Conductor  David  Atherton

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


See my Interviews with Sir Gerog Solti, Alfred Brendel, and Murray Perahia

It was just one of those happy circumstances that I was able to meet conductor David Atherton.  There was an emergency at the Grant Park Music Festival in August of 1997, and Atherton graciously agreed to step in for an ailing colleague.  Though he was only here for a few days, he allowed me to do the interview at his hotel.  It was a pleasant encounter, and he spoke of many aspects of the conductor
’s art. 

In this transcript, I have left intact some of his British-isms, such as groups being either singular or plural.  It might be a bit jarring to the eye occasionally, but I trust his thoughts are still completely understandable.  As usual, there are a few names which are links, and those refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You were mentioning that you had looked forward to a little bit of a holiday.  Aside from emergencies, do you make sure that you schedule enough time for yourself in your calendar?

David Atherton:    That’s a good question.  Probably the answer’s no!  [Laughs]  The problem is that I’m Music Director in Hong Kong, which takes up about five months of the year, on and off.  I go three or four times a year, and I have a position with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  Then I tend to do one or two operas
usually at Covent Garden, English National Opera, Metropolitan Opera, or whatever — and each opera often takes at least a couple of months.  If it’s a new production, perhaps even more than that.

BD:    And you’re still in San Diego?

DA:    I have a base in San Diego.  In fact, I have a Mainly Mozart festival there in late May and early June.  It is a wonderful little festival, only three weeks long, but the quality is phenomenal.  We invite musicians from all round the country, have a little orchestra of about thirty-four, thirty-five players.  The whole feeling is a one of friends coming together to make music, which for me is fantastic.  It’s the closest I get to making chamber music.

BD:    What was your instrument?

DA:    Piano and clarinet.

BD:    So you got out of that and into conducting.  Do you like being a wondering minstrel?

DA:    [Laughs]  I don’t do too much of it these days because with a couple of operas each year, the five months in Hong Kong, and with usually about four weeks of concerts in England that I’m committed to contractually, I’m staying in one place a lot of the time.

BD:    How is the political situation in Hong Kong going to affect you, if at all?  [Remember, this interview was held in early August of 1997, just one month after the transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People
’s Republic of China.]


DA:    So far, not at all.  In fact, I have a contract until the year 2000.  The funding of the orchestra is very, very firm, very, very strong.  To date, we haven’t had to do an awful lot fundraising like the kind that exists here in the U.S.  We have probably some of the lowest tickets prices anywhere in the world, with one of the youngest audiences.  The average age of the audience is under thirty.  It’s a full-time orchestra of a hundred players from all over the world.  We have thirteen different nationalities in the orchestra.  We audition in Australia, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York...  It’s roughly half oriental and half western in terms of the breakdown of races, and the repertory is everything that you’d expect from a standard symphony orchestra.  Indeed, it’s probably more adventurous than many orchestras.  We’re able to put on quite a lot of interesting new pieces because the audience don’t come with too many pre-conceived ideas, and once they trust you, they’re prepared to come along and see what you have to offer.

BD:    So you have this huge repertoire to select from.  How do you decide which pieces you’re going to program and which pieces you let go for a season or two, or forever?

DA:    It’s an interesting question, because on the one hand you’re trying to build an orchestra, which means that the standard repertory pieces need to be brought back on a fairly regular basis.  They also tend to be some of the greatest masterpieces, so you don’t want to avoid them just for the sake of not doing standard repertoire pieces.  On the other hand, if you play the 1812 Overture every single week, after two or three weeks nobody will ever come to any of your concerts.  So it’s a matter of striking a balance between building an orchestra and building an audience, which means playing the standard repertoire to a large degree, but also introducing sometimes less well-known pieces by those same composers, or indeed new works or unusual works by composers who are almost forgotten, but nevertheless pieces you can believe in.  If you can get the balance right
which means essentially still selling tickets and bringing your audience with you, and still increasing box-office whilst at the same time becoming more adventurousthen everybody benefits.


BD:    So you’re looking at pieces and you’re trying to balance repertoire.  What about a piece grabs you, or what about a piece turns you away?

