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Archives for November 2006

How about a big hand for the band?

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra | 17:25 UK time, Monday, 20 November 2006

I'm feeling a bit cross with Sir Thomas Beecham. Ok, I know he's been dead for more than 40 years but I'm good with a grudge. And while I'm being annoyed with Sir Tom, I'm also a tad miffed with Wilhelm Furtwangler and Andre Previn. Why? They're all part of that devilish cult: the 'celebrity conductor'.

And who am I to start knocking Sir Tom and his peers? I'm Stephen, the BBC SSO's marketing manager: communications, snazzy brochures, getting the punters in... that's me. But I've also been an orchestral player, and when I'm not SSO-ing I'm a busy jazz musician and a presenter on BBC Radio: In this forum my opinions on things musical are subjective, tongue in cheek, and not the view of the BBC. So there.

As a player, a fan, and a colleague of the players in the BBC SSO, it irks me to hear reviewers and audience members wax lyrical about the conductor, with nay a word about the orchestra. Are we to assume that professional musicians working under the BBC banner are going to be world class and therefore only a conduit for the conductor, and are thus irrelevant? Whether it's the Proms, Edinburgh Festival or Aberdeen, the prestige of the event makes little difference, it's usually the bloke with the stick (and it's almost always a bloke), who gets most of the glory.

Now conductors are great...as a concept. They're an essential part of the kit for putting on a symphonic gig, and in this regard we're blessed at the BBC SSO with Ilan Volkov and Stefan Solyom. They're both young, good looking, personable and supremely talented. They're a publicists dream. And I'll admit that in this job I help perpetuate this 'cult of the conductor': Launch a season or announce anything special... if Ilan Volkov's face isn't peering out of the dailies then it's full scale assault on the picture desks.

Why? In today's cultural climate, one of the surest roads to success is to promote the artist as a celebrity.

When classical music gets so little in the way of column inches, it makes sense to focus on personalities: Lesley Garret, Nigel Kennedy, Nicola Beneddeti et all. But then it's far more difficult (if nigh on impossible) to focus on individuals other than the conductor (or soloist) when you are promoting a large ensemble.

We played a marvellous concert about three weeks ago, sans conductor. Elizabeth Layton, the orchestra's leader, led the strings in two works and Michael Collins directed his own performance of Weber's clarinet concerto. It was a live broadcast on Radio 3, a nice mid afternoon, mid week gig. The performance was sensational, and not a baton (or a critic) in sight. They played like angels and made what little hair I have left on the back of my neck stand on end.

Though I attend almost every event that the orchestra does, I felt far more empathy towards them on that concert than almost any other before or since, and I noticed the audience felt a connection too.

Maybe I've spent too much time at work focusing on the conductor as a figure head and I've forgotten what the players can do on their own. Maybe as a player I've spent too much time playing in big bands without a conductor: When a bandleader deigns to put on a white tux and stand out front at a big band gig, waving their arms and having delusions of being the next Nelson Riddle, they're usually treated to sneers of derision by the band (along with unnecessary comments about the fate of Glenn Miller.)

So I ask you, my fellow constituents... next time you come to a concert, show your appreciation for the musicians on stage. Sure, show the conductor your heart felt appreciation too, but before you all leave... lets have a big hand for the band.

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