Conductor  Geoffrey  Simon

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Conductor Geoffrey Simon has combined entrepreneurial prowess with his considerable musical talent to build an international conducting career. The founder of his own recording label, Cala Records, Simon is also featured on a number of recordings for mainstream labels Koch International and Chandos. He has appeared as a guest conductor with a number of prominent orchestras around the world.

Born in Adelaide, Australia July 3, 1946, Simon studied piano performance at the University of Melbourne. After his graduation in 1968, Simon left for the United States in order to pursue graduate studies in cello performance at the Juilliard School. He describes his time there as formative, but intense: "If you're in New York and you're going to have a neurosis, that's the place to have it -- it was so intense, but at the same time, there were the most wonderful musical experiences happening."

In 1969, Simon moved to Bloomington, IN, so he could further his education as a cello student with noted pedagogue Janos Starker at Indiana University. That same year Simon also founded the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra. He remained music director there until he left for the United Kingdom in 1973.

Taking advantage of his close proximity to Europe, Simon studied with a number of prominent conductors including Herbert von Karajan, Rudolf Kempe, Hans Swarowsky, and Igor Markevitch. He also made a number of appearances with significant British orchestras in the mid-'70s, including the Bournemouth Symphony. Although his London debut took place soon after these successes, Simon was unable to cement himself onto a more permanent career footing. In 1977, he lost the John Player Conductor's Award to Simon Rattle.

Simon returned to the United States in 1978, first as a professor of music at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee (until 1982), and later at North Texas State University in Denton (1982-1984). For three years, beginning in 1986, Simon served as the music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra in New York. He held a similar position with the Sacramento Symphony from 1992 through 1996. Since 1997, Simon has been a conductor and advisor to the Northwest Mahler Festival.

In between his Albany and Sacramento appointments, Simon founded his own recording label Cala, based in London. In addition to featuring a number of Simon's own recordings, the label has featured some of London's finest instrumentalists in a series known as the London Sound. Simon has also been influential in releasing a large number of previously unavailable historical recordings conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

--  Biography by Christopher Hill, with addition of birthdate.  
--  Links in this box and below refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In mid-August of 1990, Simon was making his debut in Chicago with the Grant Park Symphony, as part of the series of outdoor concerts held in the Petrillo Bandshell on the lakefront.  We met for a conversation, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    I assume this is not your first time of conducting outdoors?

Geoffrey Simon:    Oh, no.  I love conducting outdoors.

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of doing concerts outside.

GS:    By and large, I count them as joys.  There was the time when there were fireworks associated with a concert at the Crystal Palace in London, and one cracker misfired and ended up in the viola section!  Violas are not normally the fastest movers, but in this case they moved like Olympic champions!  It was amazing.  Fortunately, it landed on the floor, narrowly missing the instruments and people.  So that was quite extraordinary, but on the plus side I
ve had some wonderful outdoor evenings in many countriesAustralia, this country, and in Englandand the crowds were enormous.  If you get a beautiful evening with the moon, there’s not a greater atmosphere for music-making... as long as the sound system is pretty good, and fortunately at Grand Park here in Chicago, they have a very good sound system.

BD:    Does the audience react differently when it’s outside in the open-air, and a lot of extraneous things are going on to interfere with the music-making, as opposed to an inside concert where everyone is completely focused?

GS:    There is a bit of a difference, although, funnily enough, the audience is more ready to be hilarious and over the top, and very, very responsive.  But if we on the stage allow ourselves to be a little bit larger than life to reach out to sometimes ten or fifteen thousand people, they always seem to like it very much, and respond with rather vociferous enthusiasm at times, and I enjoy that.

BD:    Is music larger than life?

GS:    You can say that it might be.

simon BD:    Is it supposed to be larger than life?

GS:    I feel, as a performer, that what I can convey through the music we’re playing, by and large, represent the quintessential emotions that one might have.  They are the strongest of passions and most mystic of moods, or the most tranquil of tranquilities, if you like.  So when portraying music I hope I wouldn’t exaggerate it, but I’d certainly not hope to be more sentimental.  I would certainly try to present it with a kind of a glory or wonder and a magic.  Maybe our lives are just like that, in which case it’s not larger than life.  However, sometimes I feel that’s not always the case.

BD:    Especially with outdoor concerts you have so many people.  Do you feel that concert music is for everyone?

GS:    Oh, I passionately do, yes.  I always enjoy bringing new audiences to the music, and the phrase I use is,
“To open someone’s ears.  It’s a marvelous treat if someone comes back after a concert, or after a lecture talk and says, I didn’t know that would be so nice as it was!  It’s wonderful because then they become responsive to the choice that music offers always.

BD:    Do you feel that the average concertgoer who doesn’t go very often, is surprised at what he hears?

GS:    They can be.  Being a musician and involved with it all the time, I get very picky about when I’ll go to a concert.  Maybe nine times out of ten, I will not be enthused.  But that one time out of ten, when it gets beyond a certain line and it enters into the realm of real music-making, as distinct from just routine, I get extremely enthusiastic because it carries me away.  It goes perhaps beyond criticism once you can enter in its world.  You don’t have to criticize it anymore because it has a validity of its own.  I would hope that audiences have their own critical faculties, and if we as musicians can do our job properly and capture that essential nature of the music, they will be swept into it and enjoy the experience.

BD:    Do you always try to make sure that your performances are above that line?

GS:    Naturally, of course I do.  Many factors enter into it, particularly in my field as a conductor where I go around visiting orchestras that I might not have worked with before.  Sometimes the work comes in very trying circumstances
perhaps not enough rehearsal, or sometimes too much rehearsal.