DA:    That word ‘balance’ always comes into it.  If you’re doing, say, a new twenty-minute piece of Hans Werner Henze, if you’re talking about a subscription audience, you also want to put something on that program that they’ll feel fairly comfortable, fairly safe with.  This might involve a Beethoven symphony, or something equally known.  Then along with that, you can put another composer who is also very well-known, but maybe this particular work is not so well known.  For example, if you have that twenty-minute Henze symphony before the interval, you might begin with an overture like Berlioz King Lear, which you hardly ever hear.  It’s actually one of his greatest pieces, but it’s a phenomenally difficult piece.  It’s one of his most difficult overtures, and lasts fifteen minutes. 

athertonBD:    Is it difficult because it’s so intricate?

DA:    That’s right, and also not known.  Every time you put on something that is not known by the orchestra, it almost always involves additional rehearsal time.

BD:    Because you’re just teaching them from scratch?

DA:    It’s not about teaching.  It just takes a certain amount of time for the shape of the piece to become familiar to the musicians.  Even if the notes themselves are fairly straight forward, it still takes a certain degree of time before people are able to see the structure, see the shapes of phrases and so forth, and coalesce together.

BD:    Does this amount of time increase exponentially when you’re doing a brand new work or a world premiere?  [Note: Atherton led the premiere of Punch and Judy shown at right.]

DA:    Again you can’t generalize too much.  It depends, obviously, on the style of the composer.  If you were doing a ‘minimalist’ piece of Philip Glass, or somebody of that ilk, or even Górecki, that’s music which often is relatively straight forward in terms of the aural perception and indeed the technical requirements of the musicians.  On the other hand, if you’re doing a work of Stockhausen, you might be talking about ten days’ rehearsal, and after ten days’ rehearsal you barely scratch the surface.  So you can’t generalize about works.  It depends entirely on the individual complexity of each piece.

BD:    I trust you take all of this into account when scheduling pieces
if you have enough rehearsal time, or have enough interest, or have enough time with other things on the program?

DA:    Yes.  The difficulty when you’re doing a new work that hasn’t even been written
perhaps a commissioned workyou can only guess at the kinds of complexities based on the composer’s previous music.  And even if you stipulate a work that’s, say, twenty minutes in length, often the composer will finish with a piece that is thirty-five minutes in length, or twelve minutes in length.  It’s a huge difference when one is three times longer than the other!  So you tend to schedule these pieces a long way ahead of time, and then come to a very calculated gamble.

BD:    What advice do you have for someone who wants to write for the symphony orchestra at the end of this Millennium?

DA:    It depends if they want their music to be performed, because there are certain practical considerations that every composer has to take into mind.  For example, if a composer wants his work performed fairly often, he won’t write a piece that needs three sarrusophones, five piccolos and two bass drums!

BD:    And four organs!  [Both laugh]

DA:    Yes, exactly.  They’d be practical!  For example, when you hear touring orchestras taking Mahler, they always take the symphonies which are for orchestra alone.  They avoid the ones with chorus, obviously.  They even avoid wonderful pieces like the Fourth which has the soprano solo.  They give the purely instrumental ones, like One and Five, and there’s a reason for that.  It’s very expensive touring, and if you add a soloist or even a chorus, or eight soloists in the case of Mahler Eight, that makes the cost increasingly higher.

BD:    But if you’re going to a city which has a wonderful chorus that has experience with the Second or Third, would you then program one of those and use their chorus in that city?

DA:    Again, you come into another area of touring.  Often you’re doing two or three programs over a fourteen-day period, and in those fourteen days you have to do ten concerts.  You perhaps do each program four or five times, and in the middle of this you suddenly put on a work which is not in those two programs, it requires additional rehearsal with a local chorus.  Then you build in all sorts of practical problems, but you’ve also increased the cost of the tour enormously because that’s probably at least an extra day or maybe two extra days the orchestra have to be put up in a hotel, with what we call per diems paid to them.

athertonBD:    The way you’re painting it, it sounds rather hopeless!

DA:    [Laughs]  We’re not hopeless! You just have to be very practical and very organized.  A lot of conducting is about being organized in the way you use rehearsal time.  If you have five rehearsals for a program or one rehearsal for a program, you have to have prepared your ground accordingly, and know roughly what the parameters are going to be ahead of time.  You plan your rehearsal to maximize the amount of time at your disposal.

