Falstaff takes on a new dimension…

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Timothy & Samuel West read Shakespeare

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Andrew Constantine writes on the art (and science) of programming

Surely the easiest thing in the world for any conductor to do is create concert programmes? Programmes filled with the music he or she is passionate about and wants others to feel equally passionate about as well. Certainly, when I first decided I wanted to conduct orchestras I felt that this must be exactly how it was. People would just let me do what I wanted and would love it! I could conduct all the great symphonies whenever I felt like it and there would be no other considerations to clutter my utter indulgence! How wrong was I. 

Now I’m not saying that I don’t formulate my own programmes because, with a few guest conducting exceptions, I absolutely do and I’m sure the same goes for other music directors too. But the factors that come into play when making choices are light years away from the idealistic nonsense I filled my imagination with when I was young.

Let’s look at the music director’s task of constructing a complete season – usually done about fifteen months in advance. There are so many different constituents you need to engage with; when did we last do this piece and is it strong enough to bring back just now, or is it a favourite that you can repeat every three years or so? What are the greatest current strengths of the orchestra and how can I highlight them whilst developing other areas? What will motivate the players best and challenge them to the point where they still feel inspired by coming to work? How do I want to balance the season in terms of when to perform a certain work that will show the whole organization off at its very best – the cynic in me has to think of subscription renewal time! And soloists! Who is playing well at the moment and has something to offer that would be successfulin your season? Trying to anticipate the chemistry between you and them, the orchestra and audience is one of the trickiest things to anticipate. Most of the time it just ‘works’ because there are so many fabulous players out there and, well, everybody just wants it to be successful of course. But there can be some prickly characters at times, and listening to repertoire requests or other little things you hadn’t planned on with an open mind can result in a concert being more fruitful than you ever imagined! On a little personal tangent, I well remember my very first professional concert. One of the soloists was the great soprano Montserrat Caballe who, sadly, passed away recently. I was young, green and nervous and everyone in the ‘business’ was telling me just how difficult she was and that she would eat me alive and that I just had to cope with it. Well, we had one piano rehearsal at Covent Garden where she was absolutely delightful and treated me as though I actually knew something about her repertoire and how to conduct it. So far so good but the nay-sayers were still telling me to watch out when it came time to rehearse with the London Philharmonic. It turned out I had nothing to fear. Again, this great artist, so sure of herself and her skill, was a perfect and charming colleague. I’m sure this helped to reduce my knee trembling by about 20%! 

The major constituent I haven’t really mentioned is the audience and, of course, what they may or may not want to hear. Personally I think there’s very little that audiences don’t want to listen to but, if we are going to treat the audiences collectively, we have to prepare them and make sure they are on our side. A lot of this comes from trust, the trust you build up as a music director with your own audience. That might sound a little fatuous I admit but there is one thing truer today than ever before: the audience you are playing to knows less classical music than in previous generations and, more than likely, grew up with less exposure to orchestral music than the generation before them. It’s just a simple truth. Television, terrestrial or streamed, provides virtually no opportunities to see and hear a great orchestra or soloists, and the education systems of the western world are giving up on music education as though it were some sort of disease. So we have to fill the gap. We have to be the ones to nurture the real and genuine curiosity and appetite of an audience that is there and yearning for our attention. The motto needs to be, ‘choose wisely’ when we think of repertoire. Know your audience, let them lead you and then, once that true rapport is built, lead them to engage with more and more music they might have missed.

Maybe that works for the concert hall and live music situations when the extra buzz of the occasion and the ability to actually speak to the public from the podium can change the whole reception of a work, but what about recordings? How can we justify turning out more and more product that, seemingly, replicates countless versions that have gone before? Vanity projects, quite candidly, are justifiable on a number of fronts and I’m sure are here to stay. But there is something of a vacuum where it’s difficult to get the casual music listener to go, where those hidden gems or peripheral masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire lie and which is usually the domain of the more ardent and committed listener – a small, but essential group of devotees who have certainly helped keep the industry afloat! This is what intrigues me and this is where I’ve concentrated my energies over the past couple of years. My initial project, ‘Elgar: the New England Connection’ on Orchid Classicswas an exciting first step where I compared the lives and ambitions of two contemporaries, George Chadwick and Edward Elgar. By putting two of their best known pieces side by side – and in the case of Chadwick probably bringing it to many people for the first time – we had the opportunity to delve into the inspirations and perhaps even the personal drive of two fantastic composers. The reception for this disc worldwide has been simply fabulous and, on some levels, pretty mind-blowing. To date it has been streamed close to one million times worldwide!

Okay, that’s all well and good but how do you go further, what’s the next step if you really believe in what you espouse? Volume 2 of course!

One of my absolute favourite works by Elgar, and probably his own as well, is the Symphonic Study, Falstaff. It’s an incredibly vivid telling in purely orchestral terms of one of Shakespeare’s most thoughtful tales. That it is purely orchestral is, to my mind at least, possibly one of the reasons why it has never captured the public’s imagination like some of Elgar’s other works. It’s exhilarating, daring, stunningly difficult to play and contains all the glorious thumbprints of the composer that we love when we hear them in his other compositions. It has incredible pathos when required and grand, uplifting bombast elsewhere. Again, I ask myself, as someone in a position and with the opportunity to bring truly great music to people who have never or rarely heard it, how can we present this work to an audience that can appreciate it more fully? Could we perhaps try to find a way to engage with it on twenty-first century terms, terms which have different performance expectations and which offer greater tolerance? Perhaps present it in a way that contextualises the unsaid narrative and, draw the listener in with more immediacy? Hopefully that’s just what will happen when you listen to our latest recording on Orchid Classics with the BBC’s wonderful National Orchestra of Wales. With the inimitable talents of the great actors Timothy and Samuel West I’ve extracted sections of the text from Shakespeare’s Henry plays and inserted them at Elgar’s own, natural breaks in the music. I don’t believe for one second that it detracts from the sweeping musical drama but, rather, enhances the listener’s experience and keeps him or her abreast of the action. As a powerful and engaging companion on this disc, you can also discover more of Elgar’s American colleague, George Chadwick in his fast paced and brilliantly orchestrated telling of Robert Burns’ poem, Tam O’Shanter. A night on the town followed by the most hair-raising of journeys home!

 If any of this strikes a chord with you, I’ll feel as though I’ve done my duty as a conductor. Great music should not only be ‘alive and well’, as so many people claim, it should be beating down doors and thrusting its greatness upon us. It should be there for everyone to delve in to, inviting, welcoming and, ultimately, thoroughly compelling.

Listen to volume one

Andrew Constantine in action, at the album recording sessions and in performance

A young George Whitefield Chadwick, and an older Edward Elgar