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

GS:    That’s very, very rare.  [Both laugh]  Certainly in the western world I can’t think of a time I’ve had too much rehearsal.

BD:    Is there a chance that something could get over-rehearsed?

GS:    That is the point.  There are times when you can drill and drill and drill, and lose that essential spark.  It’s a fine line to use the rehearsal time, and always to do something with the musicians that’s not just dull repetition.  That’s exploring a new aspect of the music.  For instance, you have the obvious things which involve the interpretation of the piece you’re doing
if it’s fast and slow, or whatever it might be.  You need to convey that, and get that spark there.  That can come quicklysurprisingly fast, perhaps, to a layman who might not expect it to be so rapid.  Then once thats in place, one can get into what I call ‘orchestral culture’, which is where the more beauteous things are addressedlike making sure that everybody’s absolutely in tune, or that the bows are drawn on the strings in the same way.  If you draw the bow slower and with a little bit more pressure you get a very dark rich sound, whereas if you draw it faster and lighter, you get a wonderful ‘flautando’, a more ‘fluty’, spacious kind of sound.  Each of these is totally appropriate, but each needs a little bit of working with the orchestra to convey to them what one’s after, and to get them to feel it the same way because it’s the unanimity that makes the perfection and makes it so beautiful.

BD:    Can each one of those techniques that you describe be appropriate in the same music?

GS:    It depends.  Interpretively, as artists our job is try to intuit what the composer was wanting.  One composer might say he wants that passage heavy, and another would like it light.  I tend to find, though, if you take an Impressionist like Debussy, normally it’s the lighter cues, the more rapidly drawn bow, and the very transparent shimmering textures that are in order, whereas Brahms and the heavier German Romantics tend to like those dark, purple or golden kinds of sonorities.  I use colors quite a lot in my thinking.

BD:    So sometimes you’re painting with a very delicate brush, other times you’re going over the page with a roller?

GS:    Exactly.  Hopefully not a steamroller!  [Much laughter]

BD:    Are you always learning something new about each piece every time you approach it?

GS:    I hope so.  There are some favorites that I have where it’s so great to do them almost without thinking because I’ve done them so many times, and I just love to do them my way.  It’s perhaps a bit too relaxed to take anything for granted.  For the great majority
at least ninety percent of musicevery time I study it, I do try to find an insight that maybe last time escaped me.  Just as I grow older I find that I view things in a different way.  Sometimes you might do it a little slower, sometimes faster.  You might take more time around one of the corners, or even less time.  One’s metabolism changes in ways that are not always predicable, and one’s spirit changes along with itwhich is one of the good things about not being a ‘spring chicken!’

BD:    Is this something that distinguishes a great piece of music from a lesser piece of music
that it has more depth to plumb?

GS:    Yes, I think that’s well put.  The pieces that I like coming back to and find changing the most are normally the masterworks.

BD:    Do you always perform and produce only masterworks?

simon GS:    There have been pieces with which I’ve not felt terribly comfortable.  Obligation calls, and one does things.  I always used to say to myself that the piece that’s my very favorite is the one I’m conducting right now.  Now that I’m getting a little bit less impartial, and am allowing myself to have my favorites
and my not so favorites.  That’s another thing once you’ve been around the block once or twice.

BD:    Can you decide that something is a good piece of music or not just by looking at the score, or must you hear it in performance?

GS:    By and large you can tell fairly quickly from looking at the score.  Once in a while, one gets tricked.  There was a piece which I really worked very hard on, and thought it was going to be marvelous, but there were harmonies which I hadn’t quite heard correctly.  They were complicated harmonies which turned out to be sort of dry and dusty, although the textures were good, and they leap out of the score immediately if you can see them with good unisons.  The score seems neat on the page, and you can tell the various choirs are working
opposing or reinforcing each other well.  All that you can see and sense, and when you practice it you can see the phrases flow smoothly.  The harmonies are harder, particularly when it’s not just normal tonic and dominantyour basic I, V, I things which you can piece out on the piano.  So there was that work which looked perfect, and just didn’t sound great.  So you can be tricked.

BD:    Would you then take that piece, which you find is very good but flawed, and perhaps either ask the composer to tinker with it if he’s alive, or maybe tinker with it yourself if you can’t get to the composer?

GS:    I wouldn’t tinker with it myself.  I tend to feel that if a composer’s not around, you either take the piece or leave it.  We have the freedom, by and large, to leave a piece we don’t like.  But when the composer is around, I become quite forward about not being bullied.  As a performing musician, I’ve stood up too many times in front of an audience, and I’ve either succeeded to reach the audience or failed to want to stand there and let a composer’s piece fail for him if there are things that could be changed if it is, as you say, otherwise a good piece.  I’m always delighted if a composer is willing to let me share my podium experience with him, because there are things that work and things that don’t work.  Often a composer will say,
I didn’t realize that at all.  Yes, sure it’s worth a try at least.  The composer who says, No, don’t change a note, even if it still doesn’t work, I’ll just very discreetly not come back to his music again.  It’s not that I revere the composer any the less, because the composer is the key.  He’s the man who has had the creative urge, and must be respected as such.  But I am seeking that it is a two-way street, not necessarily from the ivory tower in which the composer resides, but certainly his studio.  There’s not always that audience awareness, or even orchestra awareness.  Sometimes a very simple change to an orchestration might make something very effective when it was only fifty percent effective before.  There’s a danger of course, and I have to be careful not to get conceited about it.  My own position is that something can become too slick.  It is very easy to make something just facile, and I will be rightly chided by composers if it’s too easy.

