Author Archive | Kevin Purcell

On Not “Blowing Up the Orchestra”

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen

In an article by Anthony Tommasini in the March 7 edition of the New York Times, the very fine Finnish conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen; music director designate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, muses on the future of the orchestra in the 21st-Century.

The article itself is not terribly well-written, suffering from the same lack of focus in logically expounding the concepts and ideas that the maestro makes attempts to articulate. Albeit the conceptual foundations for Salonen’s ideas; being largely self-intuitive and arguably unproven outside his own efforts with the Philharmonia Orchestra – successful and insightful as they have been, warrant attention.

The most important virtue of the article is the clear intent in which Salonen is engaged with the myriad issues besetting the future of symphony orchestras around the world.  It’s called ‘leading from the front’ and it is to be thoroughly admired.

I don’t agree with Esa-Pekka on every point.  I certainly do not see that the future of orchestral programming being so rigidly tied to concerts in which masterworks of the repertoire  are “present[ed] alongside comparably ambitious modern and contemporary works.”  This is an approach that has yielded fairly poor results over many years for multifaceted reasons.

I do agree with him unreservedly, nonetheless, that an orchestral concert becomes an event of “human energy, human expression — and people react strongly to that.”

It is the elemental proposition of maximising the importance of the level of human expression possible that, at least in my view, is the key.

Orchestras do remarkable things; so remarkable in fact, that we often lose sight that what orchestral players do is viscerally thrilling to audiences.  But we don’t advertise that to the general public.  As Salonen rightly remarks, “The message…is often conveyed — “come and hear an immortal masterpiece performed by Maestro So-and-So and a great symphony orchestra” — is actually off-putting. Lots of concert halls look like shrines or temples, like a Parthenon,” he added. “You climb up to make yourself worthy” and “walk out a better person.”

It will come as no surprise to learn for those of you who peruse my personal blog that I hold deep and abiding concerns about marketing departments of many symphonic organisations who commonly seem bereft of ideas of how to promote classical music to new audiences.  As I pointed out in a recent post, it is actually proven that audiences generally don’t care who is conducting, but what music is being performed!

It is through the music itself that connections are made to the human experience.

The challenge is how to articulate the meaningfulness of the experience to an audience through the mechanisms that contemporary audiences evaluate and experience in their daily lives.

When we solve that issue – and something we spend a lot of time at the ADO thinking about and developing – then we’ll be on a path that can lead to only better outcomes.

Kevin Purcell

The Year Ahead

Kevin_PurcellThis coming year will be a watershed for the ADO in many ways.  There are a number of initiatives the management have been working on, some which have taken several years of pre-development behind the scenes, and one new one which won’t be up and running until 2019.  More information about these activities, as I am reliably informed, will be released soon.

Our concerts this coming season send us on a journey of discovery of works that remain under-represented in the concert hall.  Sibelius’s Symphony No.3 in C major is really one of the forgotten children of the Finnish master’s symphonic output.  I’ve never quite understood why this is so, as it is truly a wonderful work.  The second symphony from the Nordic Archipelago that we are going to tackle is Kurt Atterberg’s Symphony No.3 (‘West Coast Pictures’).  How and why this symphony remains almost univerally unknown is indeed baffling. Continue Reading →

Orchestra Musicians Never Fail To Amaze Me

Kevin_PurcellI had the great pleasure last weekend of working with an essentially ‘scratch’ orchestra comprised predominantly of musicians teaching instrumental music in Schools in Melbourne and regional areas; including some musicians from the ADO roster, all of whom gave so generously of their time.

The ADO, through Managing Director, Janine Hanrahan, and Artistic Administrator, Briony Buys, was asked to curate this concert for the inaugural Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) Arts Learning Festival. I was delighted to return to Melbourne to work with the orchestra on a program of music specifically composed for Children.

We really need to celebrate the capacity of orchestra musicians who live in Australia: their willingness to tackle difficult music – with far too little rehearsal time; an undaunted enthusiasm for the task of finding their musical way through a barrage of notes, rhythms, dynamics and endlessly shifting tempi and, ultimately, their conviction that they can “pull it off” when the moment really counts – the concert!

We underestimate and under-appreciate orchestra musicians generally.  I believe this is true in most places in the world with very few exceptions. What is asked of them – in terms of the minutely exacting technical and artistic expectations  – is a continuing feat of human dexterity and skill-level that belies any general understanding of what they individually and collectively accomplish in the process of making music. Continue Reading →

How We Researched & Prepared For Our Forthcoming Concert

Eleanor_Rawling_Cover_GurneyIt probably would come as a surprise for some to learn, that much of the planning for ADO concerts happens at least a year in advance of presenting the concert itself.  In itself, this is actually fairly common practice for orchestras around the world; the preparation to put 60-100 players onstage to present a program having started long before the  first note of music has been performed.

In the case of our forthcoming ‘A Foreign Field That is Forever England’ concert, the preparations have been even more time consuming, and involved many more people than is usual.

Firstly, without the very kind assistance of the Ivor Gurney Trust we would not be performing the composer’s A Gloucestershire Rhapsody.  Specifically, the cooperation and willingness by former chairman of the Trust and composer, Ian Venables and the scholar and composer, Philip Lancaster to provide us with critically edited new performing materials has allowed us to prepare the work in the demanding and limited rehearsal schedule under which the ADO operates.

But then, how to explore the world of Ivor Gurney himself?  Fortunately, one of the most interesting and inspiring books I have come across about Gurney was published in 2011 by Eleanor Rawling (see the book cover above left and click image for further details).

Continue Reading →

Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Sir Mark Elder

Sir_Mark_ElderI’m in the midst of learning quite a lot of music for concerts and upcoming recordings.  However, I decided to take some time out for the rare, and very great, privilege of sitting in on rehearsals with one of the great British conductors of this generation and one of the great American orchestras of any generation.

I have spent the last week re-absorbing Sir Edward Elgar’s monumental Symphony No. 1 in Ab Major, Op. 55, conducted by Sir Mark Elder and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I wonder whether there is a better 20th-Century symphony than Elgar’s first?  For a very long time, I have held resolutely to the contention that William Walton’s mighty Symphony No. 1 in Bb Minor from 1935 was the apex of 20C British symphonic achievement.  But, after hearing this work assidusouly taken apart and expertly re-assembled by the British maestro, I fear I may have to re-think my position.

Elgar’s work is an extraordinarily tight and focused masterpiece of thematic lyricism and variation across a large canvas of both time and orchestral texture.  It’s also extremely challenging to perform for both conductor and orchestra.  Given that the last time this symphony was played in Chicago at Orchestra Hall was 1983 under the brilliant (and not well enough known British conductor, Raymond Leppard) it is not suprising that the very fine Chicago ensemble responded wonderfully under the expert stewardship of Sir Mark to ignite the engine of Elgar’s compositional constructs and style requirements. Continue Reading →