Conductor  Sian  Edwards
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Sian Edwards studied at the RNCM and with Professor A.I. Musin at the Leningrad Conservatoire. [More about Musin in box farther down on this webpage.]  In September 2013 she took up the role of Head of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. She has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras including Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland, Orchestre de Paris, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Berlin Symphony, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, MDR Leipzig, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Finnish Radio Symphony, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Royal Flanders Philharmonic, London Sinfonietta, the Hallé, and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.   She has a close relationship with Ensemble Modern in Germany.

edwards She made her operatic debut in 1986 conducting Weill’s Mahagonny for Scottish Opera and her ROH debut in 1988 with Tippett’s The Knot Garden.  From 1993 to 1995 she was Music Director of ENO (succeeding Mark Elder) for whom her repertoire included Khovanshchina, Jenůfa, Queen of Spades and Blond Eckbert (also recorded on Collins).  For the Glyndebourne Festival she has conducted La Traviata and the Ravel Double Bill, and for Glyndebourne Touring Opera Katya Kabanova and Tippett’s New Year.  She conducted the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek at the Munich Biennale in 1988, and other engagements have included the world premiere of Hans Gefors’ Clara for the Opéra Comique in Paris, Così fan tutte in Aspen, her return to ENO for Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni in Copenhagen, Damnation de Faust in Helsinki, Peter Grimes and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in Frankfurt; Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at the Theater an der Wien,  A Night at the Chinese Opera for Scottish Opera, Jenůfa for Welsh National Opera, Hansel and Gretel for the Royal Academy of Music and Aquarius by Karel Goeyvaerts for Flanders Opera.

Sian Edwards’ recordings include Peter and the Wolf, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide, and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, all with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Judith Weir’s Blond Eckbert with English National Opera.

Recent and future concert engagements include performances with Ensemble Modern, Bayerische Rundfunk in Munich, SWR Sinfonieorchester Freiburg, Kuopio Symphony, Turku Philharmonic, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia, musikfabrik, Landesjugendorchester Berlin, Deutscher Musikrat, Milton Keynes City Orchestra, Palestinian Youth Orchestra, Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, BBC National Orchestra of Wales as well as performances at the Edinburgh International Festival, the Royal College of Music and a tour of the UK with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee .  Recent and future operatic engagements include The Rape of Lucretia and La traviata for the Theater an der Wien, Orlando, a new ballet, for the Staatstheater Stuttgart, The Rake’s Progress for Scottish Opera, Ades’ The Tempest for Oper Frankfurt, and a concert performance of Tippett’s King Priam at the Brighton Festival.   She has recently contributed to a new film by Tony Palmer on Holst.

--  Biography from Ingpen & Williams website (with slight additions)  
--  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In September of 1996, Edwards conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in a program which included the Nabucco Overture of Verdi, the Violin Concerto by William Bolcom, played by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and the Rachmaninoff Symphony #3.  Knowing that the conductor was not scheduled to come to Chicago any time soon, I made the pleasant 90-minute drive north and had this conversation with her.

She was cheerful and enthusiastic, and we had a splendid time talking about various aspects of her life and career.

Here is that encounter . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You conduct both symphony and opera.  How do you divide your career between those two different kinds of conducting
or is it really indeed different kinds of conducting?

Sian Edwards:    I was primarily trained in symphony work first, and the symphony side of things was what first really grabbed my attention.  I first was a French horn player, and as kid I used to play in all the youth orchestras.  There was always symphony music and I thought it was just heaven.  It was fantastic.

BD:    Lots of Bruckner and Mahler?

SE:    Yes, although I am actually more of a Brahms person, to tell you the truth.  That kind of line to Stravinsky, rather than the Mahler and Wagner thing.  But I didn’t actually really do any opera until ten years ago, when through someone else’s misfortune I had a lucky break.  Simon Rattle was going to do Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny.  It was a new production up in Glasgow, Scotland, and he lives in London.  His wife was taken ill and had to go to hospital, and he didn’t feel he could leave with a small child for all that time that he was going to be preparing the opera.  So at very short notice they had to look for another conductor, and he very kindly recommended me.  I had just started my professional career and was incredibly free at the time, so the company took the risk, took me on, and then the operatic side of my career started to roll.

BD:    Why did he think of you in terms of opera when you’d been trained as a symphonic conductor?


SE:    He’d seen me conduct a little bit, and typically of him actually, when I won a competition in the UK he was one of the first people to invite me to conduct.  I went to the City of Birmingham, and so he had a fair idea of what I could do.  He thought it would be a good opportunity for someone like me to get into the other side, and it was a piece that wasn’t so obviously operatic.  Kurt Weill’s music, as you surely know, is much more jazz-based and song-based.  It’s not like suddenly going to conduct Puccini when you’ve never done anything like it before.  So that gave me a lead in, and I really enjoyed it.  I had a fantastic time doing it.  In fact we were terribly lucky on that production because the tenor who was doing the role of Jimmy dropped out at the last minute, and we had of your great stars of the past, Richard Cassilly, come in from New York.  He did it at two days’ notice, or something.   So that was another bit of deep end to chuck me into.  [Both laugh]  But he was so nice and did a wonderful job, and that was a big thrill to work for him, too.  But since then I suppose I’ve done opera once or twice a year, and then I got a job with English National Opera for a while.