BD:    You know the orchestras that you work with regularly, and they know you.  When you come to a new orchestra, is it a mutual getting-to-know-one-another, and then you find out how much and how far you can push them?

DA:    Yes, and that happens usually within the first ten minutes.  It’s a two-way process.  They’re eyeing you up and you’re eyeing them up, and you’re seeing how far you can take certain things.  But the time of it is probably often the most critical thing of all.  If you have a really complicated program with only a couple of rehearsals, by the very nature of things you have to let all sorts of things go by that under ideal circumstances you would polish and correct.  You’d break it down a little bit, and you’d have, say, the violins do a difficult passage by themselves, followed by the violas.  Then you’d put those two together, and you’d build it up almost like building a house brick after brick, whereas if you’ve got a very limited amount of time, you can’t do that, and you just have to focus on the things that are glaringly wrong as opposed to just slightly off.

BD:    If you had unlimited rehearsal time, would you wind up with a perfect performance?

DA:    Some conductors ask for an enormous amount of rehearsal time, and it’s a case of decreasing returns.  Indeed, often, the performers will be stale because the musicians are just so sick of rehearsing a particular work that they get turned off. 

BD:    Do you purposely leave something for the spark of the evening?

DA:    Personally I do, because I like there to be spontaneity in a performance.  I used to go to Germany to work a lot, but I don’t go much now because I really don’t enjoy it much.  One shouldn’t generalize about nationalities, but nevertheless there is the work ethic in Germany, which is something which is very, very literal.  You fix it all in rehearsals so that the performances are as watertight as possible, or as structured as possible.  I’m all for structure but you must leave something for the moment.  Every performance is different, and should be different.  If you manufacture a performance so that virtually every single performance is identical, then you’re squashing the individuality of the musician.  They’re all experienced musicians.  They’ve trained for years and years, and some of them have been in the business thirty or forty years.  They have a lot to offer, and so a conductor’s job is partly to allow them to express that, but within a framework, within a structure.

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

DA:    No, probably not.  One of the huge frustrations of being a conductor is you have the perfect performance in your mind, in your head.  You rehearse it and you perform it, and you strive for that in the knowledge, from the very beginning, you’ll never get there.  So it’s an exercise in total frustration in many ways.

BD:    So you see how close you can get?

DA:    Yes.  You know that along the always you’re going to have to be compromising what, in an ideal world, in Elysium Heaven, how you’d hear this performance.  It’s always going to be different depending on the acoustics of the place, the orchestra you’re working with, the nationalities...  All sorts of considerations come into play.

BD:    When you leave something for the spark of the evening, is the audience behind you partly contributing to that spark?

DA:    Oh, undoubtedly yes.  You can sometimes feel it when you come onto the stage
or if it’s an opera, into the orchestra pitalmost before you start whether there is real atmosphere or not, particularly doing operas, surprisingly.  I remember doing ten performances of Rosenkavalier in London recently, and I could tell almost as I walked in, judging by the point at which the audience started to applaud, before we’d even played a note, and by the immediacy of the responsenot so much the warmth but the immediacy of ityou could almost tell what kind of an audience it was going to be. 

BD:    If they were paying attention, or if they were just sitting back and resting?

DA:    Yes, whether they just come to doze off, or to be seen there, or whether indeed they’d really come with a lot of knowledge and anticipation. 

BD:    Is there anything that you, on the podium, can do to grab the audience, or is that part of the music?

DA:    It must come from the music.  The interpretation should be about trying to create or recreate as faithfully as possible what the composer intended.  A lot of our time is actually spent trying to delve into the historical aspects, the musicological aspects to get a sense of what the composer wanted, because the further back in musical history you go, the more imprecise the method of notating music was.  For example, if you don’t know the Beethoven string quartets, it’s very difficult to actually put the Beethoven symphonies into perspective.  If you’ve never seen or heard Fidelio, it’s very difficult to do the Ninth Symphony.  So all these things have to be put into the context of the time
the historical perspective, what was going on at the time, what the conventions were of the time.  If you’re playing Bach or Handel as opposed to Tchaikovsky or Schumann, there are certain unwritten conventions, things that didn’t go down on the page, which good performers know in advance.  This is the kind of thing that would have happen at that point in time. 


