir Mark Elder at Manchester in November 2011
by Michael Cookson.
ďIíve always assumed that the singers would be
grateful not to have to do it all in one go because many of
the roles are so taxing.Ē Sir Mark Elder
Part 1: Wagner and other Operas and Musicals
1.1 Opera Concert Performances and Semi-Staged Operas with
1.2 Concert Performances of Wagner Operas
1.3 The Situation at Opera Rara
1.4 French Grand Opera - Meyerbeer; Donizetti; Rossini; Verdi
1.5 Hallť to Play Bernsteinís Wonderful Town at
Lowry Theatre, Salford
Sir Mark Elder, photo Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder CBE is the pre-eminent, home grown conductor
based in Britain today. It was good of Sir Mark to agree to
the interview at his Manchester apartment. I can only hazard
a guess at the constraints Sir Markís diary must place on his
available time. The previous evening Sir Mark had conducted
his Hallť Orchestra at Manchesterís Bridgewater Hall in a programme
of Vaughan Williamsís Symphony No. 5 and Elgarís Cockaigne
overture with the DvorŠk Wind Serenade directed by
Now in his twelfth season as music director Sir Mark has had
great success in rebuilding the Hallť Orchestraís international
reputation. From his first concert as music director in 2000
the Hallť under Sir Mark has gone from strength to strength.
The partnership achieved a double success in the 2010 Gramophone
Awards winning both the Opera and Concerto categories
with their live recording of Wagnerís GŲtterdämmerung
and the Elgar Violin Concerto with soloist Thomas Zehetmair.
Another success for Sir Mark and the Hallť has just been announced
with the 2011 Gramophone Award for Elgarís The Kingdom in
the Choral category. Hallé
Opera is a clear passion for Sir Mark who said that he discovered
opera in the late sixties whilst still a student at Cambridge
University where he would attend productions at Covent Garden.
After university, as a protťgť of Sir Edward Downes, he cut
his teeth conducting opera at the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
Later from 1979 he became music director of English National
Opera, a post he held for 14 years. Sir Mark appears regularly
in a number of international opera houses; in particular the
Royal Opera House London, the Metropolitan Opera New York, and
the Opťra National de Paris. He became the first British conductor
to conduct a new production at the Bayreuth Festival. Sir Markís
enthusiasm for English music is well known with each Hallť concert
season including a number of works by composers from these shores.
I cannot think of another conductor around today with a profile
as high as Sir Mark who programmes as many works by English
In recent months Sir Mark has been an integral part of the much
talked about BBC 4 flagship series Symphony presented
by Simon Russell Beale. As well as commenting eruditely on this
musical journey charting the history of the symphony Sir Mark
has been conducting the Hallť Orchestra, the Orchestra of the
Age of Enlightenment and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
1.1 Opera Concert Performances and Semi-Staged Operas
with the Hallť
MC: After performing Wagnerís GŲtterdämmerung
and Die WalkŁre are there any future plans for more opera
concert performances by the Hallť? Or even another semi-staged
opera like Verdiís Falstaff that you did a few years
ME: To semi-stage an opera requires considerably more
time to do than a concert performance of an opera. The operas
that we have been doing recently have been Wagnerian. We did
GŲtterdämmerung and Die WalkŁre and we may
do more Wagner in 2013. Because 2013 is his anniversary, the
bicentenary of Wagnerís birth. Yes, we did semi-stage Falstaff
some years ago now and itís possible to do it if the orchestra
isnít too large; so that leaves you space on the stage. Falstaff
was written for a classical orchestra whilst the Wagner scores
almost all of them are written for much larger forces; so you
just donít have the space. And for these long operas you need
more time. The non Wagner ones are generally much shorter and
of course they are very expensive to put on at the moment. The
budgets that we are all surviving under have been cut back and
cut back. We have to be very careful how we use the little money
that weíve got. But I hope that it will be possible to find
MC: So you remain hopeful?
ME: Yes, yes.
MC: But nothing has been formalised?
ME: Nothing that I am able to talk about at this stageÖ
what can I say!
1.2 Concert Performances of Wagner Operas
MC: Iím thinking back to the Hallťís concert performances
of the Wagner operas. Does the concept work of dividing the
work over two nights?
ME: I think that it depends on your previous knowledge
of the work. Iíve seen the pieces for such a long time that
Iím used to the length thatís involved, the concentration and
the energy you need to listen. I thought that on both these
occasions, generally speaking, that it did work. GŲtterdämmerungís
first act is so long and so demanding. The idea is that
we do the performances not too late at night so that people
have a chance to travel after itís finished. As the performances
are concentrated into these two days it makes an interesting
visit for people from London or elsewhere in the country who
have travelled up to Manchester. It makes the travelling back
afterwards much easier.
MC: Would you ever consider doing the whole Wagner opera
on a single night?
ME: Oh sure. Sure we would consider it. But the feedback
and the actual idea seem to have captured peopleís imagination
and we have the feeling that it was a success.
MC: On the other hand I feel that some people might not
have liked the idea of travelling into Manchester two nights
running for one opera. But Iím glad it was a success. Would
you continue with the idea again?
ME: Well only if it was long enough to do, such as the
whole of Tristan und Isolde, we might do it over two
nights. I donít know. You see the orchestra here is a wonderful
orchestra but of course the stamina required to play these scores
if you havenít done them before in one go is enormous. I think
that the orchestra felt it was helpful for their energy levels
to think. Right, Iím coming in, Iím going to play this one
act for two and a half hours and then tomorrow we are going
to do the other two acts. So it will keep them fresh. However,
some of the singers said to me that they preferred to do it
all at once, as they were up and running they preferred to finish
MC: Iím not surprised that once they are fully prepared
and actually on the stage, as soon as their voices had warmed
up and acclimatised they wanted to carry on.