BD:    Do you want the audiences to come and have to work at their concerts? 

GS:    By and large I believe they shouldn’t have to work in an uphill kind of way.  If that’s something we’re asking, we
re expecting too much if we request.  If I can present them something that, if you like, is layered in terms of the expectations of the audience, the easy layer is that it’ll sound beautiful.  The very first thing is to make it just work in a beautiful way.  The second layer might be that there is an emotional something going on.  Even if they can’t rationalize it, the impact will reach their guts rather than their minds, their hearts, and souls, and they’ll walk away feeling that this was something of a special experience.  They were moved without necessarily knowing why.  Then the hard core, the third level, is the much more articulate and deeply spiritual level where one’s intellect and one’s whole understanding of the art of music comes to the fore.  That will hopefully always be the core behind my interpretation, and that will be there for the person who’s willing to apply that kind of examination to the performances.  That’s that solid, lifelong experience part.  But I would hope that wouldn’t be the only thing, and that my performances could be enjoyed by people who weren’t even aware of such details.

BD:    There’s something there that they can’t put their finger on?

GS:    Yes, but the fact that it’s there means that the other levels work well.

BD:    Do you feel that audiences are getting more sophisticated?

GS:    No!  Not at all.  In fact, I would say the opposite because every audience has its agglomeration of people with hundreds of different backgrounds.  Nowadays, because we’re competing with the other media in such an intense and unrelenting way, a lot of the people who come to the concerts are used to a very, very tiny attention span.  It’s the four and half minutes between commercials that you’ve got them sometimes.  Even in my own case, the commercials for their thirty-second span are even more intense, so there are people there who are not going give their attention for the whole length and duration of a symphony.  I have to be reasonably well-spoken, but I still have to be as vivid as I can in the performances to be capturing their attention within that larger framework that we’ve just talked about.  Those are audiences, I would hope, which would gradually develop the ability to sit down and relax and let a symphony roll past, to feel its shape and form growing in their ears.  But one cannot always expect that.  So again, if one does one’s job properly, to make sure the orchestra is playing really beautifully, that the culture of the playing is wonderful, and that the interpretation is considered, hopefully the music will reach them in some way. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you take each orchestra that you work with to the highest level it can attain?

GS:    I would certainly hope so.  Again, it’s a function of rehearsal time and the orchestra’s own state.  In London, for instance, I did a concert a couple of weeks ago with the Royal Philharmonic.  Fortunately I had the first of three sessions that day, a very hard work-out with a brand new symphony, a world premiere that we were playing the next day.  Then the orchestra had to go off and do a concert in the Crystal Palace that afternoon in boiling hot sunshine.  It was the heat wave you may have heard about.  London’s had a very hot summer, and so they had a dreary rehearsal that afternoon, and then a long firework-laden concert that evening.  The next day they had to drive 120 miles for another long rehearsal in the afternoon for my concert that evening.  So that’s five sessions within a two-day period.  It’s very hard to expect an orchestra to give its all, and I must say that the Royal Philharmonic played with enormous energy under those circumstances.  But you do have to be careful.  You have to pace them, even though you’re pacing them for their day, not necessarily my day.

simon BD:    Did you feel you were getting short-shrift?

GS:    It’s tough.  I remember the first time I ever conducted the London Symphony
which is now a dozen years agowe had a big piece because I like to do music that’s not so well known.  In that case it was the Bloch Sacred Service.  We had a concert that eventually turned into a recording, but for the six hours before thattwo daytime sessionsthey had none other than Sergiu Celibidache, the redoubtable German conductor who’s renowned for brow-beating orchestras and whipping them, and all sorts of things.  So they had had a very heavy day, and by the ninth hour of my work, which is between nine and ten o’clock at night, they were visibly flagging, and there was not much I could do... certainly not much I thought I should do because I wanted their goodwill, of course. 

BD:    When you come to a new orchestra, do you try to mold it as much in your shape as possible, or do you find out what they can do, and exploit all of those qualities to the utmost?

GS:    [Complimenting the interviewer]  You could be a conductor because you articulate exactly the thought processes that go through my mind!  I take the viewpoint that you can’t stop a steaming train by standing in front of it with your arm out.  [Laughs]  Superman might, but we can’t!  The best thing to do is to jump on board, and then very gradually divert it to the right or the left.  I’ll always see what an orchestra gives me, and it happens very, very quickly.  The things that I feel mightn’t be quite right I’ll work on, but for the more subtle things I’ll take that orchestra
s sound and its fabric and try and infuse it with my own sense of sound and phrasing.  The hardest thing is when you have an unresponsive orchestra that can’t capture the flexibility between the phrases. They just play in a very rigid way, and you have to really encourage them to unbutton, to relax a bit and to let the space and the ebb and flow all occur.  But with an orchestra of a higher level, because they’re so well trained you have the liberty for them to assume your own mantle without words.  That’s a wonderful thing.  It’s an absorption of one’s self into their selves, and hopefully of their selves into you so that the two of us become one thing.  This is why I love this game because that’s one of the highest moments of living.

BD:    Do you find that every time you come back to an orchestra it’s a little more responsive, and a lot of the ground work has remained?