BD:    But a world-class orchestra will be required to play some Bach and Handel, and the next week to play Tchaikovsky and Schumann.

DA:    That’s right, and to play Bach and Handel in totally different ways, depending on who is conducting them.  It’s so imprecise in the sense that we don’t know exactly what those composers wanted because they couldn’t write it down on the page.  It’s open to many kinds of interpretation as to how you should do it.

BD:    Let us look at the other side of the coin.  Are we perhaps being too precise with the modern symphonies?  A Henze symphony is going to be carefully notated with every detail written in the score, and then he will leave a legacy of performances and recordings.  Is that going to straight-jacket the people in the next Millennium?

DA:    I don’t think so.  It’s almost the nature of the music itself that throughout the twentieth century, music has become, generally speaking, more complex.  At least it did until the late
50s, early 60s.

BD:    Did it become too complex?

DA:    Certainly then.  That whole ‘Darmstadt period’ was complex to the extent that it became almost an ivory tower existence.  Composers were tending to write just for small, select groups of people, and sometimes just themselves.

BD:    There was a big piece in The New York Times on Sunday about that that, and the writer talked about certain different composers
Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez on one side, and some of the other, more tonal composers on the other side.

DA:    That’s right.  There’s always a backlash.  It’s like the whole business of what is politically correct or incorrect.  The pendulum swings one way, and then it actually swings too far, and then it swings back again.  It’s almost the same during the twentieth century with musical styles.  Much of the ‘minimalist’ reaction was indeed a reaction to that over-complex kind of notation.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re known for doing operas, and you’re known for doing symphony concerts.  Besides the very obvious, what are the major differences between directing those two kind of works?

DA:    Opera is even more of a compromise than symphonic work in the sense that you have to make allowances for lots of non-musical matters.

athertonBD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t expect the tenor’s wig to fly off?

DA:    [Laughs]  Let
’s say the soprano may have to walk across the stage and flick a candle out, and perhaps one night she forgets to do that.  Or maybe she had two eggs for breakfast instead of one egg, and is a little bit sluggish, or maybe she woke up in the morning and actually her voice was a little bit off color.

BD:    If she forgets a stage direction, do you rely on the prompter to take care of it and get her to the other side of the stage?  [Vis-à-vis the recording of King Priam shown at right, see my Interviews with Sir Thomas Allen, Norman Bailey, and Yvonne Minton.]

DA:    I try to do operas that don’t have prompters.  I find a prompter is often just an excuse for somebody not really preparing themselves.  In many ways, they are an impediment to the conductor being able to communicate during the performance with the singers.  They start to rely on the prompter to actually coax them through it.  With many singers it’s a crutch that they get used to leaning on, to have somebody throwing up the words two seconds before they actually sing them.  It’s actually bringing them in with a gesture of the hand, exactly at the point when they’re supposed to come in.  But if the conductor in that very moment just suddenly does a little rubato, the prompter hasn’t picked that up and the singer hasn’t picked it up because all he’s doing is singing blindly.  So it tends to be, on the whole, the most unmusical singers that need a prompter, and the lazy ones who need a prompter.  So I’d rather do without it wherever possible.

BD:    It is not necessarily the busy singers who are trying to keep too many roles in their head for so many dates?

DA:    Well that’s their problem, isn’t it?  I don’t think Mozart would have been terribly concerned with that. 

BD:    Are singers doing too much, running from house to house?

DA:    Certainly, now in the days of jet travel, and it’s not just singers.  It’s conductors as well, and pianists and violinists.  But with singers in particular, where the physical requirements are so immense, how you actually feel affects your own voice because the voice is part of the body.  Certain people have a certain constitution.  Domingo is a marvelous example of somebody who can keep turning it on and on and on, and probably be doing it when he’s 100 years old.

BD:    He’s a human dynamo.

DA:    That’s right.  He keeps up this incredible pace.  I’ve worked with him a number of times, and he’s an absolute joy to work with.  He’s a wonderful musician, a wonderful human being, very warm, very sincere, and yet he has this incredible drive.