ME: Yes, and that might be a good reason to do it all
in one go. Iíve always assumed that the singers would be grateful
not to have to do it all in one go because many of the roles
are so taxing.
MC: I recall reading recently where you talk at length
about there being so few Wagnerian singers around. The best
ones must be in constant demand?
ME: Thatís true. There are so few around that they are
mainly booked up for years.
1.3 The Situation at Opera Rara
MC: Iíd like to ask you about the situation at the record
company Opera Rara. The financing from the Peter Moores Foundation
has now stopped so how does that affect your involvement with
ME: Well the fact that Iím involved at all is because
with the death six years ago of Patric Schmid, Opera Rara is
having to reinvent itself. [Note: Patric Schmid co-founded
Opera Rara] Also the repertoire they do has always interested
me; the Italian operas particularly. Without Patric at the head
of the organisation, because he founded it, he did everything;
you actually need to replace Patric with a number of people.
You canít have just one person. I didnít have the time to do
everything that Patric did and Iím not a musicologist. So it
means that the whole Opera Rara organisation has to come together
and we needed to find people to fill all these different roles
and make it into a fully fledged organisation with fundraisers
for the first time in the organisationís history. Because Peter
Mooreís great generosity kept it all going for years. He put
in hundreds of thousands a year. So itís a huge, huge issue.
At the moment we are trying to find out whether or not we can
survive with my artistic directorship and Roger Parker the professor
of music at Kingís College, London who is a Donizetti specialist,
and someone to help with the casting and two people to help
fundraise and build up the office. Now itís a difficult time
to do it. But my impression is that there are people who would
support Opera Raraís projects rather than supporting other different
types of music and we just have to find these people and try
to impress them and inspire them in supporting what I want do.
MC: I can sense your passion for the rare and forgotten
ME: O yeah, when they are good. The one we have just
put out on Opera Rara is Maria di Rohan one of Donizettiís
most mature pieces. Link:
MC: Iím sure that Maria di Rohan will be a new
name for many opera lovers.
ME: Yes, it will be. However, it was staged this summer
at the Buxton festival.
Sir Mark Elder at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,
photo Laurie Lewis
1.4 French Grand Opera - Meyerbeer; Donizetti; Rossini;
Verdi and Wagner
MC: Iím very interested in French Grand Opera, especially
the early period when Paris was dominated by Meyerbeer, Halťvy
and Auber. These composers exploded on the scene in Paris in
the early 1830s and were the pop stars of their day. But today
their works are rarely heard and almost never staged.
ME: Yes, itís interesting isnít it.
MC: Iím just thinking of those operas that achieved the
most stagings at LíOpera in Paris. Meyerbeerís Les
Huguenots had over eleven-hundred Paris performances, then
there is his Robert le diable, Le ProphŤte
and LíAfricaine. Thereís Halťvyís La Juive, Auberís
La muette de Portici and Thomasís Hamlet just
to name the most successful ones. Probably the only exception
being Rossiniís William Tell which as you know is sometimes
revived and has been recently recorded by Antonio Pappano.
ME: The equivalent nowadays Michael is the musicals of
Andrew Lloyd Webber. Where the mixture of the particular story
and the lyrics, the tunes, the way he sets the whole musical
idea, not just the songs but the bits in-between, and the lavishness,
the stage effects of the production; that is what Meyerbeer
really perfected. Meyerbeer was clever, a really astute man.
The son of a Jewish banker in Berlin he was very eclectic. Meyerbeer
learned a lot from the Italian traditions, he realised what
the Parisian public would like from his time living and working
in Italy. He had the German sense of the big scale.
MC: Meyerbeer was marvellous at marketing himself and
his music too.
ME: Absolutely brilliant. Yes, he took all his critics
out on the night before the premiŤres. Bought them dinner and
made sure they gave good reviews.
MC: Those must have been wonderful days for French Grand
Opera, in spite of all those rather dubious goings-on with the
claque. There was the epic, serious, often historical
scope of the libretto, the lavishness of the sets; the entrepreneurship
of Louis Vťron; the extended length of the operas; the active
choruses and necessity for the inclusion of a ballet.
ME: Thatís right because of the taste. And this whole
question about Opera Rara and the repertoire over the last three
hundred years is to a huge extent connected to the taste of
the country; the taste of the city sometimes; the taste of the
period. And how our taste has changed; what we enjoy. Itís very,
very difficult to make one line through it all. I have come
at that Grand Opera through Donizetti and Verdi. Verdi first
wrote Jťrusalem for Paris which is a re-write of I
Lombardi; itís a very good opera. He re-wrote Il trovatore
as Le trouvŤre and changed it a bit and as you say
put in the ballet.
MC: Yes, he knew one had to have the ballet to appease
the requirements of the Paris Jockey club.
ME: And Wagner got that wrong didnít he with Tannhäuser?
He knew he needed a ballet in the second act but he thought
he would get away with itÖ Les vÍpres siciliennes is
another one; much better performed in French than in Italian.
Don Carlos is too in my view but itís just very difficult
to find French singers. Itís difficult to do these works in
French really beautifully. One of the first Donizetti operas
that I recorded was his last opera Dom Sťbastien which
was him absolutely trying to beat Meyerbeer at his own game.
