An Interview with Eduardo Portal

Portal, Eduardo Jul 13

Following his performance with the RPO and Natasha Paremski last month at the Royal Albert Hall (The Great Classics), conductor Eduardo Portal talks to Hannah Nepil about what it takes to be a professional conductor.

Who can resist the whiff of danger? For Eduardo Portal, it’s exactly what makes his job so thrilling. ‘Conducting is high risk,’ he says. ‘Only yesterday, when I was conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I felt that the concert was entirely in my hands because the players were reacting so accurately to my slightest gesture. So I felt that if I performed well, then the concert would be a success. But if I made a mess of it – well…’ He trails off.

By now, the young Spanish conductor has worked with ensembles ranging from the London Philharmonic Orchestra to the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. And on paper, his career path seems straightforward. Born in the Spanish city of Burgos into a family of music teachers, Portal grew up in ‘the perfect environment in which to learn music.’ His father ran a local choir ‘and he used to arrange loads of choral music, which we would sing at home.’ The young Portal played the violin, before becoming fascinated by the figure of the conductor. ‘I imagine it seemed glamorous at the time.’ But having embarked on a career in conducting, he found the road ahead was less straightforward than he had envisaged. ‘Many people ask me “what is the path to becoming a conductor?” But there isn’t one. When I finished my degree in Berlin, I thought that would make me a conductor. How wrong I was.’

Luckily, he was awarded a fellowship at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), which gave him two years of conducting practice, working with numerous RNCM ensembles. ‘It was an ideal position to gain experience without risk or pressure. After that, I was much more prepared to work with professional orchestras.’ He explains: ‘If you make one mistake conducting professionals as a young conductor, then basically you’re dead; professional orchestras want a professional conductor, not some young, inexperienced person.’

What they want most of all, he believes, is to trust the person standing on the podium. And that trust is both instinctive and unspoken. ‘It’s the same in everyday life, you meet someone and for some reason you either give that person your confidence or you don’t, and you don’t talk about it. It’s this chemistry that happens between people.’ The conductor’s challenge, says Portal, is to harness that trust; to encourage the players to give their best, voluntarily. As he points out, most orchestral players are dying to be given that chance: ‘A professional orchestra has enormous potential. These players can give the best performance of their lives, any day of their lives. And they are hoping that the person in front of them will manage to get that out of them.’

Eduardo Portal conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in an all-Beethoven programme in Guildford on Friday 7 November at 7.30pm and in Southend on Sunday 9 November, 7.30pm; he conducts the Orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, on Wednesday 20 May 2015.

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An Interview with Amanda Forsyth

Forsyth, Amanda by Cheryl Mazak

Hannah Nepil speaks to Amanda Forsyth, lead cellist of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, ahead of their collaboration with the RPO at the end of the month.

There’s a matter-of-fact quality to Amanda Forsyth’s voice when she says, ‘it was the worst and best time of my life.’ The Canadian cellist is describing the run-up to the 2011 world premiere of A Ballad of Canada, the last piece ever composed by her father, Malcolm Forsyth. He was suffering from pancreatic cancer at the time and had been told he had two months to live. ‘But he lived for nine and the reason was that he had this premiere and he wanted to be there. And he was. Somehow he managed to get, with his oxygen tanks, to Ottawa,’ Forsyth recalls.

As principal cellist of the Ottawa-based National Arts Centre Orchestra, she will take part in the UK premiere of A Ballad of Canada at Southbank Centre next month in a concert that also features the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Her hope is to familiarise UK audiences with her father’s soundworld, one filled with infectious tunes. ‘My dad was not good at writing scritch-scratch music. He tried to do the scritch-scratch for a while and I said “no, this is ugly”,’ says Forsyth. ‘He was better at writing melodies.’ Elements of jazz (he was a trombonist) and a myriad of cultural influences also crop up regularly in his music.

As the cellist informs me, her father was born in South Africa, but emigrated to Canada in 1969, and you could almost deduce this from listening to his work. ‘There’s something definitely African about my dad’s music. For example, in his use of glockenspiel, wind chimes, marimba,’ says Forsyth. ‘But my dad was very proud to be Canadian; A Ballad of Canada is definitely Canadian.’ This is partly what makes it so intriguing, given that talented Canadian composers tend to be eclipsed by their US contemporaries, perhaps as a result of what Forsyth calls ‘the Canadian inferiority complex’.