BD:    He’s probably unique in that, and I’m afraid many singers will try to emulate him, at least in the taxing schedule that he keeps.

DA:    I think that’s very fair, yes.

BD:    You mentioned that maybe the soprano had two extra eggs and felt differently.  What happens when you, the conductor, have two eggs instead of one for breakfast?  Do you feel the music completely differently, or a little bit differently?

DA:    Every day, obviously everybody’s going to feel a little different.  You get up in the morning and one day you’ll be feeling on top of the world, and the next day perhaps you’ve got a bit of a headache, or you slept a bit too long, or not long enough, or whatever.  So every day we all feel very different, but performing is really about peaking at the right time.  Yo
u try to gear the day so that what happens between 7:30 and 9:30, or, if it’s an opera, from 7:00 to 11:00, that you’re as near peak form as you can be in terms of your physical condition, your mental condition, your focus.  It all comes into play, and you try to gear the day to that end

BD:    So you’re back to organization again?

DA:    Oh, absolutely.  You have to be really self-disciplined.  You have to be very, very disciplined to perform, be it as a singer, pianist, violinist, or whatever.  People only see the end product, and then they might think about rehearsals, but they very rarely do they think about all the other elements that go into it.  If you’re a violinist, there are the hours and hours of practice.  If you’re a pianist and you’re on tour, where do you practice?  You have to throw yourself on the mercy of the local people to find you a piano to practice on.  Often they’re the most appalling instruments at times of day when they don’t really want to be doing it because that the only time the piano was available.  They’re playing a concerto tonight, but in the morning they’re having to actually practice a totally unrelated concerto because it’s a piece they’re learning for three weeks’ time, and the music only arrived a few days ago... that sort of thing.  [Both laugh]

athertonBD:    It sounds like it really is impossible to do all of this.

DA:    It can be, but the public never hears or sees this.  All it sees is the final show.

BD:    Should the public be aware of this, or should the public only be concerned with the sound they hear and the sight they see on stage that night?

DA:    In a sense, that’s what they’re paying for.  The rest is a bit irrelevant.  Do we really need to know how Robert De Niro learns his lines, or how he actually prepares himself for a role?  We don’t have to know any of that in order to enjoy his role.  On the other hand, if we know all that, it might actually increase our enjoyment of what we actually eventually see.

BD:    Since you bring up the idea of motion pictures, has that influenced our perception of opera, having seen great monster cinemascope movies on a big screen?  Is it disappointing when we come back to the old-fashioned kind of opera on a stage with rickety pin rails and clumsy effects?

DA:    I think yes, probably undoubtedly so.  There was a time when the music was the only thing that really mattered, and that opera stemmed from the music.  More and more over the last twenty years, the stage director has been given more and more prominence.  With bigger and bigger budgets, sometimes we lose sight of the fact that opera is really about music and words.  It’s not a stage play which just happens to have some music with it.  There are certain directors working today at a very exalted level, whose attitude is to take the words and see what can be done. 
Let’s deliberately throw out of the window everything that’s traditional!  Let’s throw out of the window all the stage directions that Mozart put in.

BD:    Be different for different
’s sake?

DA:    That’s right.  What if I came along as a conductor and said let’s do the same with the music, and because I like the sound of a saxophone, let’s have saxophones instead of clarinets in Mozart.  It would be ridiculous, but people think nothing of taking a Mozart scene set in the eighteenth century, and putting it in a Chicago Diner.  It’s just nonsense.

BD:    [Playing Devil
’s Advocate]  But once in a while it seems to work.

DA:    If it’s thought-provoking, that’s what makes people really think about it.  If it’s different, and it really makes people approach it in a different way, particularly if it’s a work they’ve known for a long time, therefore maybe to some degree it’s easy for them to take the music for granted. 

BD:    Let me ask the Capriccio question, then.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

DA:    Ideally it’s a melding of the two.  One of my pet hates is when we have to do opera in English.  I did it recently with Rosenkavalier at the English National Opera in London, which always performs in English.  That’s one of its reasons for existing.  But if you do a work such as Rosenkavalier in English, it’s sound totally wrong from beginning to end because the sounds that Strauss envisaged were German, which is a totally different language.