Itís a terrific opera; itís got very, very striking scenes in
it, full of grand and memorable music. Link: http://www.opera-rara.com/
MC: Has Dom Sťbastien been staged in recent years?
ME: No it hasnít been staged. You would need a theatre
that was really passionate about doing it. Iíve just been in
Paris doing Tannhäuser and Iíve often wondered if
I ought to talk to the Paris Opera about whether or not they
would consider doing it. Because it was written for them.
MC: Was it for commercial reasons that Dom Sťbastien
hasnít been given for so long?
ME: Sometimes in the theatre world Michael itís actually
the way pieces are staged that may make the difference between
it being a commercial success or a commercial failure. This
is where the taste aspect comes in. Robert Wilson for instance,
the American director, has had success for some years now in
Paris with the very refined, beautifully lit productions that
he likes. They donít really go down well in London at all. In
Paris they did his Magic Flute and I conducted his Pellťas
et Mťlisande some years ago at the Garnier theatre in Paris
and I donít get it. He did a Frau ohne Schatten at the
Opťra Bastille and Iíve lasted one act. What he does is so refined
and so beautiful that itís another form of entertainment. Paris
is the city that invented perfume and their French cooking.
This refined cultural activity is something that they have always
MC: Itís infused in their character. We are so close
to each other in proximity but British and French taste can
be so very different.
ME: Yes, thatís right... I would really like to try some
of these French Grand operas. Iíve studied Meyerbeerís Robert
le Diable a lot and I would really like to do that. I donít
really think itís worth doing now if you wanted to record them
unless you do them complete. Because they have never had a chance
to be assessed complete. We know Meyerbeer cut them but I sense
from studying Robert le Diable his command of the big
forms. Because each act doesnít have many numbers, but each
number is very broad in its construction. And if you start taking
out little bits itís like how do you define the human body beautiful
if itís only got one arm or one leg. Itís tricky. I think itís
time that someone did some Meyerbeer and did it full on, one
hundred percent. But now - in a recession?
MC: Meyerbeer certainly finds it hard to get a foothold
in the repertoire today. Wagnerís anti-Semitic attacks on him
affected his reputation.
ME: There is that of course. My view is that he had everything
apart from the talent to be a great melodist. His tunes, most
of his tunes are not as good as Verdiís.
MC: I fully agree. But in each of his most successful
operas there are two or three really fine extended scenes that
are most dramatic. That also goes for many of the other successful
grand opera composers of the day.
ME: That is absolutely true. But the ones that survive
and the ones that fall down, for our time now, donít necessarily
equate to the ones that need to be heard. The most outstanding
example I can think of in recent times was about twenty years
ago when I did the British premiŤre of the opera Ermione
which is the Italian word for Hermione by Rossini.
We did two London concerts with the Orchestra of the Age of
Enlightenment. If you look into the history books Ermione
is just dismissed because it was only given two performances
because the public of the day couldnít get it. He didnít give
them what they were expecting, it was very unconventional and
so they were disappointed and they thought the music wasnít
good. They booed it, it was just a disaster. But if you donít
read all that and just get a score and study it yourself; as
I did. I became completely gripped by it and I could see the
potential to make it exciting. So we did it and everyone was
incredibly moved by the piece. We thought, how can we not know
this opera? Well a month ago the Opera Rara recording of Ermione
that my friend and colleague David Parry conducted won a Gramophone
award. The work is now absolutely established as an important
tragic Rossini opera. Glyndebourne decided to have a go at it
and did it after the performances that I did. Itís been done
a bit in Italy but this is the first really good recording and
it won a Gramophone award; itís wonderful. Link: http://www.opera-rara.com/
1.5 Hallť to play Bernsteinís Wonderful
Town at Lowry Theatre, Salford.
MC: Iím fascinated that the Hallť is to perform Bernsteinís
ME: Yes, for the first time we are taking the orchestra
into the pit this Easter at the Lowry Theatre at Salford. Iím
collaborating with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Wonderful
MC: Yes, the Leonard Bernstein musical that will star
Connie Fisher. But a musical, not an opera?
ME: Yes but itís a great, great piece. This orchestra,
as you probably know, swings better than most English orchestras.
It does an enormous amount of American music at Pops concerts;
that sort of thing, like the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Sir Mark Elder, Connie Fisher at the Wonderful Town launch,
photo Ben Blackall.
MC: Do you really need a top ranked symphony orchestra
to play music that is normally played by a pit orchestra?
ME: Yeah, a pit orchestra absolutely. Well yes and no.
After we do the three weeks here at the Salford Lowry the whole
show is going to go on a national tour with a much smaller orchestra
conducted by a great friend of mine my assistant Jamie Burton.
Itís going to go on a national tour for three months and that
will be in a more usual format. But because weíve got a large
pit here in Salford and Iíve wanted the Hallť to do something
different like that. And I think they will enjoy it. Iíll have
quite a good string section there and all the wind players that
you see will be from the Hallť.
MC: It should be great. I hope to report on it. Iím looking
forward to it tremendously.
ME: So the sound should be really special and we hope
to attract attention through that.
ďYou have to believe donít you? You have to believe
in what you do!Ē Mark Elder
Part 2: English Music
2.1 Elgar Oratorios and their Debt to Parsifal
2.2 Neglect of English Music in Concert Programmes
2.3 The Relative Merits of Sir Malcolm Arnold and Sir Michael
2.4 Sir Simon Rattle Programming English Music in Berlin
2.5 Elgar Symphonies
Sir Mark Elder, credit Simon Dodd
2.1 Elgar Oratorios and their Debt to Parsifal
MC: I canít thank you enough for championing English
music both in the concert hall and in the recording studio.