BD:    You were Music Director?

SE:    That’s right, three years ago, which was a wonderful experience in some ways actually.  Unfortunately it really didn’t work out for me in terms of all the administrative side and how the company was working at that time.

BD:    You’d rather do music than business?

SE:    Well, actually yes !  Also there was also a tiny bit of me yelling to also sort of be a human being and see my family occasionally, and not be 150% involved solely with running operatic issues, shall I say.

BD:    Does the music profession take too much out of the participants?

SE:    I think it can do.  Any music directorship, whether it’s in an opera house or indeed a symphony orchestra, demands of the musician not only that they’re going to be up there on a podium doing a good job, but all the planning
which should be a fun thing actually, what you’re going to do in the future, who you want to come and work with youbut of course that’s a lot of work.  But there is the other side, which is money, and I’m sure most music directors in this country and in the UK will say that they spend a lot of time being present promoting the orchestra or the group, doing the fundraising, doing the interviews.  It’s very nice to do one with you, but a lot of them take up an awful lot of energy, and people do find they spread themselves very thin.

BD:    If you could write your own ticket completely, would you just conduct and that’s all?

edwards SE:    Having had this experience at English National Opera, I can say that eventually I would love actually to work again with an ensemble or a company long-term, but it would be very important to me that I mainly did the conducting and some of the planning, but not everything else that was happening.  I’m very happy to be around and take part in various events, but not to the extent of having to work on reshaping the whole working mode of the company, which is what ENO was going through a few years ago.  That really does get too much.

BD:    When you come in to do guest conducting like you are here in Milwaukee this week, is there much that you can do, or can you just simply prepare these pieces and not worry about the actual sound of the orchestra?

SE:    When you come as a guest, especially the first time, you’re just very interested to know how the orchestra’s playing and what they have to offer.  I had heard about this orchestra, and in fact one or two American friends said to me that Milwaukee is a very well-kept secret because it’s an excellent orchestra, and indeed that is absolutely the case.  It’s been a real pleasure to work with the group this week.  Not only are they very good, but also very nice and very relaxed.  I felt very much that we could work in collaboration with each other, and that was very, very nice.  So the first thing is to find out what is there, and really just to try to offer to the group some ideas of sound and interpretation without expecting that they’re going to take, or want to take on everything because they work in certain ways, and you sense whether where the boundaries are.  But if you’re the Music Director, the reason an orchestra takes you on is I’m sure there are things that they want to tackle that you can do with them, and take them further.  They like that excitement and, I hope as well that every time I visit an orchestra I bring new things, and an orchestra feels that’s interesting.  Good collaborations always bring that sort of thing out, but when you’re a guest, it is firstly a short-term thing, and that’s rather nice actually.  You just have these three concerts to do, and that means you can absolutely focus on what you’re doing with the music.  You’re not having to think that next time I’d like to do this different. 

BD:    But I assume the concert tonight will get better from the previous concert?

SE:    Yes, it can do.  I’m sure they’ll all be different, but it’s very important to take each one as it comes.  If there are slips or something in one concert you really work hard not to let that happen again, and indeed all the players do as well.

BD:    So that’s just a technical thing?

SE:    Yes, but above that, I hope that each one will open up more of the expressive possibilities in what we’re doing.

BD:    Is all your work done at rehearsal or do you leave some special spark for that night for performance?

SE:    Well, I really hope I’ve left a spark.  I must say that the rehearsal process interests me very much.  Conductors do often fall into one of two categories.  You’re either a very good rehearser but not always the sparkiest performer, or you’re a hopeless rehearser but everything happens in the concert, and if it does, it does and that’s great.  I find rehearsing a tremendous challenge.  That’s the area where most conductors are really stretched to be able to think very quickly and to diagnose what’s happening.  You’re right on top of the sound, and you sometimes don’t really get a good idea of what it sounding like.  Things can be deceptive.

BD:    I think you’d be almost in the poorest place to listen.

SE:    Absolutely, yes.  Sometimes you don’t hear the timpani or you don’t hear the brass very clearly, so there you are waiving at them to give more and people at the back of the hall are saying it is so loud.  It’s going right over your head.  So yes, things like that one has to be wary of.  Because I come from Britain, where we’re used to having very limited rehearsal time, I’m used to working to a very tight schedule and definitely leaving quite a lot up to the performance.  British performers are used to that, and in America, too, there’s a sense of ‘we will be all right on the night’.  We just get the basic things right and explore what’s there and all the rest of it.  But I get a real sense with this orchestra that they are revving up when we start off in the concerts.

BD:    If you had more rehearsal time, would it be possible to get something over-rehearsed?

SE:    Oh yes, definitely.  It’s a very great skill to actually rehearse, first of all, an interesting orchestra for many hours.  I saw a tape not long ago of Sergiu Celibidache.  He recently died in Munich, so there were all sorts of programs about him, and very interesting tape of him in the 1960s rehearsing an orchestra in Stuttgart.  He was incredibly flamboyant.  The whole thing was this massive showmanship and act in front of the orchestra, which kept them occupied for hours and hours, as well as brilliant musicianship of course.  He was rehearsing everything from memory, every detail, not to see if it is correct or not.  That didn’t really interest them.  It was the character and the expression of every moment, and really enthusing the musicians.  But you have to be a very, very great person to be able to keep that up for hours and hours.

