Conductor David Atherton
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
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
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
That’s a good question. Probably the
answer’s no! [Laughs] The problem is that I’m Music
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
DA: Piano and
BD: So you got out
that and into conducting. Do you like being a wondering
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
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
awful lot fundraising like the kind that exists here in the U.S.
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
come to any of your concerts. So it’s a matter of striking a
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 adventurous — then
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,
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
overtures, and lasts fifteen minutes.
BD: 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
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
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
work — you 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
longer than the other! So you tend to schedule these pieces a
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
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]
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,
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
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
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
additional rehearsal with a local chorus. Then you build in all
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
BD: The way you’re
painting it, it sounds rather hopeless!
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
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?
conductors ask for an enormous amount of rehearsal time, and it’s a
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
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
undoubtedly yes. You can sometimes feel it when you come onto the
stage — or if it’s an
opera, into the orchestra pit — almost 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 response — not
so much the warmth
but the immediacy of it — you 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
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
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
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
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
twentieth century, music has become, generally speaking, more
complex. At least it did until the late ’50s,
BD: Did it become
then. That whole
‘Darmstadt period’ was complex to the extent that it became almost an
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
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.
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
DA: Opera is even
more of a compromise than
symphonic work in the sense that you have to make allowances for lots
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] You don’t expect the tenor’s wig to fly off?
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
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
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
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
BD: Are singers
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
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
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
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
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. You 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?
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
elements that go into it. If you’re a violinist, there are the
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]
BD: It sounds like it
really is impossible to do all
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
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
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
BD: Be different
for different’s sake?
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
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
then. In opera, where is the balance between the music and the
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
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!
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
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.
BD: Italian singers
tell me they get two
laughs — one when the audience
reads it, and the next when they see it on the stage.
That’s quite right. I did say ‘if it’s
done right’, which it often isn’t,
BD: We now have
‘maestro’ in the pit, and the prompter, and then there’s a
‘maestro’ of stage. Will we have a ‘maestro’ of titles?
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
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
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
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?
It’d certainly be much easier to
get a string quartet performed, that’s for sure!
BD: We’re kind of
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 living — doing
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
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.
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
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
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
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
DA: Yes, if you’re
talking about an arco
note. Everybody has to slightly change their approach, and the
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
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
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
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?
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
BD: I have often
thought we should have a moratorium — not just
in the in the
concert hall, but also on recordings — of 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
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.
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
DA: Oh, yes.
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
Sinfonietta, which I founded in late ‘60s. Yes, I’m very
happy. I wouldn’t change anything!
BD: Is conducting
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
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
improving. Has the musical standard also kept improving?
DA: 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.
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
DA: No, never been
forced to do anything. [Both laugh]
BD: You’re very
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
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
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
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
BD: ...you’ll have
a sore arm the next day?
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?
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
© 1997 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on August 4,
1997. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
and again in 1999.
This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.