ME: Iím the only English conductor of an English symphony
MC: Yet, Iíve seen a press comment about you conducting
Elgarís The Kingdom at every opportunity; as if this
was wrong. I felt it was unwarranted and I was wondering what
you made of it?
ME: Four years ago I conducted The Kingdom for
the first time in my life on my sixtieth birthday. Two years
ago now I conducted it here again Manchester, we recorded it
and that recording won a Gramophone award as you know. Last
year I conducted it again at the Barbican. So Iíve conducted
the work three times in four years.
MC: Three times in four years doesnít feel obsessional
to me. (ME: No) Of course once you get to know the score
it becomes easier to do the next time.
ME: Yes, because you do it better. Thatís the point.
MC: All the preparation has been done.
ME: Itís like laying down a wine and not drinking it
too young. Every time I conduct it thereís more richness there,
more understanding. I know how to get the players with me to
do it more beautifully. I know what the problems are. These
oratorios of ElgarÖ well Iíve lived with The Dream of Gerontius
all my life. It was an A level set work when I was a school
boy. I didnít understand it then but the music has lived with
me all my life. Whereas the music of The Kingdom and
The Apostles has not. I took ages to decide whether or
not I could do them. Now next year we are going to do The
MC: They are much overshadowed by Gerontius.
ME: Yes they are overshadowed by Gerontius for
reasons one can talk about if you had the time to compare them.
Basically itís because of the narrative. The journey that happens
in Gerontius is one that everybody can immediately relate
to. It comes over very strongly. The path, the journey that
the soul makes to death and after death is a story, is a narrative
idea that everybody can relate to. The music of course is, I
think, absolutely wonderful. Some people, even dear friends
of mine, think that there are weaker moments in it. But as a
conductor I donít know where those are.
MC: So you canít identify those so called weaker moments?
ME: No I canít. In Gerontius I never get to the
point where I think, ehm, he didnít work hard enough at that
MC: Maybe an audience doesnít have the concentration
and insight that the conductor has to have?
ME: Thatís right, to get the organic flow in the music.
Now The Kingdom is more meditative than Gerontius.
They both have a slight amount of narrative but really the form
of the work is more narrative. And the words are taken piecemeal
from all through the Gospels; indeed some of the Old Testament
too. You have to find the line through it and that makes it
less immediately powerful for the public. But I think what he
left us with The Kingdom is a great, great work. Itís
important to remember that Wagnerís Parsifal was a huge
influence on him and he went to Bayreuth twice or was it three
times in the years after Parsifal was premiŤred?
MC: Itís remarkable just how many composers from all
over Europe were attracted to Bayreuth at that time. I know
that Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Stanford attended Bayreuth
more than once.
ME: Thatís right, that first Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in
1876 must have been an amazing event. But whatís really important
is whether people want to share this journey that Iím trying
to make with this music. The last time I did The Kingdom
it was with the London Symphony Orchestra and it was sold
MC: You see a real demand from the public for this music?
ME: Yes, if you can unlock the secrets. Weíll do The
Apostles here at the Bridgwater next spring.
MC: Is this the first time?
ME: Yes we havenít done it before. Itís been cast for
ages. We have to work two years ahead.
2.2 Neglect of English Music in Concert Programmes
MC: Iíd like to ask you about the broader subject of
English music. Recently I was at a concert and they played Rachmaninovís
First Piano Concerto. A fine work from the teenage composer
but not as melodic or memorable as his Second Concerto and
not as challenging or as dramatic as his Third Concerto.
This got me thinking how many English piano concertos would
have been just as worthy for inclusion in the concert programme.
Narrowing the field down to the Royal College of Music alone
I can think of John Irelandís Piano Concerto; there are
also Howellís two Piano Concertos; then the Parry Piano
Concerto and two Piano Concertos by Stanford; Iím
also thinking of the Bliss Piano Concerto and also his
Concerto for 2 Pianos. There are Sir Arthur Somervellís
Normandy ĎSymphonic Variationsí and Highland
Concerto and also Frank Bridgeís Phantasm. All works
that are rarely played; if at all. As you know Stanfordís large
number of pupils at the Royal College wrote in most genres and
with the exception of the works from Ralph Vaughan Williams
and Holst most are totally ignored; laying forgotten. Of these
there will be many worthy works that never get a chance in the
ME: Of course, I understand your point. Last night we
did Elgarís Cockaigne overture and Vaughan Williamsís
Symphony No. 5. It would have been fine by me to have
done Irelandís Piano Concerto as well but the audience
would have been substantially smaller. [Note: John Ireland
was born in Bowdon near Altrincham just eleven or so miles away
from Manchesterís Bridgewater Hall.]
MC: Last night English music was well served by yourself
and the Hallť. I certainly acknowledge that you do more than
your fair share. But Iím concerned about getting other conductors
and orchestras to follow your lead and play more English music.
I cannot imagine countries such as Germany and France neglecting
music by their home grown composers to the extent we do in England.
ME: But then you have to have English musicians conducting.
Itís very rare for a non-British music director or non-British
conductor to really believe in a piece of English music. Iím
not saying that it doesnít happen, it does happen all the time.
Cristian Mandeal is Romanian, he conducts the Hallť each year
and he loves Vaughan Williams. He has done some performances
of British music and I think that is very exciting. I find the
Russians like British music too. Evgeny Svetlanov who was a
great conductor took the London Symphony Chorus and English
soloists to Moscow and did The Dream of Gerontius. But
I suspect your point is slightly different; it is how can more
English works begin to be part of our repertoire? You see the
Rachmaninov First Piano Concerto that you heard is a
popular piece and people feel comfortable seeing it on a programme.