BD:    I just wonder if his style would have lasted into the 1990s.

SE:    It’s interesting you should say that because there was a time when he came to London actually, with the London Symphony Orchestra, and certainly in the beginning they were absolutely enthralled by him.  But after he visited five or six times, I think they couldn’t really keep up that sort of attention.  But certainly in Munich, where they’re more used to working in that style anyway, he still did great things right to the very end of his life.

edwards BD:    But when we look at tapes of the conductors of the previous generations, such as Toscanini and Furtwängler, those kinds of antics and ideas may or may not be acceptable today.

SE:    Absolutely.  A lot of them are not acceptable, and in fact a lot of them are now simply not allowed.

BD:    But they were absolutely necessary then?

SE:    I don’t know if it was necessary to fire people if you didn’t like the way they played, which is what those people could do then.  Obviously that’s completely changed now.  In fact the only person who can get fired is the conductor actually!  [Laughs]  Probably quite right too!  I always remember that marvelous story of Toscanini going into Vienna and rehearsing.  It may have been the beginning of Otello, and the Intendant knew that he wasn’t going to like what he heard, and he knew that he would have a fit and try and leave the hall.  So he locked every single door in the hall, and of course the inevitable happened.  There was a big blow-up on the podium, and Toscanini marches off and couldn’t get out.  Then he tries the next door and that’s locked as well.  So he went around screaming and shouting and trying to leave...  [Both laugh]  But yes, it’s very different these days.

BD:    Let me turn this around.  Do you ever feel trapped by the music or the musicians?

SE:    It’s a very interesting question, and the answer is yes, it can happen.  Of course one hopes that an experience with an orchestra is always going to be very positive and very collaborative, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.  The chemistry isn’t right, or you’ve done something stupid, or the mood in the orchestra is wrong. Whatever it is, something doesn’t work and it can be the worst thing in the world if the mood goes down.  It’s very hard then to actually get it to go up again.  Some people are very clever, having the bon mot at the right moment, and everyone laughs and suddenly the atmosphere is broken.  But I find that quite hard actually to do.

BD:    I assume then you just turn down future contracts with that orchestra?

SE:    Well, they never invite you again!  So it’s all right.  [Much laughter]

BD:    Without mentioning names, are there sometimes offers that you are surprised have come in?

SE:    Oh yes, absolutely.  I am pleased because it’s very nice when something you thought would never happen suddenly does.

BD:    When you accept an engagement you bring your ideas with you.  Do you ever incorporate new ideas that you get on the spot during rehearsals?

SE:    Yes, I do.  I’ve often felt that there’s a percentage which you can allow yourself in terms of spontaneity.  Particularly in the short amount of time you have to rehearse, there are certain things you simply have got to get right.  It’s got to work out, got to sort out with the musicians, and they don’t appreciate it very much if you’re messing about and changing your mind, because time trickles by and it’s not that interesting for them if you’re asking them to do one thing and they write it in their parts very carefully, and then you say, no, no, no, and they have to rub it out.  But certainly, going back to what you were asking me earlier, when an orchestra offers you things that you haven’t thought of before, it’s marvelous to actually then be able to say,
Oh yes, that’s wonderful.  Yes, absolutely!  Let’s do it like that!  I can cancel something else I thought of.  I’d love to be able to work like that.

BD:    So you really must be quick.

SE:    Yes, absolutely, and feeling your way all the time.  I remember once I had a tremendously marvelous opportunity back when I was working at Covent Garden.  Carlos  Kleiber came to do some performances of Otello and they invited me to be his assistant, which was terrifying and wonderful.  Actually he was very, very nice that time.  The management at Covent Garden were terribly nervous because that autumn he was supposed to be conducting at the Met, and he simply hadn’t liked something and the next thing they heard that he was on the plane back to Munich.  So the Covent Garden management were absolutely hysterical that this might happen again because he’s very highly strung.  So I was detailed to be very nice to him, and also to phone the management at any moment if he wouldn’t play ball.  But he seemed very relaxed, and he told a rather nice story.  He said, “I learn a score for years.  I had this piece that I was studying for eleven years, and I finally thought I really know what I want to do with it.  The first morning of rehearsals, I was walking to the rehearsal room and I passed somebody’s flat, and he had the window open and the radio was on, and sure enough this piece I was about to do was on the radio, coming out of the window.  It was a totally different interpretation and I thought,
Good God!  That sounds really good!  So I threw out all the things I thought of and just started again.”  So it can be a very fickle thing what you think and feel.  Of course there are some pieces where you are absolutely, totally convinced about what you think, and then there are other things you feel much more ambivalent about.  Or you can try one thing and then another, but in the end everything has its own scale.

BD:    Is it correct to assume there is no one right way of playing any piece of music?

SE:    Oh, absolutely, absolutely.  For an individual, of course, there can be only one way to do certain things.  For example, for me, Shostakovich is a very important and special composer.  I have very, very particular ideas about interpretation of certain things in his music.  But that’s only for me.  You may well disagree totally with me, and that’s fine.

BD:    You expect the audience to at least give you a chance?