GS:    Most definitely, yes, and even during the course of a rehearsal.  We had a rehearsal today here in Chicago, and from being a foreigner to feel it becoming a home band within the space of an hour and a half was really very joyous.  Everybody learns that we can mutually trust each other.  What’s being asked for is not unreasonable, so what’s coming back is not unreasonable, and that’s lovely.  The most beautiful thing of all, though, is to have one’s own regular orchestra, because then one gets deeply into the fabric of the music-making, the very colors.  The whole thing is something that you build on, but that takes years.  It’s not a question of minutes or hours, but really years.

BD:    Season by season?

GS:    Yes.  For instance, the strings develop a collective feeling so that everybody’s bow changes absolutely seamlessly, and they all move the bow at exactly the right speed
though not always a constant speed.  It can vary, but everybody makes a crescendo in the same way.  One of my greatest concert experiences was at Carnegie Hall, with Rafael Kubelik and his Bavarian Radio Symphony.  I was depressed.  I was in New York studying, not getting anywhere, and I went with a miserable frame of mind.  There was this orchestra of gold, and I heard how the double basses made their crescendos at the exact rate as the violins.  Of course everyone in the middle did the same thing, too, so the whole thing sounded like one person ebbing and flowing, and growing and decreasing.  That’s something I remember to this day.  There was cohesion, even from an instrument that’s very heavy like a double bass and so light like the violin.  They could mold with this master genius conductor, whom I’ve always revered since then.  That was a revelation.  The conventional word is ‘train’ an orchestra, but I prefer to feel, to work with a group, to encourage and let them realize what’s obtainable, and that is just marvelous.  But that sort of stuff can’t be done in a day.  I watched von Karajan rehearsing an opera with a good orchestra, and the way he explained legato tonguing with the brass so that there was really no space between those notes even though they were heavily articulated.  There’s a difference between two detached long notes [(sings) Taa ... Taa … ], which normally with the brass group can sound very rumpty-tum, and [(sings again) Taa, Taa, like a singer, with no gap and just the consonant to articulate], which all of a sudden brought a rich wonderful quality to the brass chording.  That made it noble and regal, and that was an eye-opening experience for me.  With these marvelous top orchestras, sometimes an eyebrow will convey exactly that because those guys know exactly what you’re wanting.

simon BD:    If you start with a higher-level orchestra, I assume the basics are already done, and you can then continue from there with interpretation and shaping?

GS:    One of the most humbling things about conducting a great orchestra is that you can feel the panoply of magnificent conductors that have gone before you.  I’ve had things come back to me, particularly with the London Symphony, but also the Philharmonia, which I could never have done myself.  I just sat back and learned, and thought to myself that I’ll remember that for next time.  It was wonderful.

BD:    Then when you go to a lesser orchestra, do you try to get that into them?

GS:    Of course, absolutely, and hopefully I can pass the benefit of that experience across.  I count it as immensely fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to work some of these excellent orchestras.

BD:    So there really is a collective musicianship of mankind?

GS:    Most definitely, yes.  When musicians tell you they felt comfortable, what they’re really doing is referring to that very collective musicianship of mankind.  There is a certain naturalness the way things can go wrong in the sense of just being relaxed or far from it.   There is a certain culture where things turn into place and have a ring of rightness about them, and that reflects that culture.

BD:    I assume you have enough offers that you can pick and choose where you will go.  How do you decide which offers you’ll accept and which ones you’ll turn down?

GS:    I hope not to turn things down because I enjoy the work.  It’s nice to go to a lesser place because if the musicians are being responsive, then one can communicate what one’s learned.  I love working with youngsters, as well.  I spent many years in college situations.  I really enjoy helping people who are new to music get familiar, and get some of the skills and techniques involved, even with community-level orchestras.  Sometimes the hard-bitten professionalism is replaced by a wide-eyed enthusiasm, and that can be a lot of fun.

BD:    So the tradeoff is that you have a little more time to work?  Whereas a professional would get it the first time, the non-professional will get it, but it might take three or four times?

GS:    Exactly.  That has its frustrations, but it’ll also have the joys that you can spend a little more time.  With conservatory students I learned how to tune a wind section.  I remember doing some Schubert symphonies where we took forty minutes on two chords to get them absolutely one hundred per cent right.  We finally got that ring of correctness when everybody’s eyes would say, ‘Oh, yes!’  But after having had those forty minutes, I can now tune that same group much, much faster because my own ears are much more sensitive.  It’s nice to have time.  Then when you go to an orchestra, say the English Chamber Orchestra which is a great orchestra, if they ever slip away from the absolutely most beautifully in tune playing, again it’s that eyebrow because they really know.  You just have to remind them if they’re being a little bit sloppy... or sometimes they just want to make sure the conductor knows that!  [Laughs]

BD:    [Surprised]  So they put in the occasional wrong note to see if you catch it?

GS:    They rarely do put in wrong notes deliberately because there’s just no time.  What tends to happen is that they play slightly less than their best.  I’m an amateur jogger.  I love jogging, and if there’s somebody in front of me to run with, then I’ll probably run a little bit faster than if I was ambling along by myself.  We all need that little kick in pants once in a while.  [More laughter]

BD:    Audiences too?

GS:    Audiences too, most definitely.  It’s nice to see an accumulative response well up there if the situation’s right and if we’re fortunate enough to have it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Do you conduct differently in the studio than you do in the concert hall?

GS:    On the contrary, I try to conduct exactly the same to the point of imaging there’s an audience out there because the danger, as is oft-related, is that the studio environment can be somewhat sterile.  One of the toughest jobs is make sure the orchestra plays with just as much commitment, if not more.  To reach an audience is easier than to reach a microphone because that audience has the visceral and visual acuity at its disposal.

conyngham BD:    They see that downbeat coming.

