Conductor Lev Parikian on working with a living composer
Music notation, for all its many strengths, can be frustratingly ambiguous. No matter how specific composers are about their intentions, there’s always room for infinite subtleties (and sometimes unsubtleties) of interpretation. Sometimes all a performer wants is a time machine, so they can go back and ask the composer for clarification. ‘Ludwig, old horse, are you absolutely certain you mean crotchet equals 120? Because frankly there are some of us who think that’s a bit on the fast side. Oh, and all those sforzandos within fortissimos – really? And while we’re at it, any chance you can explain exactly what your different accents and staccato markings mean? Maybe sing me a few examples into this microphone? Ta ever so.’
What a luxury, then, not only to work on music by a living composer, but to have that composer standing at your shoulder offering gentle suggestions about tempo and balance and ensemble and a million other things, all given in a spirit of cooperation but with enough firmness to keep you on the straight and narrow. And when you’ve known the composer for fifteen years and have great respect for them and their music, it makes the whole process that much simpler and less fraught.
Not that it was ever going to be fraught anyway. Stuart Hancock’s a relaxed kind of guy, and his music springs off the page and into the ear with verve and élan. It’s full of colour, atmosphere, and – not vital for all music, but very much a part of Stuart’s m.o. – tunes. The kind of tunes you find yourself humming the next day without realising it.
This was always going to be a labour of love.
I’ve conducted a fair amount of Stuart’s music over the years, and I’ve always found that it needs minimal ‘interpretation’. I suspect the clarity of thought in his scores derives at least in part from the discipline required to write for film and TV, where time is tight, and the demands of the medium even tighter. In the case of the three pieces we recorded for Orchid Classics with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Jack Liebeck, it was the Violin Concerto that naturally required the most attention. This isn’t to say that the two purely orchestral pieces – Variations on a Heroic Theme (a piece that I’m proud to have commissioned for the 50th anniversary of The Rehearsal Orchestra) and Raptures (a skilful orchestral reworking of a chamber piece Stuart wrote some time ago) – didn’t present their own challenges. But the larger scale of the concerto and the virtuosic nature of the solo part (and, in places, the orchestral writing), gave us all something to get our teeth into, and there were inevitably moments of musical peril and potential uncertainty as we worked our way towards a rendition that would both feel like a spontaneous performance and pass muster, as all recordings must, on repeated listenings.
A conductor is, of course, heavily reliant on the skill of the people around them. Not just the musicians – although without them we are just idiots waving our arms around – but the silent partners too: sound engineers and producers. A microphone in the wrong place can make balancing the finished product that much harder, and the attention of an independent pair of ears brings fresh perspective, not just picking up on mistakes that might escape the conductor’s ear in the heat of battle, but constantly comparing what they hear with the ‘ideal’ in their mind’s ear. A bit like a conductor, in fact, but without the manic gesticulations. And when the producer and the composer are the same person, everything they say has the double seal of authority.
We play a bit. I notice something, am unsure.
‘Stuart, old horse, how heavy do you want these accents?’
‘A bit more on the front of the note, then back away more.’
‘And how about the speed? Ok, or a bit sluggish?’
He makes a face, just enough to register his disapproval of my chosen speed without making me feel inadequate. ‘Ok. A bit faster, then.’
We play again. A nod, a thumbs up. We’re ready to record. As I say, it’s a luxury working with a living composer.