SE:    Yes.  When people come to a concert I want them to be interested in what’s going on.  Obviously some people may never have heard the piece before, and then I hope that the experience is going to be fresh and exciting for them, and convincing in whichever way it’s being done.  The great thing is to do it with conviction, whatever you believe in, and to communicate that to the audience.  At the other end of the scale there are people who may know the work incredibly well, and I hope they will feel that the performance has love and conviction there.  And if they do totally disagree with the way it’s being done, at least they can appreciate  that it was done from the heart. 

BD:    And yet in the same performance you’ve got to convince both the first time and the hundredth-time concert goer?

SE:    Yes, and you can’t always do it, but I hope that there’s a performance there anyway.  It’s an academic exercise, but at least it’s alive.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    From the huge array of orchestral literature and operatic literature, how do you decide which pieces you will learn and conduct, and which pieces you’ll set aside?

edwards SE:    [Laughs]  That’s a very good question!  There are certain things for me that are fairly straightforward.  I’m not at all
at the moment anywaya baroque or classical specialist.  I wasn’t brought up on early music in any way, so that is now such a particular field that I don’t feel equipped to do.  I would do Bach or Handel with small orchestras so I can try things out, but I suppose my repertoire really starts with Haydn and Mozart.  I don’t work in the classical style particularly in that I’ve never worked with an orchestra that plays period instruments, for example.  But I have learned a lot from what I’ve heard from performances they give, and indeed I think that performance style is gradually working its way into the mainstream in lots of different areas.  But I always say that I start with Haydn, and it’s a fairly mainstream view of that music.  I really love to do Beethoven, and want to do more.  

BD:    So we can assume a full cycle at some point?  [Both laugh]

SE:    I would love to do that, so I am building up to it.  I will do the Sixth Symphony this year for the first time, and I’m very pleased about that.   I’m also very interested to do Schubert, and Schumann I would like to try because the symphonies are difficult.  They don’t play themselves, and I’m really interested to begin to work on that.  Not many orchestras really want to schedule those symphonies unless they have a very specific conductor coming.  So I’m just waiting for a chance to do them.  Brahms I really love, and I like to do the music not in such an enormous and heavy Germanic way that is sometimes done, or perhaps often done, but I’m looking for ways in which I can do it with slightly smaller symphony orchestras.  I really like that music, but Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner I don’t really find so interesting, which is odd because I was a horn player, and they have great music for horns.  Maybe I just had too much of it when I was a kid.

BD:    Maybe you’ll come back to it when you’re fifty!

SE:    Maybe I will.  Berlioz is another composer I love to do actually, so it’s more along that line, and getting into the French side, including Debussy.

BD:    When you get an offer of a piece or you see a piece on your desk, what is it about the work that turns you on? 

SE:    Firstly it’s the sound and energy that comes from the piece.  I was just thinking about La Mer.  I heard a performance at the Proms, at the Albert Hall in London recently, and just the sound of the orchestra and the color immediately grabs me.  It’s that sort of thing.  Janáček, for example, does that to me, and I’m really excited by his music.  I’ve done a couple of his operas.

BD:    You’re following Sir Charles Mackerras in that?

SE:    Yes, exactly.  Taras Bulba is the great favorite.  Also, because the works are not so well known, it’s wonderful to bring a piece like Taras with an orchestra.  You feel that you can actually do something fresh for them with it.  That’s another thing actually that colors one choice of work.  If you’re going to an orchestra that plays mainstream repertoire all the time and knows it very well, it’s difficult, particularly as a younger conductor, to come and really cut ice with pieces that they know.  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example, is very difficult to do.  So I suppose I tend to look for works that are slightly less usual.  When I made my debut in Los Angeles with the Philharmonic I brought Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, which I think is a fantastic work.  They didn’t really know it, and I felt I could really therefore do something with them, and they weren’t judging me by the last great conductor who did it.

BD:    I want to broach a delicate subject, hoping it’s something that is just about faded out, and that’s the idea of your being a woman conductor.  Do you still meet resistance?

SE:    Yes!  [Laughs]  It amuses me particularly in America because the pronunciation of my name is the same as the boy’s name in America.  In Britain there is a different pronunciation.  We say Séan [Shawn] for the boy’s name and Sîan [Shahn] is the girl’s name, so it’s not quite so confusing.  But firstly it’s an amusing thing when it is a surprise for people.  I’ve walked out once or twice on the platform and had one or two members of the orchestra looking really, “Well, who’s this?  When’s the conductor coming?”

BD:    You are his little assistant!

SE:    That’s right.   So it’s very funny, but I have to say that in all my work I’ve never experienced the obvious
“You’re a woman so how could you possibly do the job, kind of attitude.  I’ve had some experiences where at the time I didn’t think anything of it, but later I thought back and wondered if maybe that person was actually saying underneath that the problem was probably more the fact that I am in a woman, and the next thing is how does a woman actually show authority?  How does a woman behave in a situation where you’re expected to have a certain sort of authority in front of a group of people?  I don’t mean that in a way where you are stamping around on people’s heads.  It’s a question of how you put across ideas in a way that people feel they’re going to be strong and valid.  That is an issue for women in all walks of life, actually, when they’re in any kind of position of leadership.

edwards BD:    Are we getting better at that?

SE:    I think so.  The simple fact that more women are more visible in the public life is showing that.  But I have to say that in my own profession, there are still very, very few women.

BD:    In England the only other one I know is Jane Glover.

