A Look at Behind the Lines

Behind the lines logo

RPO resound’s year of Behind the Lines activities culminates in a four-day creative Summer School this August. Hannah Nepil finds out more.

What was Elgar’s favourite ice cream flavour? And was he ever burgled? These were two of the questions posed by children taking part in Behind the Lines, a year-long education project run by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Westminster Music Library, exploring the music of the First World War. And luckily, Elgar specialist Simon Baggs fielded the answers excellently: whilst there is no documentary evidence about Elgar’s favourite flavour, he could regularly be seen coming out of Woolworths in Worcester with an ice! And he was burgled once, in 1918, by two ex-policemen.

The project began last October, and carries on until summer this year – coinciding with the 100th anniversary of July 1914, when the War broke out. Adults, children and teenagers of all musical skill levels were given the chance to take part in one of several courses running throughout the year, each devoted to a different composer influenced by the events of 1914–1918, among them Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Ravel, Ivor Gurney, George Butterworth and Holst.

Although the adult groups did involve practical music making, they tended to focus on discussion of these composers and the themes in their music. The children’s groups, meanwhile, were a little more physically demanding. They would begin with a trip to Westminster Library, where everyone would ‘have a great exploratory time, pulling scores from the shelves, encouraging on-site musicians to read them there and then getting to run round,’ says Ruth Currie, the RPO’s Head of Education. ‘We also had the idea of using the shelving units as ‘trenches’, where people could retreat to come up with ideas.’

Then came a listening and discussion session, in which ‘we would ask the children to imagine what they heard in the music,’ says Detta Danford, who led a Vaughan Williams workshop in June. ‘In the London Symphony, one of them said it sounded like a memorial to somebody. And in The Lark Ascending, someone imagined a man walking out on his own into an icy landscape.’

The final challenge was to create musical responses to the pieces they had heard. ‘We got our children to think about the idea of landscape in Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica, Pastoral Symphony and The Lark Ascending,’ says Danford. ‘Then, in our heads, we went on our own musical journey to three different places: the countryside, to the sea and finally to a carnival, using Vaughan Williams’ approach to composition as inspiration.’

As for the ‘war’ element? While the adults were keen to get into the nitty-gritty of what war meant to individual composers, for the children it was more a case of ‘listening to musical devices, such as loud splurges that sound like rifles going off,’ says Currie. ‘Then we’d get them to create their own explosion sound or their own beautiful countryside scene that suddenly dissolves into bloodshed and war. Obviously they grasped onto these ideas quickly. They loved doing it.’

The Behind the Lines Summer School runs August 4–7. For more details visit: www.musicbehindthelines.org

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Meet the Management: Huw Davies (Development Director)

Huw Davies image

Tell us a bit about your working history before joining the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).

I started my career as a professional cellist, initially as a freelancer playing in West End shows, recording sessions, orchestras etc and then as a member of the BBC Concert Orchestra. One day, a colleague very helpfully suggested that as I wasn’t very good at being told what to do, maybe I should move into arts management – and tell people what to do! So I stopped playing (the music profession heaved a huge sigh of relief!) and began working on the business side of the music industry.

How did you get involved working at the RPO?

Having done various jobs in arts management, I decided to gain experience in the corporate world and moved out of the music industry for a few years; my path crossed with Ian Maclay’s (RPO Managing Director) and he invited me to establish a development department at the RPO. It was too good an opportunity to pass up……!

What does your job entail?

The RPO Development Department is charged with diversifying the Orchestra’s revenue streams via sponsorship, private benefactors, trusts/foundations and events to help enable the RPO’s artistic goals and outreach activity. Or, put simply, raising money!

Describe a typical working day for you (if there is such a thing!).

I’m an early riser and am usually in the office by 8.15am. A large part of my day revolves around meeting and inspiring people who might be able to help the Orchestra, by sponsoring a concert or tour, joining the RPO Chair Partner Programme or supporting an outreach project. Building a strong network is crucial and I’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen! You never know where a connection might lead. If the Orchestra is in London I usually host current or prospective supporters at evening concerts.