Forsyth was two years old when her family arrived in Canada. Musically inspired by her father, who composed several pieces for her, she studied cello from the age of three and became a protégé of the British cellist William Pleeth: ‘I was only his second child pupil after Jacqueline du Pré,’ she tells me. Now, she is married to the celebrated violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman, who will conduct her father’s piece at the Southbank Centre next month. The two of them regularly perform together and frequently swap practice tips at home. I tentatively ask if that makes for a harmonious domestic environment. ‘He’s the maestro, but I’m pretty bossy,’ she says. ‘They don’t call me ‘Demanda’ for nothing. If I’m in the kitchen making coffee and he’s practising something, I’ll say, “that’s flat”, or “that’s the wrong note”. He likes it. And then he can boss me around at other times. It’s give and take and that’s why it’s all good.’

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, under Pinchas Zukerman, perform the UK premiere of Malcolm Forsyth’s ‘A Ballad of Canada’ at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 27 October 2014 at 7.30pm.

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Meet the Management: Liz Forbes (Concerts Director)


Tell us a bit about your working history with the RPO.

After a period of time managing individual artists and then completing my MBA, I have spent the majority of my working life here at the RPO. Starting in an assistant role, I quickly settled into event management, becoming Concerts and Recordings Manager for several years. Then, after a short spell at the BBC, I was invited back to become General Manager of the RPCO, before moving into my current role as Concerts Director of the RPO.

What does your role entail?

Alongside overseeing the day-to-day running of the concerts management team, my role is focused on the long-term planning of the Orchestra’s work schedule and sourcing new projects, as well as the planning and programming of our flagship concerts and foreign tours with our key conductors, Charles Dutoit and Pinchas Zukerman.

Tell us about some highlights of your time working with the Orchestra.

Having spent more than twenty years at the RPO(!), I could write a compendium of highlights, but a few memorable moments that spring to mind are: a wonderful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 with Charles Dutoit in Chicago;  a sublime Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Martha Argerich in the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples; listening to Charles Dutoit perform the Three Cornered Hat Suite in Granada, where the composer Manuel de Falla lived in later years, within the magical open air setting of the Alhambra (with swallows circling above in the dusk!); not forgetting so many special performances at the Royal Albert Hall, including a spectacular Maundy Thursday Verdi Requiem with Daniele Gatti, watching the Orchestra perform with the legendary Stevie Wonder and, most recently, a rare chance to hear the complete Roman Trilogy by Respighi in an inspired performance with Charles Dutoit at the BBC Proms.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?

There is no doubt that the ongoing financial crisis as well as the limited (but vital) public funding that the Orchestra receives present a continuing challenge for us. However, with the Orchestra’s diverse approach and its ability to adapt to the needs of our audiences, both in terms of the repertoire it performs and the working partnerships we form (as exemplified by the Orchestra’s unique role outside London and around the UK), we hope that we can continue to maintain a healthy balance between the artistic and financial needs of the Orchestra, which will stand us in good stead in the years to come.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

It has always been a great privilege to be involved in the working life of the unique organisation that is the RPO. The musical versatility and dedication of the highly experienced and talented members of the Orchestra is a constant inspiration. The key ingredients of giving performances at the highest level, whatever the setting, combined with the sheer variety of work that we do – be it watching a packed out Symphonic Rock performance at the Royal Albert Hall, recording with the 86-year-old Disney composer Richard Sherman at Abbey Road Studios, enjoying one of our concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, such as the joint performance of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony with Pinchas Zukerman and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra on Monday 27th October 2014, or the opportunity to see Charles Dutoit conduct Bartók’s extraordinary Duke Bluebeard’s Castle on Tuesday 27th January 2015 – means that there is always something to look forward to!

How do you relax in your spare time?

Home life has the advantage that my partner does all the cooking(!) and going to the theatre and jazz concerts aside, be it my rudimentary attempts at gardening, exploring the UK under canvas or going for long country walks with our much loved rescue dog, the outdoor life is very much my focus away from the Orchestra.

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Hannah Nepil talks Music and Neuroscience

09 Music and Neuroscience logo_oblong

The concert on Thursday 27 November at Cadogan Hall, featuring conductor Alessandro Fabrizi and pianist Alexandra Dariescu, is dedicated to Music and Neuroscience – a scientific project that aims to develop and deepen understanding of the relationship between the themes of music production and science.