GS:    That’s right, and they also see all the violins lift a little bit as they get ready for the downbow.  The microphone knows none of that.  It’s blind, so you’ve got to punch through that microphone.  Your phrasing has got to be even more strong.  That, then, reflects on the concert experience, because as you get used to asking for that, then it tends to make the concerts better.  So I think the two help each other.

BD:    On a recording you have the opportunity to eliminate any kind of mistake.  Do you feel what comes out on the plastic is ever too perfect?

GS:    No, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I really like to feel that it’s perfect.  The real world, though, is not quite as gorgeous as you described.  We always make recordings under terrifically difficult circumstances because we have to use these huge big churches to get the right acoustics for this digital technology.  There are always problems with extraneous noises.  You can’t shut out airplane.  We had to bribe a guy mowing lawns on the last recording.  We had to pay him £15 to delay that lawn mowing till the next day.  He wouldn’t go away unless we paid him, but that finally shut him up.  I thought it was disgusting.  We had twenty minutes of take wasted by this dreadful lawn mowing, and we once had birds flying in the roof.  These things will happen.  Other problems include an underground train outside, or even a car horn.  A recording was lost when a burglar alarm went off in a car.  What do you do then?  Fortunately for us, the owner was in the house, and so we only lost ten minutes.  But by the time you have all these distractions, you have very little time to make the music.  Then to get rid of all the mistakes isn’t a peaceful easy thing at all.  Sometimes you’re very lucky to get the thing
into the can, which is the expression for having it properly covered, at least to a certain level.

BD:    Do you try to always utilize long takes?

GS:    Yes.  You get what you call the ‘master take’, the basic take, and then you only slot in the bits and pieces that might cover a horn fluff or a string out of tune, or something like that.  That’s in an ideal world.  Sometimes our backs are so much to the wall because of the time constraints that we have to stitch something together.  Then I’ll do it in sections, like maybe a twenty-second section which you do four or five times, and then the next one, and we join them together, though I’d never admit which pieces were done that way!  I have to know the music so well that the audience will not sense that it’s been sectionalized, and that it’s all a technique.  But I do this very, very rarely.

BD:    You would have to have absolutely the same dead-on tempo and strength and volume.

GS:    You have to do that in every take in any case.  One of the things one learns when one records is there’s not time to evolve an interpretation in the studio.  Many people think that if it doesn’t work we’ll do it differently.  That’s impossible because there are so many other things to get right that you’ve got to go in there
iron clad because a recording’s forever.  You’ve got to be even more ‘iron clad’ than when you’re going to prepare for a concert, because at least you’ve got the rehearsals, and you can change it at the dress rehearsal.  But on the recording session you’ve got to go in, and the first time it’s got to be as close to the right tempo as you possibly can so that even that take can be used if that was the only time the trumpet got that particular note right.  The person who does the editing has to be able to edit from any one take into any other one within reason.  So it calls for a lot of criticisms.

BD:    I assume, though, your ideal would be to play it once and not have to patch anything?

GS:    That’s an ideal.  There have been a couple of pieces in the course of my recording history where we’ve used a whole movement in one take, but not normally the first try because everybody’s feeling their way, and the intensity level is simply not high enough because people are reading the music and concentrating.  But I remember times we just used something uncut, and that’s gorgeous.  I just recorded La Mer, and we used the second movement
about eight or ten pages of score, which is well over a minutein one take.  It was the last take we did, but I just couldn’t hear a better take.  It was lovely that we could do such a long stretch uncut.  It has a pattern of a smooth flow about it that’s very hard to get through the editing... although nowadays the editing is so sophisticated with these modern digital techniques that they can cross-fade things that previously were totally impossible to consider.  So we’ve become a bit spoiled in that regard.  But because people say that on recordings you can make anything happen out of nothing, let me tell you that if the performance really isn’t there, if the intensity, the shape, the concept and the quality isn’t coming from the musicians, no amount of technical electronic wizardry can put it there.  You can make a good recording sound fantastic because of the beautiful sound that a fine engineer could produce, but you can’t make non-descript playing into a master recording.  It just isn’t possible.

BD:    You say the engineer produces this beautiful sound.  Is it not you that gets the beautiful sound, and the engineer captures it?

GS:    [Smiles]  You’ve just said it better than I did.  I always take the view point that what I hear in my own two little ears has got to be as perfect to me as I would ever expect it to be.  Then it’s the job of the engineer to capture that, but to make full use of the acoustic in which we collectively find ourselves.  Some of these churches, for instance, will impart a wonderful color of their own to the orchestral sound, and a burnish, or a special quality of spaciousness, which is why we use those particular churches and have favorites.  A given engineer also has the knack.  For instance, I try to capture a wonderfully registered bottom from the lower instruments up to the top, so that the whole thing just sits in ‘wonderful, delicate equipoises’
one of my favorite phrases.  Then, if the engineer is skilled, he will be able to reproduce that, but adding to it the glow of the church, so it’s something even more.  If that happens when you listen to the recording, there is a radiance that is stunning.  I am very fortunate that the engineeror the producer I normally work withhas something of that skill.  It’s a real treat to work with him because I feel we each bring something to the totality.  Having heard all that, and having that sound in my ears, when I go to do my concerts that helps me demand more from the orchestras I work with to get it into a real life situation.

BD:    I assume though that you’re basically pleased with the recordings that have been issued with your name on them?