SE:    That’s right.  She is actually marvelous and really doing tremendously well, but there are women coming through.  There are three or four on the professional circuit now who are really doing very well, but it’s still  a very minority thing, and it’s still a minority enough for people to comment, or orchestra say, “Oh, you know, we’ve got a woman this week!”  They feel that it’s different.

BD:    In Chicago we’ve always been used to it as Margaret Hillis has been here and she’s always been known and has never been any problem.

SE:    Exactly.  I’m hoping that it’ll gradually gather pace like that because I know in America you’ve got several highly successful women...

BD:    ... such as JoAnn Falletta and Catherine Comet.  They’re just the ones that come to mind.  Are your forming a little ‘coterie’ of women conductors?

SE:    [Laughs]  Well, you know, conductors are hopeless really.  They’re really like ships that pass in the night.  We very rarely have a chance to meet, but I do have one or two friends.  In fact Jane was one of them in London.  We’d call each other up and talk and exchange funny stories!  That would generally boost the moral because it is great to hear that you are not the only one who couldn’t find a woman’s toilet anywhere in the premises!  Jane has some marvelous stories about that.

BD:    Sure!  But now there are more women in the orchestras so it’s changing.

SE:    Absolutely.  The whole balance is changing, and it’s also very interesting to deal with this authority thing.  In the late twentieth century, people do have a different attitude, going back to what we were saying about Toscanini.  Conductors no longer behave in that sort of extremely autocratic way, and musicians should expect better treatment.  So it is a very different feel.  The whole process of music-making in any case should be a collaborative one, and it’s a question of how that evolves.

BD:    So you’re just expected to stand up there and get on with it?

SE:    Absolutely, yes.

BD:    Then we really have made progress?

SE:    I think so.  Just the fact that from those days, when musicians were very poorly treated and had a very difficult time, the unionization of orchestras has meant that they have now much stronger and clearer idea of how they want to work. They largely arrange things in collaboration with their managements so that the thing runs well and humanely, and also that they have the conductors that they like.  Very few orchestras will have conductors imposed on them whom they don’t like working with.  There’s a period of trial, and then they’ll say, “We thought she was okay,
or, “We thought she was terrible.”  Then they’ll have back the people they like.  So you don’t get into a situation very often when people are slaving under their sort of authority.

BD:    Have you got a directorship currently?

SE:    No, I don’t have. 

BD:    Is that something you relish, or are you glad to be rid of it?

SE:    I was happy to be at the time, and when things didn’t work for me at ENO to go.  That was a good decision and the right thing to do, although it was a difficult one.  But now I am just having to bide my time and see what comes up.  I’m not dying; I’m not crazy to find another job and say, “I can’t exist without being Music Director!”  I have very nice freelance dates in the next couple of years, so there’s plenty there to keep me thinking and developing.  When the right thing comes along I hope I’ll be ready to take it on.

BD:    You have enough engagements to keep you happy?

SE:    Oh yes, absolutely.

BD:    Do you have enough free time to keep you happy?

SE:    This is the hard thing, actually.  It’s a very hard thing to keep a balance.  I have a husband and a small son, and the one thing about doing operatic work is that it does keep you in one place quite a long time.  Concert work tends to be at a week here and a week there, and so I’m traveling a lot.  

BD:    Do you like being a ‘wandering minstrel’?

SE:    It’s fun for a while.  It gets lonely after a while too, and it’s great when you have friends in the town.  When people are friendly you really appreciate that, but it is a hard balance.  Even more difficult, I find, is not so much the traveling
although that’s a tough thing to be away from my familyis actually doing the preparation work beforehand because that is ninety per cent of your work as a conductor.  You need to remember the scores and really have time to think deeply about what you’re doing; not just quickly flicking through but actually really thinking and taking something on board and having the time to really work out what you want to do.  Balancing that with having a family is hard, so I have to be really careful about what I schedule and the kind of programs I take on so that I know I have enough time to actually get the work done.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When someone presents you with a brand new score, perhaps a world premiere, what do you look for to say you would like to champion this work, or no, it’s a piece of trash?

edwards SE:    This is my eleventh professional season, but earlier on when I first started working, I more or less took on everything that was offered because for me it was a great trial period.  A lot of the time you have an instinct about certain composers, but other pieces you really don’t know whether you’re going to do them well or like them until you’ve done them.  So I’ve had a long period of doing a lot of things, and it’s only now that I’m beginning to draw back a little bit and say that we don’t get on with that sort of thing, or know that I can do this quite well.  I’ve done some pieces which are rhythmically incredibly complicated and ended up being something where you don’t hear or feel a rhythm, and when you’re listening to it it’s a complex web of sound.  I find those pieces very difficult to do, and pretty stressful as well.  So I suppose I’m gradually beginning to see that I don’t do those so well.  But on the other hand, I did a couple of pieces by Swiss composers recently at a Lucerne Festival, and they were obviously straight away pieces I could tackle.  One was quite lyrical and more Debussy-like in its color, and the other one was very rhythmic and more minimalist, and which was fun as well.  Both were with choirs, and I enjoyed that a lot.

BD:    Do you find it encouraging that new symphonic works are often becoming more accessible?