Picture the following scenario: you’re feeling under the weather, so you make an appointment with your GP. After a lot of ho-humming, they dispatch you to a specialist, who prescribes three hours of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto shaken up with half an hour of Haydn’s Nelson Mass – to be taken twice daily with food and absolutely no Wagner.

Ridiculous? Maybe somewhat. But it’s not quite as unrealistic as you might think – a fact testified by the ever-increasing number of scientists specialising in the health benefits of music. Music, they tell us, lifts our mood; improves our sleep quality; lowers our stress levels; helps to ease pain; increases our endurance; even enhances blood vessel function. But it is perhaps in the field of mental disorders that we see some of the most cutting edge research. This is a key interest of the Centre of Scientific Research (CSR; chairman: Susanna Castaldo) and the Italy-based Saint Lucia Foundation, which, in collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, host an evening of talks at Cadogan Hall this November.

The event is part of a project entitled Music and Neuroscience, which aims to investigate the impact of music on mood, communication and expression in dementia sufferers. It’s a field ripe with potential: research has indicated that even some patients with advanced dementia respond to familiar songs, even when they fail to recognise close friends and family members. What’s more, singing is often used as an alternative to speech therapy, as a means of rebuilding confidence in verbal communication.

So far, however, the majority of studies into the field have focused on small, non-randomised samples of sufferers, meaning that concrete conclusions are not within easy grasp. Nor does the subjective emotional landscape of music submit easily to scientific research, with its emphasis on specificity. Listening to the Nelson Mass might make us feel uplifted, but in what way exactly? And doesn’t it depend on the mood of the listener beforehand? Still, an increasing number of studies have indicated a beneficial effect of music on anxiety and other psychological symptoms in patients with dementia – a finding on which the CSR and the Saint Lucia Foundation hope to build in the coming months.

‘Music and Neuroscience’ takes place at Cadogan Hall on 27 November 2014 at 5.30pm, followed by a concert of Beethoven, Grieg, Mascagni and Dvořák by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Alessandro Fabrizi and Alexandra Dariescu at 7.30pm.

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Under the Stars 2014

The Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, joins Every Child a Musician (EcAM) participants and RPO musicians for Under the Stars.

The Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, joins Every Child a Musician (EcAM) participants and RPO musicians for Under the Stars.

Yesterday evening (Sunday 17 August 2014), seventeen Every Child a Musician (EcAM) participants from the London Borough of Newham were given the chance of a lifetime as they performed their very own creative composition alongside the RPO at Newham’s annual Under the Stars concert.

The piece was written over four days of creative workshops with RPO musicians, during which participants learned about Elgar’s Enigma Variations before trying their own hands at writing themes and variations about friends, family and people in their community.

In the build-up to the final performance, we asked the participants what they thought of this whirlwind week:

@RPOresound on Twitter: "Relaxed ECaM post-rehearsal debrief @cadoganhall. No energy left after all that composing! @NewhamLondon"

@RPOresound on Twitter: “Relaxed ECaM post-rehearsal debrief @cadoganhall. No energy left after all that composing! @NewhamLondon”

“I personally think that this opportunity/week has been amazing and spectacular. We’ve been challenged by identifying various notes within complex phrases. I learnt new techniques and the project helped me improve my musical skills and I feel honoured. The RPO were fantastic and it was brilliant watching them rehearse. And we even saw the conductor accidentally throw his stick; it was extremely hilarious. Despite us working hard, we still had the most fun of our lives. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” – Ahmed, 11

“I really enjoyed my week this week. It was very difficult in the beginning, but as we got to put it together it sounded lovely and I hope I will get another chance to work with the RPO and Under the Stars.” – Jessica, 12

“I enjoyed this project because I learnt new notes in the music and had fun doing it. This has made me better at playing trombone and at playing music. I learnt that if I make mistakes, I just have to learn from it and try again.” – Enock, 11

“I really enjoyed this week because I got to spend the whole week with my friends and hear all the different instruments, such as the vibraphone, which I had never seen or heard before. I am quite nervous for the performance because I have a two-bar solo, as well as a quartet playing the original ‘Enigma’ theme. I am also excited to meet the Orchestra. I would rate my experience as 11 out of 10!” – Ellie, 12

This project was in partnership with London Borough of Newham and took place at East Ham Town Hall and Cadogan Hall on 11–14 August, culminating in a final performance at East Ham Central Park on Sunday 17 August.

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