Tell us about some highlights of your time working here at the RPO.

Artistically, one of the highlights of the 2013/14 season was the Orchestra’s performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé conducted by Charles Dutoit, who is a true master of French orchestral music; also, the amazing American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, singing Les nuits d’été by Berlioz. From a fundraising perspective it has to be the Royal Gala Concert & Dinner, which the Orchestra’s Patron HRH The Duke of York hosted last November at Windsor Castle, a truly magical setting. The weeks leading up to the event were immensely stressful, but we had a wonderful evening that raised a significant sum of money for the Orchestra’s community and education programme, RPO resound.

How do you relax in your spare time?

With a very full-time job, two small children and a demanding wife, spare time is an absolute luxury, but I do love to cook and enjoy a good bottle of wine!!!

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An Interview with Alexander Shelley

Shelley, Alexander 2 Mar 13 (c) Thorsten Hoenig

Conductor Alexander Shelley directs concerts with the Orchestra and guitarist John Williams this June. Hannah Nepil gets the lowdown on this talented British conductor.

Alexander Shelley is sounding animated. The 34-year-old British conductor has recently returned from a month-long tour of Germany with the German National Youth Orchestra, and he wastes no time in describing one of the trip’s highlights: a football match against the Berlin Philharmonic. ‘They hired out the local football stadium, and the orchestra members’ friends and family all came, so there was a really good atmosphere,’ he says. ‘But we lost 12-1, which was annoying.’

That aside, Shelley has been consistently scoring highly, ever since winning the Leeds Conducting Competition back in 2005. He is currently Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra; he has conducted ensembles including the City of Birmingham Symphony and the Simón Bolívar Symphony orchestras; this season he makes his conducting debut with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. And, closer to home, this month brings three concerts with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring performances from guitarist John Williams.

Shelley’s first instruments, however, were the piano and the cello. He is the son of pianists Howard Shelley and Hilary Macnamara ‘and we had four or five grand pianos in the house when I was a baby,’ he tells me. ‘There’s a picture of me in nappies, sitting on the composer Herbert Howells’s lap, playing the piano, so I think it’s something I had contact with before I could speak.’ His parents, he insists, never pushed him into the music profession. ‘Quite the opposite. They were very pragmatic.’

Nevertheless, after leaving Westminster School in London, Shelley went on to study the cello at the Royal College of Music and in Germany; for a while, a career as a cellist seemed likely. He warmly recalls masterclasses with Mstislav Rostropovich, János Starker and Aldo Parisot during his studies. And in 2000, at the age of 20, he was invited to perform under Valery Gergiev with the World Orchestra for Peace – an ensemble of musicians hand-picked from the best orchestras of 24 different countries. ‘I was probably the youngest member of the Orchestra and in awe of everybody there.’

Yet, after founding his own chamber orchestra, the Schumann Camerata, he found the lure of conducting impossible to resist. And it remains his main love. ‘As a cellist, you immediately have a physical connection with a piece of music. As a conductor, you sit in silence at a table and analyse a score. But that allows you to become very acquainted with the way that the composer was thinking and working,’ he says. ‘And how many people can say that they spend every day communing with geniuses?’

Alexander Shelley conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in three concerts featuring guitarist John Williams at The Hexagon, Reading (6 June); Royal and Derngate, Northampton (8 June); and Royal Festival Hall, London (11 June).

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An Interview with Adam McGinlay

Adam McGinlay, general manager of the Cadogan Hall, London

Hannah Nepil interviews Adam McGinlay, General Manager of Cadogan Hall – the Orchestra’s London residence.

Cadogan Hall celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. ‘But rather than just having one party for one night of the year and all waking up with headaches the next day,’ says its General Manager Adam McGinlay, ‘we’ll be having several parties.’ So, for starters, there’s a recital from the tenor Rolando Villazón; a complete Beethoven sonata cycle from pianist John Lill; and a series of concerts from the violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

It’s also a time for nostalgia. McGinlay recalls the excitement when, in 2004, the Hall first became home to the annual BBC Chamber Proms – raising its profile in the process. ‘It went from opening its doors with only a very few staff to being live on air within weeks. From the front of house it appeared to go very smoothly, like a gliding swan, but I can assure you there was some frantic paddling underneath,’ says McGinlay.