GS:    Touch wood, yes.  So far I’ve been very pleased.  There’s been an evolution.  There have been some that I’ve been marginally less pleased, but I have been absolutely blessed that I have made now twenty-three recordings, and the vast majority have had producers and engineers of such high caliber that I’ve just really been able to relax and concentrate on my job, knowing that their side of things were wonderful.  There was only one instance when I was decidedly discomforted by the producer and engineer who were on that job.  It was only a one-off, and fortunately at the end of the day the result wasn’t too bad, and it was not a critical record in my overall opus.  But I did learn at that time how much perhaps I’d even taken for granted with some of the very expert people that I have worked with.

BD:    And now you surround yourself with those people?

GS:    Oh, most definitely, and fortunately, yes.

BD:    Like we have the virtuoso violinist and the virtuoso bassoon player, are we now going to get a virtuoso recording technician and a virtuoso record producer?  

GS:    I think you have them already.  The guy I work with mostly now is just a young chap called Tim Handley in London.  He’s only thirty, but he’s just got that kind of aural wizardry that knows within a millisecond what’s happening through his multi-gadgeted circuitry, and whether it’s right or wrong, and things like I wouldn’t know from Adam
like ‘emphasis’ and low-end frequencies.  He just knows exactly when it’s right and when it’s not.  He also knows when to leave me alone because he can sense when I’m evolving what I need to evolve.  That’s also very crucial because he’s starting to criticize something when I haven’t got it right.  I have to give him a perfect product, as we said before, for him to be able to flourish in his own right.  

handley Tim Handley was selected as 2006 Classical Producer of the Year for his work on Naxos recordings of music by William Bolcom (conducted by Leonard Slatkin), John Adams, Johannes Brahms, Michael Daugherty, and Philip Glass (these last four conducted by Marin Alsop).  Through 2017 he has also been producer and/or engineer in recordings of compositions or performances by (among others) Jennifer Higdon, JoAnn Falletta, Edo de Waart, Jack Gallagher, Joan Tower, Kyung-Wha Chung, Stephen Paulus, Morton Gould, Neeme Järvi, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, James Judd, James Conlon, Natalie Dessay, William Christie, Franz Welser-Möst, José Serebrier, Rodion Shchedrin, Einojuhani Rautavaara, John Corigliano, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Steve Reich, John Rutter, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Earl Kim, Yehudi Menuhin, William Bolcom, Carole Farley, Jean Fournet, Evelyn Glennie, Sir Roger Norrington, Alan Feinberg, Andrew Parrott, Sir Malcolm Arnold, Christian Tetzlaff, Franco Donatoni, Michael Torke, Marek Janowski, Peter Donohoe, Anner Bylsma, Virgil Thomson, James Sedares, Bo Skovhus, Thomas Allen, Andrew Litton, Sir Charles Mackerras, Ann Murray, Sir Georg Solti, Dame Felicity Lott, Thea Musgrave, Raymond Leppard, Lawrence Foster, Boris Berman, and Ian Bostridge.

BD:    When you get back into the concert hall and are conducting pieces you’ve recorded, do you ever feel you’re competing against your record?

GS:    No, not at all.  I virtually always feel that I’ve moved on a bit from the time of the recording.  The recording is so intense, and after the recording, it is so agonizing listening to the editing, because once you’re there, it’s done and you can’t make any more changes.  The greatest torture known to mankind is listen to your own takes and have to decide which one of them is least bad.  But having done that, then you know the music so deeply that you’re ready to come to the concert with a fresh enthusiasm.  Very often we walk into those recording studios never having heard the piece, let alone played it before, because I like to do the unusual side of the repertoire.  So you just have it all entirely in your head.  You have no idea how it’s really meant to sound.

BD:    I just assumed you’d had at least one concert shot at it.

GS:    Unfortunately, in England that isn’t the way it works.  Pressures on the box office are so acute that promoters just will not take a chance to put an unknown work on the programs because they’re afraid they’ll keep the audience away.  It’s one of the big shames of English concert life at the moment that it’s become so unbearably non-adventurous.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Can’t you sort of co-op the box office and the record producer, and maybe have the concert promoted as, ‘Soon to be a major motion record’?

GS:    [Laughs]  Maybe, and if I had been von Karajan, I might have had that weight.  But from my position I don’t really have that say.  Even so, I don’t think in the classical world things work quite that way.  In the pop world, Madonna comes out doing that.  She can get away with it if she sneak-previews something that’s going to come out. 

BD:    But they’re going to see Madonna.  At concerts, are they going to see Geoffrey Simon, or are they going to see Beethoven and Tchaikovsky?

GS:    I never really know!  Up to quite recently I have felt that they’re coming for the latter, to hear the music, but I’m beginning, now as I’m cynical and no longer quite so young, to think that the cult of personality has a lot more to it in a very jurist classical world than I’d admit to before.  People come to see the faces, or to hear the talents that they know or recognize, and there’s a lot of selection on the part of an audience.  So they recognize the name of Barenboim, the
myth’, the ‘aura’ that surrounds a person’s name.  Even if they don’t know who it is, they’ve heard of him.  So they say, Oh, him, yeah, he must be pretty good, in which case they’ll come to the concert expecting to see something sort of special emanating from that particular person.

BD:    So it then puts more pressure on you to deliver?

GS:    No, not really.  The pressure’s there because of the music.  That part of it is always totally honest, and I hope it will always be.

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simon BD:    Why have you purposely sought out the original version of a Tchaikovsky symphony, or the odd orchestral work by Respighi?