SE:    Yes, I do.  As a performer, it’s just great to know that you’re going to do a piece that you feel is actually going to make it across the footlights, and that some people are going to really engage with.  Actually that’s one real fun thing about this violin concerto we’re going to do here in Milwaukee by William Bolcom, played by this wonderful violinist, Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg.  She is such a live wire and such a giver when she’s playing.  The piece itself has a number of styles in it, and the shape of it in terms of its phrasing and color, and also the material itself is very, very communicating straight away.  I found when I was learning it that I could take it in very quickly.  I wasn’t having to spend hours and hours trying to work out exactly what was there.  It was clear, it was on the page jumping out at you, and I really do feel that we’re going to be able to project something.  I hope people will like it.

BD:    If it jumps off the page at you into your eye, does it also jump off the sound into people’s ears?

SE:    I think so, yes.  The sense of form and rhythm straight away can make an impact.

BD:    What advice do you have for composers who want to write symphonic music, or even an opera?

SE:    I don’t know if I could really presume to say anything, other than the more a composer can be linked with the performers who are going to be playing the piece, the more he or she can actually get to know you personally.  Then you can find out what the people are like and how they handle music, and when you’re working in a opera house, what the singers can do and what kind of people they are.  The more you can write for people that you know, the closer you’re going to get to a real collaboration and a great performance.  That also helps an understanding of what you’re trying to do.  When composers write things that are completely... I hate to say the word ‘ivory tower’ because I don’t really mean that, but completely away from the live people who are going to do it, sometimes one gets caught up in a situation where the music is either so complex technically that it’s very difficult to do justice to it in the amount of time you have to rehearse it, or it really needs special pleading as far as the audience is concerned.  You only find this out at the last minute when you’re finally doing the rehearsals.  You suddenly realize you should have had three workshops on this for the performers and for the audience to introduce them to this piece.  So it’s finding the right channels to launch the ship, as it were.  We found it constructive in the UK
and I’m sure you must have it developing over here toocomposers-in-residences and things like this.  They’ve just started doing it now with opera companies in the UK, and composers suddenly realize there’s a singer here who is really going to be able to do this sort of style.  I want to write something for her.  This is great!  Then the singers engage with that, rather than wondering how on earth am I going to work out which note to sing next in a difficult score.

BD:    But it’s got to be written in such a way that it’s not for that specific person but anyone with that voice type.

SE:    Absolutely, exactly, but you can really do that.  All the old composers did that.  So I think that’s well worth a tip.

BD:    So it doesn’t matter what human being you’re writing it for, just write it for a human being!

SE:    Exactly, yes, really.

BD:    What advice do you have for young conductors coming along?

SE:    Well, that’s a hard one, too, but perhaps I’m a little better equipped to make suggestions.  When you are beginning to think about being a conductor as something that interests you, then the first thing is just honestly to go and hear a lot of conductors.  Listen to them; go listen to rehearsals.  If you’re in a situation as I was when I was at college in Manchester when I was studying the horn, I found that because the Hallé Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra have their homes in Manchester, it was great to get scores out of the library and go and listen to a rehearsals.  Just get a feel of what they’re doing, and at that time, of course, one is terribly critical.  You wonder why are they doing that?  That sounds awful and I hate it.  But that’s fine because you’re actually developing your own sense of taste and style, and also a working knowledge of how an orchestra behaves.  You learn what you need to do, and although that can’t replace doing it yourself, it’s a start.  The next thing is to do it yourself.  Get together with small groups.  I started off conducting wind octets of Mozart and Krommer and Hummel and people like that.  It was just at college, and it was a great way of beginning to experience communicating with players and getting performances.  Getting a wide knowledge of music in a general sense, and really loving what you’re doing is very important.  Then the next step is to find somebody or a place where you can train.  That’s a difficult one, actually.  Over here you have some great places like that.  I know one or two British people who have come over here and had very successful studies.  I actually did my study in the Soviet Union, which was a very exciting experience for me.  I had a marvelous teacher there who is 92 now and still teaching, who really gave me the first steps towards my professional career.

musin Ilya Aleksandrovich Musin (Russian: Илья́ Алекса́ндрович Му́син; 6 January 1904 [O.S. 24 December 1903] – 6 June 1999) was a Russian conductor, a prominent teacher and a theorist of conducting.

Musin first studied conducting under Nikolai Malko and Aleksandr Gauk. He became assistant to Fritz Stiedry with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in 1934. The Soviet government later sent him to lead the State Belarusian Orchestra, but then curtailed his conducting career because he never joined the Soviet Communist Party. He turned to teaching, creating a school of conducting that is still referred to as the "Leningrad school of conducting". He spent 1941–45 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where most Russian intellectuals were kept safe during the war. There he continued conducting and teaching. On June 22, 1942, the anniversary of the Nazi invasion, he conducted the second performance of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony.

In 1932 Musin was invited to teach conducting at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, then known as the Leningrad Conservatory. He developed a comprehensive theoretical system to enable the student to communicate with the orchestra with the hands, requiring minimal verbal instruction. No one had previously formulated such a detailed and clear system of conducting gestures. Apparently, his own early experiences as a student had prompted him to study the intricacies of manual technique. When Musin tried to enter Malko's conducting class at the Leningrad Conservatory in 1926, he had been denied entrance because of poor manual technique. He pleaded with Malko to be accepted provisionally, and eventually became an authority on manual technique, describing his system in his book The Technique of Conducting. Musin described the main principle of his method in these words: "A conductor must make music visible to his musicians with his hands. There are two components to conducting, expressiveness and exactness. These two components are in dialectical opposition to each other; in fact, they cancel each other out. A conductor must find the way to bring the two together."