BD:    And it
’s sort of dialectic German!

DA:    That’s right.  If you put that German thing to French it’s even worse, or have Boris Godunov in English.

BD:    Do you like this new gimmick of the supertitles?

DA:    I have a lot of time for that if it’s done really well.  I was amazed recently at the Metropolitan Opera.  I did Death in Venice, and then I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and for A Midsummer Night’s Dream they also had subtitles.  Now you think, why?  Shakespeare?  It’s in English!  Surely the audience can understand.  You would be amazed how it affects the way in which the audience can comprehend what’s happening on the stage.  For a start, in any music that is being sung against an orchestra, you’re going to lose a lot of the words just by the nature of the way it is written.  On a commercial CD, you’re going to hear the words much more clearly all the time because they enhance everything with microphones of close effects.  But on a stage in the real world, you’re going to actually lose a lot of what’s going on, particularly if you’ve got, let’s say, five characters all singing at the same time and singing different words.  They’re all having their own thoughts, and with surtitles you can actually get round that.  You can actually give the audience a very clear indication of what is being sung... if you do it in a very subtle way, such as the Met do.  You’re not ramming it down people’s throats.  It actually happens just a split second before the people actually sing it.  I remember doing The Barber of Seville at the Met, and the comedy elements were enhanced a thousand per cent.  If the surtitles are timed perfectly, it happens exactly when it should happen, and the laughs came in the right places.

athertonBD:    Italian singers tell me they get two laughs
one when the audience reads it, and the next when they see it on the stage.

DA:    [Laughs]  That’s quite right.  I did say
if it’s done right, which it often isn’t, of course!

BD:    We now have the ‘maestro’ in the pit, and the prompter, and then there’s a ‘maestro’ of stage.  Will we have a ‘maestro’ of titles?

DA:    [Laughs]  That’s exactly what we have, really.  There is somebody at the Met whose job it is to do just that and nothing else.  It’s an incredibly time-consuming, very difficult task, and needs a tremendous degree of sensitivity.

BD:    Is there any chance that the opera composer of the next Millennium is going to take this into account?

DA:    Perhaps, if there is to be an opera composer in the next Millennium...  You could argue, as Boulez did, that opera is basically dead.  When you think about it, opera takes place on a stage with a Proscenium Arch, which is essentially a nineteenth century hangover.  What is the relevance of that to the twentieth century, or even the twenty-first century?  In many ways nothing.

BD:    So it’ll be a dead museum? 

DA:    As an art form, in many cases it already is.  I have much more time for works which are all-encompassing, which bring in elements of clowning, mime, straight theater, opera, and ballet mixed in all together where the music is one element in this total whole.  You have just pure entertainment as opposed to restricting it to purely opera where the conventions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries really dictate what happens.

BD:    So is your advice to an opera composer in the next Millennium that he write a string quartet, or sell insurance?

DA:    [Laughs]  It’d certainly be much easier to get a string quartet performed, that’s for sure!

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

DA:    The purpose of music is different for every person, but it can enhance this one and only life that we have to a degree which most people never fully appreciate.  Those of us in music just feel very, very fortunate that we can actually earn a living
and a very good livingdoing something that we enjoy, and can totally immerse ourselves in.  My one reservation is that when you’re a professional musician it’s very difficult to step back from it and review and enjoy music in the way that the ordinary listener would enjoy music, because all the time we tend to be listening critically and analytically, particularly if you’re a conductor.  You tend to be thinking about things that could have been improved.  Much of the time they are on a purely technical level, and after a day of six hours of rehearsal and another two or three hours of administration, when you go home the last thing you really want to do is listen to music.  I’ll put on some lighter stuff, or I put on HBO, but I’ll very rarely go home and actually listen to music for the pure relaxational element of it because I’m always focusing on the performance aspect.

BD:    So you’d be horrible audience at a live performance.

DA:    Oh, I’m appalling; absolutely dreadful.  I can’t sit still.  If I go to the opera, I have to sit at the side in a box so I can actually move.  I hate just sitting still while it’s actually happening.  It’s such a physical thing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Do you conduct the same in the recording studio as you do in the concert hall, or the opera house?