GS:    The Tchaikovsky actually was presented to me by a dear friend, Edward Johnson, who I didn’t know at the time.  He works for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, a very routine kind of job, but in his spare time he’s an ardent music lover.  He’d written to Gramophone Magazine complaining that there’s all this wonderful Tchaikovsky that nobody knew, and why were all the major record companies rejecting it?  So I read this letter to the editor, and rang him up, and said,
Let’s meet!  We met in the middle of Oxford Circus in London.  It was a very mundane coffee shop, and we’ve been fast friends ever since, because I loved the music that he presented.  It just seemed to me that here was some great stuff that people hadn’t recorded, so it was both a musical delight and also a professional opportunity to tread paths where others had not trodden before.

BD:    How did someone in a Stationery Office understand, and even know about these scores?

GS:    He was one of those rare birds that loves music, and reads about it, and listens.  He was a devoted disciple to Stokowski, and he used to come to this country (America) to hear Stokowski’s concerts with the American Symphony.  He also went to lots of Stokowski’s recording sessions, and he knew a lot about Stokowski’s taste and predilections, which were very diverse, as you know.  He also liked Bernard Herrmann very much, the famous film composer who wrote Psycho and stuff like that.  So his taste, as being an enthusiastic amateur, had just been very broad, and I learned buckets from him.  I’d always liked doing odd things, but most of the unusual work that I did was with living composers
people who I knew and likedand Eddie Johnson opened my ears up to Tchaikovsky.  We would toss things back and forth between ourselves, and together we discovered Respighi.  We’ve recorded some of the less well known Respighi pieces, and so I’m very lucky to have such a person in my life who I can relate to and confer with.

BD:    Do you champion some of these finds all over the world?

GS:    Oh, you bet.  Whenever I get a chance and whenever I’m allowed to perform them, I do, though it is still relatively rarely.  There’s so many things behind a concert that are accepted prior to one’s even being engaged.  The soloist might have been chosen, in which case his repertoire is going to be there.  The symphony might have to be Dvořák’s New World because of the occasion, or whatever, and then because it’s an American orchestra, you need to do an American piece so that the orchestra will get the grant, in which case that program has been decided.  You can’t do something you might otherwise have liked.  You can’t put a Respighi piece against a Beethoven piece because it just mightn’t work.  So you don’t have quite the free hand one might expect, but sometimes you do, and then it’s gorgeous.

BD:    You seek out living composers to do premieres, of course.  How do you decide whether you will accept a work that is coming along, or shove it off onto another conductor?

GS:    Oh, I’ve done that.  [Laughs]  I did it recently actually, but I’ve taken the attitude that I will have limited number of composers who I live with over a long period of time, and actively and openly champion.  Rather than, so to speak, sleep with fifty different talents, I will get to know a very limited number.  In my case it’s three composers with whom I’m extremely close.  They are the American John Downey [photo of CD shown above], who lives just up from here in Milwaukee.  That is a marvelous talent.

BD:    I did a sixtieth birthday show for him!  I went up and did an interview with him at his home, and I played the bassoon work.

GS:    [Genuinely enthusiastic]  Oh, that’s great!  I think he’s such a marvelous composer.  So there’s John, who I met up there at the University of Wisconsin and Milwaukee.  In England it’s Paul Patterson [photo shown below], who I think is an extremely fine composer; totally different from John, but a very, very good composer.  He’s also blessed with the ability to reach audiences.  He’s not what he calls ‘a squeaky gate’ composer, so I do appreciate that.  We gave his First Symphony which we talked about a moment ago, and which I’m very proud to say is dedicated to me.  Then there is the Australian whom I champion, Barry Conyngham [photo shown above], who’s a marvelous coloristic, very impressionistic composer.  He is a sensitive kind of guy who writes nice music.  I don
t know everything they’ve written, but I certainly know enough that I’m completely at home with their styles.  I talk with them, and I know what they want even if its not always completely clear from the score.  So I can go and very quickly get their sound from an orchestra.  I know it well enough that I can explain whats wanted to an otherwise cynical orchestra, and give that orchestra the chance to realize that it is musically valid.  For instance, with Barry we had the chance to record two of his big orchestral pieces with the London Symphony just this April, and it was great to stand in front of that London Symphony.  Those guys brook no fools, so if you don’t know exactly what’s what, they’ll eat you alive.  This music calls for finger-counting cueswhere you show 2, 3, and 4 from one bar to the nextand they have a certain amount of chance music, where they have to interpret a passage, all of which is very controlled.  There’s nothing arbitrary about it, but a cynical player might feel it’s hogwash.  Because I know that music so well and am so versed in it, they did it, they saw very quickly that it was valid.  So to stand in front of that orchestra and to turn them from their initial skepticism into giving the composernot me, but the composera very hearty round of applause at the end of the sessions, was a real delight.  And Barry, coming from Australia, experienced something that was new for him with this absolutely world-shattering group of musicians.

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BD:    Where is music going today?

patterson GS:    The whole thing about audience acceptability has become a necessary and pleasing catch word.  We had the dark, dreary days of the
60s, the 70s, and even the early 80s, where the critics would only like it if the audience hated it.  I would see audiences almost physically driven away because the taste they read about in the newspapers as being sophisticated was found so at odds with what their concert experience was.  I grew up during that period.  I’m a 60s child, and my own emotions never related to the ‘squeaky gate’ stuff.  But I put up with it.  I had to play it.  I even became quite facile at doing it without having my heart really deeply in there.  So finally we could come out in the open and say that twelve-tone music really didn’t solve the problems, and didn’t really lead where people to the new Nirvana of great music.  We needed to get back to a different way of viewing things, and disregard the music that was so cerebral and intellectually structured that only a mathematician could either write or listen to it.  We had to look at the good old emotions, good old atmosphere, and good old magic.  That’s really what will transform the audience, and give the orchestra a chance to revel in its own gorgeousness.  I would never say they are banal, but those basic, approachable parts of music-making are totally crucial because, as we said before, the attention span is small here against the commercial world.  I believe you’ve got seven seconds if you’re trying to sell something.  I’m not really of that world, but you know what I mean.  You’ve got about that long for somebody to ask what that is, and then when they look at it they’re yours and entertain them.  So you’ve got to have material that can do that.