Over a teaching career spanning 60 years, his students included Rudolf Barshai, Semyon Bychkov, Tugan Sokhiev, Sabrie Bekirova, Oleg Caetani, Vassily Sinaisky, Konstantin Simeonov, Odysseas Dimitriadis, Vladislav Chernushenko, Victor Fedotov, Leonid Shulman, Arnold Katz, Andrey Tchistyakov, Sian Edwards, Martyn Brabbins, Kim Ji Hoon, Peter Jermihov, Alexander Walker, John Landor, Yuri Temirkanov, Valery Gergiev, Ennio Nicotra, Leonid Korchmar and Oleg Proskurnya (who assisted Musin with the International Conducting Workshop and founded the International Academy of Advanced Conducting after Ilya Musin).

BD:    Does that give you a special passion then for the Russian style and Russian music?

SE:    Yes it does actually.  He trained all his students on Tchaikovsky particularly, although he also tackled classical music, which was great because in the UK it was difficult to study classical music.  Most conductors felt sort of awkward about it for some reason or other, and said
we must go to Germany to study Beethoven.  But in Russia they would do Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, and of course Shostakovich was very important to them.  There was not so much modern music in the classes, although it was done in other contexts, but that was a wonderful experience.  If you’re a young conductor, the thing is to find a good place to study and keep trying to get your own things together. There are different routes in from thereon.  One of them is if you’re a good pianist to get into an opera house.  A lot of people go to Germany to work as a repetiteur.  That way you learn the repertoire, understand singers, and shadow other conductors.  Over here you’ve got great systems for younger conductors working in the Symphony world as well, where you’re an assistant.  We’ve only got a few assistantships in the UK, so it’s very difficult for young conductors to get going.  On the other hand we’ve got a very, very busy amateur and student musical life in the UK, so you can actually have experience with amateur orchestras.

BD:    So it’s a trade-off?

SE:    It’s a trade-off in some way, but on the other hand, I must say I would have preferred to be assistant to one of the great orchestras here.  But it all comes out in the wash.

BD:    If you had been an assistant in a great orchestra, then would you let yourself be music director of a very small orchestra to start off?

SE:    Well, maybe.  You do get spoiled, though.  On the other hand, you’ve got to do it yourself at some point, and any opportunity is worth taking, I would say.  Whatever is offered, take it, do it!

BD:    That’s the bottom line?

SE:    Absolutely, yeah.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the big question.  What’s the purpose of music?

edwards SE:    Good God!  [Huge laugh]  That is a big one...  It’s there!  Music is around us in every context, especially nowadays.  You go in any shop or any restaurant, there is music.  It is in the airports and on airplanes, they play you music when you take off to calm you down.  If music can communicate any kind of feelings, emotions, a sense of a different world, a different landscape of emotional experience perhaps, involve people at all in a way that touches them in an area that their usual lives don’t move in, then it’s done its job, whatever kind of music it is.  There’s music in shopping malls to calm us down, and perhaps that’s okay because we need calming down.  I sometimes find that all too much actually, I must say.  I’m not a great ‘Muzak’ fan.

BD:    In the shopping malls they try to get you hyped-up a little bit to buy more.

SE:    Maybe they do.  It certainly works on me.  I remember the most money I ever spent in a shop was when Tina Turner was on.  I think she’s great, and I just spent absolutely loads of money on some white linen suit I had no need for at all.  So it certainly worked in that context.  But if music can touch in any way and also bring us together as people, then it’s doing a great job.

BD:    You are still very young and at the beginning of your career.  Are you at the point that you want to be at this age?

SE:    Yes, I think I am.  I had this rather strange career in a way, compared to colleagues of mine that I see, in that I never had a program for what I thought I ought to do at a certain time.  I know some people have been clear about each step in their career, and knew what they wanted to do.  Each step of the way for me has been a question of an invitation coming and thinking yes, that’s a nice to do, or talking to somebody and gradually moving in one direction or another.  But I never said by the time I’m 35 I will have done X, Y or Z, so therefore I feel pretty happy with what I’m doing at the moment.  I’m working with very nice orchestras and groups of people doing music that I love.  What could be better?   Eventually, yes, I would like to have a position somewhere and develop the more long-term thinking with a group of people.  It’s interesting to work with people more than just a few times; to be able to redevelop a relationship; to develop a certain trust; to feel that you don’t have to explain yourself anymore; that the musical language is working between you.  I’d love to be able to get to that stage with people and also to be able to plan repertoire with a group, and plan my own repertoire and see cycles of work developing because when you’re freelance the one thing you can’t really do is plan.  You can plan in a vague way in terms of my own repertoire.  That already gives you an idea of how I’m thinking.  But when an orchestra calls, they have certain things they want, or they will have engaged this soloist and they’re definitely going to do this concerto which I wasn’t really thinking I’d learn that this year.  I had an experience last year when I was invited to do Saint-Saëns’ Fourth Piano Concerto.

BD:    Is that the ‘Egyptian’, or is that Number Five?

