Ian Maclay: Reflecting on four decades

Maclay-Ian-NewsPress

In a phone interview with Hannah Nepil, prior to his retirement last month, Ian Maclay reflects on his many decades of dedication and hard work as Managing Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

He first arrived in 1972, when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was only twenty-five years old, and there was no shame in having excessive facial hair. Now, in the ensemble’s 70th Anniversary Year, Ian Maclay is retiring as its Managing Director. How does he feel? ‘It will be like cutting off my right arm,’ he says, ‘but it was always going to be difficult. And I wanted to go before the players were muttering in corners, and saying “Oh blimey, will he never go?”’ He laughs, ‘or perhaps they already are.’

That kind of self-deprecation is typical of Maclay, who, when I call, insists that regurgitating his CV would be ‘boring and turgid.’ But it is worth pointing out that when Maclay took on the MD job in 1982, the Orchestra, in his words, ‘was on the verge of bankruptcy.’ By 1985, things had completely turned around, thanks largely to the album initiative Hooked on Classics. ‘We did just one session recording a medley of orchestral tracks with a disco beat. It went to number one in the charts, the Orchestra was on Top of the Pops and we sold eleven-million copies,’ Maclay reminisces. But it was what happened next that made the biggest difference. ‘In those days the Orchestra got no royalties, and so I went to negotiate some,’ he says, going on to describe how, on arrival, he was met with a stream of expletives. ‘But after about an hour of negotiating with this guy, he threw a cheque across the table: it was for half a million quid.’

For Ian Maclay, events like these rank among his proudest achievements: ‘The RPO is funded much less than other orchestras in the UK, so it can be a bit of an uphill struggle. But if I had a legacy, I hope it would have been to strike a balance between the commercial and the artistic.’

And he has overseen some huge artistic ventures, not least the Orchestra’s gala concert with Luciano Pavarotti. ‘It was the first time I witnessed the huge hysteria for Pavarotti. The Queen Mum turned up. Audiences were on their feet. People had paid a fortune for the front dozen rows at the Albert Hall so that they could give him bottles of whisky and flowers. Pavarotti got that white handkerchief out that he always used as a stage prop to mop his brow. ’ And what was he like in person? ‘Perfectly cordial as long as he got all the things he asked for at the right time,’ says Maclay, succinctly.

He admits that some projects have been stranger than others, such as the ‘time the Orchestra spent a week in Miami to mime to a track that lasted a quarter of an hour.’ Then there was an occasion, in 2015, when Shirley Bassey asked to recreate her 1972 performance of Goldfinger with the Orchestra. ‘I said we couldn’t do that, because I was around in 1972 and there were two issues: firstly, all the players smoked; by about 4pm you couldn’t see across the studio for all the cigarette smoke. Secondly, you’d have to get rid of half the Orchestra because there were no women in it back then.’

It’s not surprising that the Orchestra’s atmosphere has changed dramatically in Maclay’s time. Gone, for example, is the all-lads-together culture of hard drinking: ‘There’s much more of a family atmosphere now, which is epitomised when we do the MacMillan bake-off every year; I can’t imagine anyone doing that back in the day.’ Gone, too, is the excessive facial hair, as Maclay explains: ‘everyone had a moustache.’ Did that include him? ‘I did the droopy moustache thing because I thought that was really cool. And flowery shirts and velvet suits. They were always baking hot but there were was no way you could take the jacket off because that wouldn’t have been the right image.’ He pauses reflectively, ‘so you just sweated it out.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

Posted in 70th year, From the office, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Last Night to remember

LNOP2016-main

The title of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert on 15 June at Fairfield Halls in Croydon has a special significance because not only is Last Night of the Proms sure to be a typically rousing occasion, it will also be the Orchestra’s last appearance there – at least, for the next two years while the major venue undergoes refurbishment.

Croydon itself holds a special place in the RPO’s affections for it was at the Davis Theatre in the town, on 15 September 1946, that the Orchestra gave its first-ever concert under the baton of its founder, Sir Thomas Beecham.

The concert was a triumph, a delighted Beecham telegraphing a friend, “Press virtually unanimous in praise of orchestra. First Croydon concert huge success.”

The RPO returned to play in the town on many occasions but its relationship with Croydon was cemented when, on 2 November 1962, Fairfield Halls – so-called because it comprises three halls – opened.

The Concert Hall, the biggest of the three, can seat almost 1,800 people. From the start, the fine quality of its acoustics attracted the world’s greatest classical artists and orchestras for concerts and recordings. The Halls’ management team was fond of saying that the mistakes in the acoustics made by the designers of London’s Royal Festival Hall were learnt and avoided by the designers of Fairfield Halls.