DA:    It can never be the same because the technical requirements are so very, very different
just as between opera and symphonic work.  You’re compromising to different degrees in the recording studio are as well.  For instance, the degrees of balance between different sections.  Let’s say, the timpanist is playing where the microphone is to be a strategic distance away to get the right sound.  That timpanist will have to play probably one third or one quarter of the volume that he’s used to.  Double basses, who can have very close mikeing can actually get away with a different kind of playing as well.  The whole scale becomes different.


BD:    You don’t find the double basses are anticipating a little bit ahead of the beat because they’re always trying to start their instruments a little earlier in a live performance?

DA:    No, it’s partly a degree of projection, that they don’t have to continually force to project as they would in a concert hall.

BD:    But it takes a moment for the double bass actually to get vibrating.  Bass players tell me they have to actually start just before the down beat.  So if the microphone right there...

DA:    Yes, if you’re talking about an arco note.  Everybody has to slightly change their approach, and the way they view it.  But you’re also thinking purely and simply about what the final priorities are going to be like in the knowledge that nowadays things can be done artificially and technically with cutting and digital editing.  You’re much more in the hands of the technical editors after the recording session than you ever were before.  Twenty years ago, just splicing a long note on the piccolo would be exceptionally difficult to do.  Now they can take a chord that’s not quite together, trim it a little bit, take out the second bassoon note and stick it up a bit because he was a little bit flat, and then stick the note back in again.  All these things are done all the time, and are perfectly natural.

BD:    At what point does it become a fraud?

DA:    It’s a fraud as soon as you start it because it’s no longer an actual performance.  Live performances are avoided by a lot of people.  Performances have these little imperfections which, when you hear just a performance it doesn’t matter terribly.  The trumpet maybe splits a note, the horn comes in a bit sharp, and in a live performance you accept those things.  That’s what partly makes it exciting because you know it is live and it’s happening in that moment.  When you transfer that onto a CD, every single time you listen to that piece, you hear that same horn note, that same trumpet note, and you’re almost waiting for it.  So that becomes your favorite recording after hearing that twenty times, and when you go to hear a live performance you’re surprised when the trumpet doesn’t split the note because that’s become part of the piece and part of the experience for you.  So in that sense you can improve upon live performances, but you always lose something in the process.


BD:    Do you have any advice for audiences who like their record collection? 

DA:    [Laughs]  The trouble is it looks as if everybody’s going to replenish their collection yet again with DVD coming along.  Now we’ll have another twenty-five versions of the Four Seasons.  [Both groan at the prospect]

BD:    I have often thought we should have a moratorium
not just in the in the concert hall, but also on recordingsof the standard works, at least for a while.  Then we can come back to them fresher.

DA:    The trouble is with people who are in the business, especially reviewers who are going to maybe three or four concerts each week.  They get even more jaded than the musicians if they are having to go to the same works, whereas, as I said before, those pieces often tend to be some of the greatest masterpieces.  Beethoven’s Fifth, which is one of the most popular of all symphonies, also happens to be a masterpiece, and if we lose sight of that just because it’s familiar, then there’s something wrong.

[At this point we stopped for a moment to do a few technical things, such as recording a Station Break, and asking his birth date.  Even though I usually knew the date, I always asked my guests, and this time showed the reason for checking, since the year of 1941, given in the Grove Dictionary (20 volume edition), was not correct!  The actual date, as noted in subsequent editions and other encyclopedias, is January 3, 1944.]

BD:    Are you happy with where you are at this point in your career?

DA:    Oh, yes.  You’re always striving for new and better things, and better performances, but I’m very, very happy with the balance that I have between symphonic work, opera, and as much new contemporary stuff as I want to do.  I tend to do it with specialist groups, such as London Sinfonietta, which I founded in late ‘60s.  Yes, I’m very happy.  I wouldn’t change anything! 


BD:    Is conducting fun?