SE:    No, the ‘Egyptian’ is Five, and in the same concert tour there, another orchestra wanted to do the Fifth Concerto.  I said I was already going to do the Fourth, so couldn’t we do the Fourth there also?  But no, their pianist definitely had to do the Fifth.  So that was an enormous extra amount of learning, but I was very glad to do both, actually.  They’re hugely different pieces, but you’re taking on things slightly against your better judgment because of the time-factoring, in terms of learning.

BD:    Is there a trade-off?  Since they imposed the concerto on you, then do you get more flexibility in booking the symphony after the intermission?

SE:    Yes, absolutely.  They you say,
In that case I really have to do this because I don’t have time to learn that.  They still might say, Sorry, but our Music Director does all the Russian music, so you can’t do any of that.  You’ll have to do something else!  One or two orchestras I have clashed with like that.

BD:    You also have to look at the program and balance the evening as well as their season, right?

SE:    Of course.  They might have hundreds of Shostakovich symphonies this year, but actually what they really want is Kurt Weill.  So that’s great, but how’s that going to work with a concerto?  It’s a dialogue all the time.  Sometimes you get really great results, and other times you get slightly stuck.  However, sometimes things work out much better than you thought they would when you saw them on paper.

BD:    I have been to a number of concerts that look horrible on paper, but they worked!

SE:    There you are.  It’s very difficult.  It’s a very odd business that you’re only probably really any good at knowing what’s going to work and what isn’t when you’re about 85 and you’ve done it all a hundred times.  I’ve just done a concert of four new works
two world premieres and two pieces that were written four or five years ago.  As with a lot of new music it involved an enormous amount of percussion, and we only knew as we started to rehearse it that the concert was going to be a complete nightmare for the percussionists because every piece required a different set-up!  [Both laugh]  Not only for the four percussionists, but they had they had to have four scene shifters to rush on between each piece and do major removal exercise. 

edwards BD:    So it wasn’t just the music, it was also the logistics?

SE:    It was the logistics with musical interludes!  [More laughter]  And we only knew that when we started rehearsing.  We couldn’t have judged it beforehand.

BD:    Have you made some recordings?

SE:    Yes, I have.  I did them a little while ago now actually.  The first one was Tchaikovsky program with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.  [Photo above]  The main piece was Francesca da Rimini, which is a piece I like very much, and which I learned actually in Russia in a very special way.  So I felt that was a great piece to do, and to bring that special thing in there.  It’s coupled with Romeo and Juliet.  It’s on EMI Eminence.  Then I did another one with them.  We did Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which is an old pot-boiler, but a wonderful one, actually, and again I felt that coming from Leningrad School I really had something to offer.  So that was great.  I also did a program of quasi-children’s pieces
Young Person’s Guide of Britten, and Mother Goose of Ravel.  It also has Peter and the Wolf, which is great fun to do.  More recently I just made a record of John Adams’ First Chamber Symphony and Shaker Loops.  That’s with the Ensemble Modern.  That’s the first record I’ve done for ages, and two great pieces actually.

BD:    Isn’t there also an opera by Judith Weir?

SE:    Yes.  That was recorded live.  [Photo at right]  We did it over three performances and then they snipped together one or two bits.  That was a very interesting piece actually.  She’s a composer in her early 40s from Scotland, and she’s written a number of stage works.  This was a piece especially commissioned by English National Opera called Blond Eckbert, a subject by an early romantic German writer.  It has a very complicated internal plot, but very clear beautiful music.  It is very linear, and very grateful for the singers.  They found it hard to learn, but they really could get into it and we had a lot of fun doing that.

BD:    Do you conduct differently when you have an audience as opposed to being in a studio where it’s cold and dry?

SE:    The two techniques are very different.  In a concert or an opera performance, there’s a degree of spontaneity.  You know you’re doing it for the moment.  When you’re making records, you have this great odd thing.  You are performing, and then you actually go back and listen to what you’ve done, and that colors what you’re doing in a way.  You also sometimes get a situation where you have to do the same take several times, five or six, eight or ten times for various reasons.  Then you have to get into a certain on-off mode, which actually I quite enjoy in a way.  You have this thing of intense periods of concentration, and then you try and switch off completely and relax.  The red light goes off, they adjust something in the recording booth, or somebody sorts something out or changes a microphone, then you do it again, and you have to switch on and concentrate entirely.

BD:    And it has to match!

SE:    It has to match, and so you’re involved in a very, very different process.  But I like it.  It’s a different thing completely.

BD:    One last question.  Is  conducting fun?

SE:    Years ago I studied with Neeme Järvi, who is now working in Detroit.  It was a very fortuitous thing.  He was teaching in a summer school in Hilversum, which is now called the Kondrashin Competition, and I happened to go there that year.  I remember at the end of the course he simply said,
Remember, conducting is the greatest job in the world!  When he conducts, it just looks like it’s brilliant fun the whole time.  So I’ve always taken that as a great example of how one should live and how one should work.  Sometimes it works out like that, but sometimes I find just for me it’s hard, it’s a challenge; the stress of getting in front of an orchestra, feeling you’re prepared, really communicating and doing all that.  Sometimes, it’s just lonely, actually, but if you get a response from the orchestra and things start to work and come together, then it’s great.  So yes, it can be wonderful.

BD:    Good.  I wish you lots of continued success.

SE:    It’s been absolutely lovely.  Thank you very much.


© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at her hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 19, 1996.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB 1999.  This transcription was made in 2015, 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.