This is a brilliant virtuoso concerto by a famous virtuoso.
Rachmaninov has great appeal to the public. But of course I
understand your point that there is a lot of music that is just
as worthy. Thatís one of the reasons why a few years ago I recorded
Baxís Spring Fire with the Hallť. Itís a masterpiece
a huge orchestral piece. Itís on the CD that we brought out
titled English Spring. Details
MC: Yes itís a splendid recording. Those Bax symphonic
poems are superb works they have all been recorded but are hardly
heard in the concert hall. Youíre saying that there is nothing
to prevent other orchestras programming more English music but
there are not enough orchestras that have English music directors.
Then there is the financial side to consider also.
ME: You see when programming such works our director
of marketing at the Hallť would say thatís a lovely programme
and Iím looking forward to it already if thatís what you want
to do. But you must understand that you will have three-hundred
less people in the audience than if you did a more popular work.
Now the difficult job of planning the concert season with an
orchestra is how to balance that and itís perfectly possible
to say, Iím going to do say for example Winter Legends by
Arnold Bax and not Beethovenís Fourth Concerto because
weíve all heard the Beethoven so often letís do something different.
But then you have to recognise that not so many people will
be as confident about enjoying the concert enough to buy the
tickets. So you have to budget that concert lower. Now thatís
fine, and we do that every year, we budget it lower, but youíve
got to know that later on down the line you have concerts that
you have to budget higher to make up for it. Do you see what
I mean? Otherwise you are going to be out of pocket.
MC: So when planning a seasonís programme you cannot
let your heart rule your head.
ME: Right. Itís getting the right balance between business
and artistic vision.
MC: Just looking down a list of Stanfordís composition
pupils at the Royal College of Music I can see over thirty of
them. Some of their music is now being recorded but is still
virtually ignored in the concert hall.
ME: The fact that a lot of this music is recorded now
is great. It leads to people like yourself being passionate
about it but it also gives the planning part of the music profession
more confidence to schedule it in concert programmes. Iím the
only conductor in the world who conducts Baxís Spring Fire;
I know because there is only one set of parts and Iíve got
2.3 The Relative Merits of Sir Malcolm Arnold and Sir
MC: Thatís really admirable for the cause of English
music. I just wish there were more conductors willing to venture
into this area. Maybe others will follow your lead? Recently
there was festival of music by Sir Malcolm Arnold where all
his symphonies were performed. It was held in Northampton to
celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of his birth and they used
amateur orchestras. I was wondering what your view is of Malcolm
ME: Every few years someone says to me that I ought to
listen to this piece by Malcolm Arnold either this symphony
or this concerto whatever. I listen and it doesnít mean anything
to me. It just doesnít get to me.
MC: Thatís interesting. The curious case of Malcolm Arnold.
Why do you think that is? Is he not serious enough? Does the
lighter nature of some of the music put you off?
ME: On the contrary. Actually heís a very skilful composer
and the lighter pieces are very good; his sets of Dances
and the Tam OíShanter Overture are very effective pieces.
But when he starts to write something more substantial I just
find a lot of his musical invention weak. Thatís all I can say...
His music just doesnít appeal to me. I think Michael Tippett
is a much greater composer so I would always do a work of his
rather than one of Malcolm Arnold. Nobody plays Tippettís music
MC: No, his music seems very much out of fashion. He
didnít help himself by using contemporary effects for example
in his opera New Year there was break-dancing in the
choreography and trendy Ďstreet talkí of the time.
ME: It dates so quickly doesnít it?
MC: So you have more depth to work with in Tippett than
ME: Yes. I think heís a great mystic; like Vaughan Williams.
I think Michaelís music goes somewhere that very few people
actually get to. But not in all his pieces.
MC: Like many people you find his music uneven in quality?
MC: Which piece of Tippettís do you like in particular?
ME: The Midsummer Marriage is one of the greatest
MC: Iím thinking of that wonderful set of four Ritual
Dances from The Midsummer Marriage.
ME: Yes the Dances but the whole opera which I
have done twice is a great, great piece with a poor libretto.
But then there are lots of great operas with poor librettosÖ
I think King Priam his second opera is a very good piece;
in a very different style. I think the Symphonies are
good; particularly Two and Four. The Piano
Concerto is marvellous and the Concerto for Double String
Orchestra too. I think the Triple Concerto is a pretty
good work but itís hard for the public to get. I gave the first
Chicago performance of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra
with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last year. They absolutely
loved it and it was very, very exciting to do it. I think the
first half of his career produced more lasting music. My feeling
is, although it might seem arrogant of me to say this, is that
Michael lost his way a bit as he went through the sixties and
the last part of his life. The music just doesnít have the same
power actually, although, The Rose Lake is a fine work
and right from the end of his life. The first thing that I did
here in Manchester before I became music director of the Hallť
was his huge oratorio The Mask of Time which is a very,
very fine work. I think he manages to bring off this enormous
piece for the whole evening. The Mask of Time is about
a wide range of subjects through history; itís a whole evening.
Itís a very different piece from the earlier oratorio A Child
of Our Time which lasts for half that time. Itís his most
popular oratorio but Iíve never responded to it. Iím not interested
in it although itís an important work. But The Mask of Time
is a piece of vision. Now I would rather spend time working
on a great Tippett work than a work by Malcolm Arnold for example
but thatís only my taste. You have to believe donít you? You
have to believe in what you do!