By now, Cadogan’s schedule also includes a choral series, a Royal Philharmonic Residency and a Zurich International Concert series, which profiles international orchestras rarely heard at other London venues, such as the Brussels Philharmonic. As McGinlay says, ‘Our aim is that if something is already being presented by another venue, we would only do it if we felt we could offer something different.’ He recently programmed a St John Passion by C.P.E. Bach that probably hadn’t been heard in over two hundred years. ‘It wasn’t an easy sell,’ says McGinlay. ‘We have to be very careful because the narrower the repertoire, the more difficult it is to get audiences. But you can’t just keep doing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto every day.’

And his plans for the future? ‘We’d like to widen the types of performance that we do – particularly Baroque and Renaissance music,’ he says. But the main aim ‘is to stand alone and present something in the best possible way. We believe a concert here should be more like the experience of a five-star retreat, so when you arrive you’re treated well, the seats are comfortable, the food is of quality, there’s nice champagne. Our aspiration is that if you were to hear a concert at one venue and come and hear the same concert at Cadogan Hall, then you would have the better experience here.’

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An Interview with Jeremy Backhouse

Backhouse, Jeremy Feb 10 (c) Sim Cannetty-Clarke Hannah Nepil interviews conductor Jeremy Backhouse ahead of Verdi’s Requiem with the Vivace Chorus at the Royal Albert Hall.

For the choral conductor Jeremy Backhouse, one vivid memory is watching the first ever Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition on television in 1984. ‘I said to my parents “I’m going to win that one day”,’ he recalls. ‘Then in 1988, we did win it.’ Then there was the time that he conducted Parry’s I was Glad in Westminster Abbey for the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations. And that performance in Liverpool Cathedral, on the evening of Pope John Paul II’s death in 2005: ‘We were doing Górecki’s Totus Tuus, which was actually written for Pope John Paul II. It’s a piece that dies down to nothing, and it was around that moment that the Pope breathed his last.’

Next month, the list of memories gets a little longer: Backhouse conducts the Vivace Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, Wimbledon Choral Society, Twickenham Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall. But after many years of conducting amateur choirs, Backhouse will happily admit: ‘I never set out to be a conductor. I’ve never had a conducting lesson in my life.’

In his youth, Backhouse was head chorister of the Canterbury Cathedral Choir. After studying Music at university, he moved to London and joined various chamber choirs. ‘I sat in the back row of the basses thinking ‘that’s not the way to do it, this is how you should do it’ and moaned with the other guys in the pub afterwards.’ Around the same time, he joined an ensemble of eight people called the Vasari Singers and became its conductor, gradually moulding it into the well-respected choir it is today. A full-time career in conducting only came later, however, by which time Backhouse had worked as literary editor at EMI and had held a position at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, transcribing music into Braille: ‘In those days of pre-computerised Braille, I would dictate music in a given style and a blind person would bash it into a Perkins Brailler, which was like a Braille typewriter.’

He calls himself a man of hidden ambition: ‘Ostensibly I’m not hugely ambitious. But I always have plans. I always have ideas. I like to think that I bring people with me rather than steam-roller them.’ That also goes for his rehearsal technique. ‘People have said to me in the past, “why don’t you shout at us more?” But it’s not my way and I can’t put it on.’ So what is his way? ‘To encourage and enthuse. In my view that gets far superior results,’ he says. ‘I can’t be Mr Jolly all the time, but once you get into the music you can get beyond the notes and inspire your performers through your own passion or feeling.’

And luckily, with a piece like Verdi’s Requiem, that shouldn’t be too difficult, as Backhouse says: ‘If the Dies irae doesn’t fire you up, then not much will.’

Jeremy Backhouse conducts Verdi’s Requiem on the evening of Sunday 18th May at the Royal Albert Hall.

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