BD:    Would you advise composers just to put something really great in those first seven seconds of a piece?

GS:    I will advise that they do something arresting.  I was reading Atlantic Monthly the other day about how various authors had written their first sentences, and there were some outlandish ones there.  But my eyebrows raised because I remembered Paul Patterson’s Symphony.  Part of the collaborative aspect was that the opening just wasn’t quite working.  So we put an almighty huge cymbal crash as the very first thing the audience heard.  Then the ensuing fanfare from the brass sounded so majestic because of that arresting cymbal crash.  It worked, and the audience was wowed.  The whole symphony just unraveled in a natural way after that, so there is a point to doing that... not that one wants a quick fix, either.  In all this talk of approachability, I don’t think one ever has to compromise the deeper values
the ones we talked about before, those spiritual things, that existence of purity which is behind the music.  If it really needs to be compromised, it’s a question of a composer looking at the way the human race has evolved in the sense that we know it now in contemporary western society, and making sure that ones own message is couched in terms that they can get onto before they divert, rather than just holding the hand up to say, “Take me, in which case the audience will invariably leave you.  They don’t want to cope with it.  But with music which is more comfortable there is the danger that sometimes the trivial can pass for the sublime.  The early days of ‘minimalist’ music were a quick fix that was too simple a retribution for the heavy cerebral period before.  The best of the next generation of composers have transcended that, and their music is valid.  It’s philosophical roots are with the Eastern cultures.  So it’s all how a given composer will manipulate it, and use it for his own creative ends.  I also like well-crafted pop music. I love doing a pops concert when the occasion is right, and when I have good material to work with.  I see nothing inherently shallow about a great pop tune, or a great symphonic arrangement of a great show.  I’ll be the first person to say that there’s been very little written since The Beatles that I can really relate to as an artist with complete acceptance, so ones critical faculties are always there.  I don’t enjoy it when I see shoddy music being played in that arena just as much as it can be in the classical forum.

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

GS:    [Laughs]  I often say that if I knew it myself, I would do things differently.  I’m by no means at the top of any particular tree, although I love what I do and hope that I’ll have the good fortune and the possibility of continuing it.  From a musical standpoint, the obvious words ‘be prepared’ can never been taken away.  You’ve got to know your material so inside and out that no one can shake you, and you’re up there ready to go.  Knowledge will save many a situation.  You can’t fake it if you’re the conductor.  You might think you can, but you can’t.  So that’s the first thing.  On a slightly deeper level, the search for an individual identity is where things get interesting in the world of the arts.  We were talking a bit before about the way that those crescendos were so unified and the brass sound was so burnished, the way the pitch was so gorgeously considered for the tonality that was being worked with.  My ideal is when all that happens together.  I hope for that, and I know for sure that I’m trying to attain that.  There is a certain me in my ideal sound.  I know it intimately.  I know exactly the technical things to say it when I’m given the chance.  Then somebody can listen to an orchestra I’m conducting, and know it’s an orchestra this particular conductor is working with.  I have been given the chance to work with it to get what I really want.  Interpretively too, I’ve been around a bit so there is a style that I’ve got, which means I don’t have to always go back to first principles.  Sometimes I do, and in the black moments of the soul it all crumbles away, and you start again from scratch.  But, by and large, I am comfortable with what I do and what I want.  For instance, when I do a Mozart symphony I know the articulations that I’m going to want and I know the basic framework that will give the sound that will be happy for me.  I’m quite happy to let the next chap do his thing, and to let mine be viewed as a given individual’s way of looking at it, hopefully in a way the composer would have approved.  Certainly with living composers, it will be in a way that I know they would approve.  Nevertheless, it will be something that’s got its own thought-out identity that’s real, defensible, and characterful.  For a youngster, I would say don’t just sort of tickle the music, but get into it, and develop a strong opinion.  If it’s wrong, the big orchestras will knock the fluff out of you pretty quick.  You won’t be allowed to get away with something that’s not valid.  But the act of thinking, those years of contemplation, will eventually result in something that is quintessentially you, and that’s something a listener will respond to.  I hope so, anyway...

BD:    One last question.  Is conducting fun?

GS:    Oh, I adore it!  Yes, it’s bloody hard work, and I hate studying because it’s so intense.  You stand on a chair and there’s no orchestra, so you’ve got to have everything inside of you.  It’s just so draining, but when you know your beat is clear and you know that the orchestra’s responding, it’s great.  Then the concert is marvelous.

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago.  Will you be back?

GS:    I certainly hope so.  It’s a marvelous town.

BD:    Thank you for the conversation.

GS:    Thank you for asking such deep questions.  You must be a musician yourself.

[As we exchanged business cards, I spoke briefly of my own experiences playing the bassoon, and my degrees in Music Education and Music History.  Then I had to rush off to the station for my regular shift, which included using parts of this interview to promote his upcoming concert.]

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© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on August 14, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that day, and again in 1996.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.