DA:    It can be!  It can be exceptionally hard work, exceptionally tiring, but it can also be very, very rewarding and, yes, at times it can be fun.  You’re working all the time with highly trained musicians who, on the whole, have gone into this business because they had a love of music.  Then to wake up every day and actually be working with people who’ve got that kind of mindset and attitude to their work is very rewarding.  Likewise, the kind of individuals that go into music administration tend to be people who are motivated by the product.  They’re interested in working for a symphony orchestra or a festival not just because it’s a job.  Obviously there’ll always be one or two people like that, but by and large they go into it because of their love of music and the arts.

BD:    Will you be back in Chicago?

DA:    Actually I come here quite often because we audition every year here.  I was here only about five weeks ago.  We come each year to audition here for the Hong Kong Philharmonic.  In fact, some of our best auditionees comes from this area, particularly Evanston.  We generally find more people in Chicago than we do in LA.  We usually have anywhere between six to ten vacancies each year.  By the very nature of Hong Kong being where it is geographically, it tends to attract unattached younger players, and the standard of people coming along now just seems to get better each year.

BD:    The technical standard keeps improving.  Has the musical standard also kept improving?

athertonDA:    Well, to a certain degree one goes hand in hand with the other.  If you’re going to play the first page of Don Juan, which is always one of the violin pieces that people are asked to do at auditions, it’s not all about technique.  It’s an awful lot to do with technique, but it’s also to do with musicianship.  The thing I find one of the most essential elements in all music is pulse, as opposed to rhythm, and if you’re looking for a player, above all you want somebody with a good sense of pulse.  The odd little bit of intonation may not be the perfect sound, but those are things you can often live with.  However, if they don’t have a good sense of pulse, for a conductor that’s a total nightmare.  To somebody who doesn’t have a good sense of pulse, I always tell them to go away, buy a good metronome and just work with it, and work with it, and work with it until you actually begin to understand what pulse is about.  If you are playing all the right notes but slightly in the wrong place, by definition you’re playing a handful of wrong notes.  It’s so negative and so destructive to an orchestra to have just one player whose sense of pulse isn’t strong.  It’s a rather silly way of putting it, but if you had to make a list of the most important elements in music when you’re looking for new players, I would put pulse at the top of the list before intonation, before rhythm, before sound, before anything.  If somebody’s going to be playing in an orchestra, you can’t get unanimity of ensemble if somebody is just slightly off all the time.  All it does is create a slightly muddy texture, and just make everything a little bit dirty.

BD:    The music that you conduct, is it for everyone?

DA:    Not all of it.  Not all music’s for me.  I have great difficulty getting on with Bach, for instance.  Bruckner I can’t bear.  There’s very little Bruckner that really does anything for me at all.

BD:    Are you forced, on occasion, to conduct a Bruckner symphony?

DA:    No, never been forced to do anything.  [Both laugh]

BD:    You’re very lucky!

DA:    Not now anyhow.  In my early days I was, but if I’m planning a season in Hong Kong, I choose all the artists and the guest conductors, and we will include Bruckner, and we will include Bach, although it won’t be by me!  It’ll be people who will do it better.  If a conductor doesn’t feel akin to a particular composer, it’s not a comment particularly about that composer; it’s more a comment about the individual.  So it’s better if somebody does it who really believes in it, and actually can really relate to the music.

BD:    I’m glad you feel akin to so many composers.  Thank you for coming back to Chicago on such short notice.  Is there a special joy of jumping in at the last minute?

DA:    Not really!  If I had to travel very far I wouldn’t have agreed to do it.  As I said, I kept whole summer clear, and my kids are coming out this week, so it just happens to fit in all right.  In a way it also helps to physically keep active, because if you suddenly stop for about six weeks and don’t do any conducting...

BD:’ll have a sore arm the next day?

DA:    [Laughs]  No, no, I work out.  I have a physiotherapist and all the rest of it.

BD:    Will you have a sore brain then the next day?

DA:    [Laughs again]  No, there’s a kind of momentum you get into.  There’s a kind of flow, if you like.

BD:    It’s not inertia, is it?

DA:    No, no, but I’m not somebody who’d sit on a beach for ten days and just read a book.  I always have to be doing something, and after a week or so you sort of miss it.  You need the fix!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Thank you for the conversation.

DA:    My pleasure.






© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on August 4, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.