2.4 Sir Simon Rattle Programming English Music in Berlin
MC: Itís good to see that Sir Simon Rattle has got English
music in his programme with the Berlin Philharmonic this season.
(ME: Ah, good) Heís already conducted the world premiŤre
Jonathon Harveyís Weltethos and Waltonís First Symphony
has been played by the orchestra. Then thereís Elgarís First
Symphony; The Dream of Gerontius and the Enigma
Variations in there too. I did notice that Sir Simon was
only conducting Weltethos and Enigma himself.
ME: Simon has championed contemporary English music all
his life. Heís done a great deal of commissioning new works.
MC: I sense that his passion is more for introducing
new music these days rather than exploring the English late
ME: I think thatís right. He has done the big pieces
of Elgar and he likes them but I donít think they are as dear
to him as they are to me. Which is fair enough. Iíve spent hours
on those Elgar symphonies. Iíve done them all over the world
and I think they need to be heard and played. The first time
it all seems a bit daunting, long and involved and you canít
quite get it. So you need to go on playing them so people get
used to them. We went to the Bregenzer Festival in Austria this
summer where they perform opera on the lake. My friend David
Pountney runs that festival and I did two concerts there with
the Hallť. The second concert was Elgarís Falstaff and
the First Symphony. The symphony made an enormous impression
on the public and many must have been hearing it for the first
Hallť Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder, photo Joel Chester Fildes
2.5 Elgar Symphonies
MC: On the subject of Elgar I recall reading that you
think the Second Symphony is the stronger of the two.
ME: Both are very great works. I think there is greater
depth and maturity in the whole work of the Second Symphony.
I think that the slow movement of the First Symphony is
one of the greatest things that he wrote. I think that itís
an absolutely amazing achievement, very beautiful and very moving.
But I think there are some weak moments in the two symphonies.
Like the middle of the concert overture In the South
his developments werenít always the best bits. You have to bring
them off and not allow people to think about them. Keep on going
as Elgar did himself when he conducted. I think there are fewer
weaker moments in the Second Symphony. I find the Second
Symphony one of the greatest symphonies ever. You know that
I am doing this television series Symphony for BBC 4.
Well in the last of the four programmes I actually get to Elgarís
Second Symphony; I do two extracts from it with the Hallť.
I think that itís a very important work.
ďAll the time, everyday Iím thinking about how
I can present music to my audience in a way that will interest
them, keep their curiosity and draw in more people.Ē
Sir Mark Elder
Part 3: Attracting and Maintaining Audiences - Broadcasting
3.1 Making Concert Programmes Interesting
3.2 Attracting Young People to Concerts
3.3 Hallť Educational Programme
3.4 Broadcasting Live Concerts and Operas to Cinemas and
Portrait of Sir Mark Elder with kind permission of the artist
3.1 Making Concert Programmes Interesting
MC: If I may Iíd like to ask you about the subject of
making concert programmes more interesting, more inviting. In
September I attended a concert at the Berlin Philharmonie with
Sir Simon conducting Mahlerís colossal Symphony No.8.
To begin the concert Sir Simon programmed two sacred works for
unaccompanied choir: Lottiís Crucifixus and Tallisís
Spem in alium. Two devotional scores that at first sight
in the programme might seem incongruous yet I think was a superb
contrast. (ME: So do I.) I enjoyed the way that you arranged
last nightís programme playing the Vaughan Williams Symphony
No. 5 as the opening work and positioning Elgarís Cockaigne
overture as the concluding work. In addition you placed DvorŠkís
Wind Serenade, in effect a chamber work, in-between.
It was all most refreshing to have something presented differently
and it worked so well.
ME: Absolutely, all the time, all the time, everyday
Iím thinking about how I can present music to my audience in
a way that will interest them, keep their curiosity and draw
in more people. Iíll give you another example. A month or so
ago I came back from Paris to open the Hallť season. The main
work was The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. But we are
doing a Beethoven cycle this season, ok. We didnít do a Beethoven
symphony last night but we did the Third Symphony last
Saturday and next week I will do the Fourth Symphony.
So with The Rite of Spring and because it was the first
concert of the season I did the Beethoven First Symphony.
Actually itís quite rare to start a concert with Beethovenís
First Symphony. Then we did the Bartůk Piano Concerto
No.1 played by AndrŠs Schiff which nobody knows and itís
almost never done because itís very hard. Then after the interval
my first flute played Debussyís Syrinx which is just
a little piece for solo flute; as you know. But she was playing
off-stage whilst the whole orchestra was on stage with the lights
dimmed waiting to play The Rite of Spring. So this whole
crowded auditorium was completely still listening to one flute
player. Then when she had finished we brought the lights up.
Everybody applauded her, she came on stage, joined the orchestra
and we began The Rite of Spring; which starts with one
bassoon and all the other instruments gradually join in. So
Syrinx, as Simon did in your Berlin concert with the
Tallis Spem in alium, served as a lead-in, like luring
your ear into The Rite of Spring.
MC: Yes, the principal works so well.
ME: Oh yeah. We did it a few nights later in Leeds and
for me it was even more effective because of the smaller hall.
Everyone was captivated saying where is this sound coming from?
They didnít know where the flautist wasÖ Then we did our Mahler
Eight in May 2010 at the Bridgewater Hall. The idea in
our Mahler cycle was to precede each symphony with a new commission;
to have a world premiŤre. I was very concerned thinking what
can one do before Mahler Eight? In the end I decided
the best thing to do would be to get Olivier Latry the organist
from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to come over because thereís
a big organ part in Mahler Eight and I wanted him to
play it. But Olivier refused saying he didnít have the time
to get to know the Bridgewater Hall organ. But before we played
the Eight Symphony Olivier improvised on the plainsong
melody that is the first movement of Mahler Eight, Veni
Creator Spiritus. It was amazing, he just improvised. He
played the tune and just started improvising and Olivier is
so good at that. It was a whole event in itself and it took
twenty minutes. It seems to do something to attune ones ears.
So those are the sort of things that Iím trying to think about.
Simon and I are very close friends and weíve talked about all
this for thirty years. You see I started at the London Coliseum
as Simon started in Birmingham.
3.2 Attracting Young People to Concerts
MC: At last nightís concert with the Hallť from the stage
you introduced four groups of children and teenagers from schools
in the Greater Manchester area. Many of whom might have been
attending a classical music concert for the first time. Itís
a great initiative and itís so important to be introducing young
people to classical music; our audience of the future. Last
May I recall attending a Munich Philharmonic Jugendkonzert
a youth concert in Munich. It was a full house and maybe sixty
to seventy percent of the audience were young people in their
school groups. The organisers didnít compromise giving the same
programme as the previous night for a predominantly adult audience.
The programme was Dutilleuxís Mťtaboles; KodŠlyís Dances
of GalŠnta; Stravinskyís The Firebird as well as
the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Really the only concession
was engaging a popular childrenís presenter from German television
who bounced about the stage energetically with a microphone
introducing the works and joking with several of the orchestral
players to an amused audience. The young people loved the concert
and they cheered and cheered. Iím not one of those who think
that people at around the age of forty suddenly put down their
Springsteen and U2 discs and move over to classical music. You
see Iím concerned for the audience of the future.
ME: So am I; desperately soÖ At that concert that I mentioned
to you earlier, my opening concert of the season with The
Rite of Spring preceded by the Debussy, we had five hundred
students all sitting around the orchestra in the choir stalls
and in the front row of the stalls. Somehow that programme had
got through to their imagination. We only charged three pounds
but the point is that they came. We have to hope that they come
back again and wonít find it stuffy. Thatís why I stopped wearing
tails. (MC: But you still look appropriate) Yes, I agree.
Hallť Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder at the Bridgewater Hall,
credit Halle collection
3.3 Hallť Educational Programme
MC: Please tell me about the work that the Hallť does
in the field of music education.
ME: Our educational work Michael if you donít know about
the range of it you should seriously think about speaking to
our education director Steve Pickett who was a bassoonist like
I was. Heís a brilliant, brilliant man, a composer himself who
writes music for kids and the orchestra. The work that we do
nationally I donít think we could do more. Of course we never
have to be complacent, we have to go on trying to be better
at what we do and understand more what will unlock a childís
creativity. What we do in this area is absolutely phenomenal.
Itís not preaching to children, I donít believe in that, I believe
in example and by showing children how they can create music
themselves that, however timidly, they can actually have the
power to create music themselves. (MC: I agree children
love to make music) I know, I know and they love to dance too.
They all want to dance. If you can combine their sense of humour
with their physical movement and their aural imagination and
let them understand that you donít have to have a university
degree to do this you can do it just as you are. But you need
good people to lead it and Steve Pickett is a great leader.
My experience in working in Birmingham as well as London, but
especially in Birmingham with the CBSO and now here in Manchester
with the Hallť is that these two orchestras are full of people
who if you give them the right lead-time and you say what you
want, people who in the orchestra might seem quite shy or quiet
or routinely doing their job, put them in front of a group of
kids and they became a different person.
MC: You certainly have some players at the Hallť who
are talented communicators. Earlier this year your horn player
Tim Redmond gave a really confident pre-concert talk, very impressive
and Iím sure that heís one of many who can do that.
ME: Oh yeah, there are lots more. Tom has a great ability
to present. He introduces some of our family and school concerts;
heís wonderful at it.
MC: Itís certainly heartening to see a younger audience
and last night many of the youngsters seemed to be having a
ME: Yes, thatís the main thing. That the young people
donít feel too restricted. I think that the main problem is
not to say, donít move, donít cough, donít look around or youíll
MC: I remember interviewing Andrew Manze in Munich last
year. He expressed a view that young people might be put off
attending classical music concerts saying, similar things to
you. That the concert experience might appear too conventional,
that you might have to dress in a certain way, that you have
to sit still and donít talk to your friends, that you have to
clap in the right places all restrictions that can be off-putting.
[Note: Andrew Manze conducted the Hallť in three concerts
in December 2011.]
ME: Young people should dress how they feel most comfortable
with. You donít want young people to feel that there is a sense
of stuffy formality; an old fashioned formality thatís different
from concentrated listening. Children listen in different ways.
I think that a couple of them may have dozed off last night.
I donít care about that; it means they were relaxed.
MC: I believe that typically young people have such an
open minded attitude to various types of music that are played
at classical concerts. Looking back at that Jugendkonzert
in Munich, in my view they donít really differentiate between
the contemporary music of Dutilleux and the traditional music
of Mendelssohn. Maybe they lack the prejudices that older audience
members can develop.
ME: Youíre right. Youíre absolutely right. Iíll never
forget some years ago I went and worked with a youth orchestra
in Australia. We did an enormous amount of music with them.
I remember doing an American programme. We did Gershwinís An
American in Paris which is great, immediate, fun music.
I did Charles Ives as well; two pieces from his Holidays
Symphony which are very complicated and very difficult to
understand. I did Washington's Birthday and The Fourth
of July which are movements representing different seasons
of the year. They are brilliant pieces and those two are the
ones that I have done the most often. So I came in one morning
and said to the orchestra ďRight we are going to do the Gershwin
nowĒ and the youth orchestra said ďOk, Gershwin thatís
fine.Ē Then I said to the youth orchestra ďRight now
weíll do the Charles IvesĒ and the youth orchestra said
ďOk, Charles Ives thatís fine.Ē Now when I was in America
with the renowned Cleveland Orchestra I said ďNow weíll do
the Charles IvesĒ and they said ďWhy are we doing this
MC: And Charles Ives is one of their own composers; born
and bred in the USA.
ME: I know. And these Australian kids were completely
unfazed. They saw it as difficult, they worked at it and they
played it beautifully. But what was noticeable was how they
accepted the music without prejudice. Thatís what I believe
in, trying to get people to throw away their prejudices and
not to have fear. We had a marvellous example on Saturday night
when we played Harmonium by John Adams a composition
for chorus and orchestra. It was written for the conductor Edo
de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, oh, some
thirty years ago now. Itís a setting of three poems by John
Donne and Emily Dickinson and it lasts just over half an hour.
Itís very hard for the chorus. Itís the rhythms that are difficult
to get. Weíve never done it before at the Hallť and Iíve always
wanted to. We followed Harmonium with Beethovenís Eroica
which was a fantastic piece of programming because everyone
was thinking what the Eroica would be like after that.
Now there are friends of mine who I know well and support the
Hallť who come to the concerts. I know this because they told
me afterwards. They sat down for the concert and said ďAll
right darling are you ready for this? Weíre not going to like
this one. Letís wait for the Eroica weíll enjoy that.Ē Well
they came to me afterwards and said they were completely bowled
over by the John Adams. After eleven years of working with the
Hallť I hope that people will start to understand that Iím not
trying to force-feed them like goose-liver. Iím not saying this
will be good for you, come on enjoy it. Iím choosing pieces
that I know and that I hope people will respond to, even though
they donít know them. Last Saturday for the John Adams we had
a most fantastic response from the audience.
MC: I can understand the attraction in programming the
John Adams an exciting rarely heard work combined with the Beethoven
a staple of the repertoire that will be a familiar and comforting
score to most people. The work you donít know makes you listen
more intently, makes you concentrate, attunes your ear for what
is to come next. Rather like refreshing the palate with a sorbet
in preparation for the main course to come.
ME: I couldnít agree more.
3.4 Broadcasting Live Concerts and Operas to Cinemas and
MC: Only a few days ago at the cinema with a group of
friends I saw a transmission of you conducting Francesco Cileaís
opera Adriana Lecouvreur from Covent Garden featuring
Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufman. Prior to that at the cinema
I saw Verdiís Macbeth broadcast live from Covent Garden
conducted by Pappano. The New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast
their performances live to cinemas and theatres around the world.
I believe this is becoming an increasingly important source
of income for them. Then there is the Berlin Philharmonicís
excellent Digital Concert Hall on which Iíve watched
webcasts of live concerts on the internet several times. They
also have interviews and reports and this media project forms
part of the orchestraís education programme; which is a great
way of reaching out to young people in schools. I was wondering
if the Hallť had considered streaming their concerts live?
ME: I think that it would be a wonderful thing for us
to do. But you have to understand that each year we have to
raise our money just to survive. When I became music director
eleven years ago I said that I wouldnít come until the finances
were sorted out. Weíre just on the edge now of tightening our
belts really quite considerably. We just hope our audiences
keep coming because in times of economic recession people need
the spiritual content of their lives to be really engaged in
many different ways. People need music and performance so we
are hoping that the public will still support us but that sort
of initiative would cost us an incredible amount of finance
to start up. But you are right we should think about it. We
should consider whether or not as the years go by it becomes
more crucial for getting the orchestraís quality known all over
MC: I believe the Hallťís international reputation as
one of the worldís oldest orchestras and their associations
with Beecham; Sargent and Barbirolli make the Hallť an excellent
brand name. There must also be considerable advantages for being
the first British Orchestra to do it.
ME: Absolutely. People know the Hallť name without knowing
it was the name of a person; our founder Sir Charles Hallť.
MC: So you would consider getting involved with media
streaming. But now is not the right time owing to the economic
ME: Yes. Iím not sure that now is the time unless we
could find sponsorship. Really we need sponsorship all the time
in order to pay our wages, in order to keep the orchestra alive.
When people who invest money all over the world are not getting
the returns from their investment they donít have the slack
to give us the funding. [Note: Interestingly, one of
the Hallťís major sponsors is Siemens a leading global technology
MC: I could tell from your short announcement on the
stage before last nightís concert how much you value your sponsors
at the Hallť.
ME: We are doing really well in attracting good sponsors.
I think we are doing much better than many of our colleagues.
I entertained three of our major sponsors the other night just
to thank them and to say how important they are to us for giving
substantial amounts of funding. Weíre appreciative of the local
councils too; many of whom were there last night in the audience
at the Bridgewater Hall. Itís important that they all come because
itís a public manifestation of the support given to us by all
these towns around ManchesterÖ But itís a tricky time to put
[Note: Currently Sir Markís delightful semi-staged performance
of Humperdinckís opera Hansel and Gretel (abridged version)
with the Berlin Philharmonic from 2006 at the Berlin Philharmonie
is available to watch for free. Highlights from the performance
can be seen in a trailer on their Digital Concert Hall.
I just loved the superb performance from soprano Michaela Kaune
as Gretel. Link: http://www.digitalconcerthall.com]