Whatever, the RPO and, just as importantly, its audiences never had reason to complain about the quality of the Orchestra’s sound whenever it performed at Fairfield Halls, which is why the end of its relationship with the famous venue is sure to be a sad chapter in its history.

But what a fabulous concert to end that relationship with: the RPO, conducted by John Rigby and featuring a special guest star (the soprano Deborah Norman), will perform a feast of classical favourites including Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Holsts’ Two Songs Without Words.

Of course, such a concert wouldn’t be complete without traditional favourites such as Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1, and Elgar’s arrangement of Parry’s Jerusalem. Fortunately, they’ll be on the programme, too.

This rousing finale to the RPO’s long relationship with Fairfield Halls is just one of a sumptuous selection of Last Night of the Proms concerts featuring not only the conducting talents of John Rigby, but Hilary Davan Wetton too, as well as the voices of Deborah Norman and mezzo-soprano Rose Setten.

Also lending her considerable vocal powers to the RPO’s Last Night of the Proms concert series will be the celebrated soprano Elin Manahan Thomas (5 June at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford, and 10 June at The Hawth in Crawley). Ever since she released her first album, Eternal Light, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Elin has performed in most of the world’s most prestigious concert and recital halls, accompanied by many of the world’s major conductors and orchestras. In 2012, she entertained a worldwide television audience of more than a billion viewers when she performed at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics.

With such achievements to her name, it’s refreshing, then, to hear she’s really looking forward to singing at two of the RPO’s Last Night of the Proms concerts.

“It’s always great fun,” she says. “The fluffy dress, the rousing songs… My friends all know I sing lots of early music but they come to my Last Night concerts to hear me sing all the big songs and arias. It’s great fun but I do take it seriously.”

And with good reason. The fact is, most members of the audience know this music by heart and expect only the best performances.

“There’s a real pressure to sing at your very best,” she says. “Part of me hopes people will just get carried away with the big tunes, but I know they’ll be keen the performances meet their high expectations. I promise not to disappoint them.”

Fortunately, she can count on a great orchestra to make sure she doesn’t.

“The members of the RPO are such capable and versatile musicians,” says Elin. “They quickly tune into how you like to sing a certain piece, and support you. I’m looking forward, in particular, to singing Puccini’s O mio babbino caro and Dvořák’s Song to the Moon with them.”

Beyond her concerts with the RPO, Elin Manahan Thomas is also looking forward to performing to the Prince of Wales at the opening, on 4 July, of the Great Hall at Swansea University.

“It should be a lovely, fun event,” she says. “Almost as fun as my Last Night of the Proms concerts with the RPO!”

Written by John Evans

Last Night of the Proms dates

Dartford Orchard Theatre: Sunday 5 June
Crawley The Hawth: Friday 10 June
Croydon Fairfield Halls: Wednesday 15 June
Northampton Royal & Derngate: Sunday 17 July
Scunthorpe The Baths Hall: Friday 2 September
Lowestoft Marina Theatre: Friday 16 September

Visit the RPO website for more information.

Posted in 70th year, Concerts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Dreamachine: connecting man and machine

Daugherty-Michael-B&W-news

Ravel loved mechanical toys and collected music boxes. Conlon Nancarrow wrote pieces for player piano. Even Beethoven used cutting edge innovations for his time, in the form of the pianoforte and metronome. Machinery has long fascinated composers, and never more so than today.

So there’s something very apt about Dreamachine, a piece for solo percussion and orchestra by American composer Michael Daugherty, which the RPO and Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie will perform in Reading, Cambridge and London this June. Commissioned by the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln, this four-movement work is inspired by images that, in Daugherty’s words, ‘connect man and machine in surprising ways.’

And surprising, they are. The work opens with a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci’s wooden flying machines, followed by a tribute to Rube Goldberg, the American cartoonist, engineer and inventor, whose cartoons feature witty contraptions that perform simple tasks. The third movement is inspired by Fritz Kahn’s drawing of a light bulb plugged into an electric eel, while the finale ‘Vulcan’s Forge’ refers to the Roman god of fire and to Mr Spock, the half-human, half-vulcan science officer in Star Trek.

‘I’ve always been a big Star Trek fan,’ Daugherty says proudly. He has tried hard to make the most of the sci-fi-esque subject matter: the last movement, especially, is full of algorithmic processes. But, he assures, this piece isn’t a dry mathematical exercise. ‘There’s drama, and even humour – for example, when you have a big orchestral tutti, followed by just a little ‘ting’ on the triangle.’ Not everyone finds it funny, he admits: ‘when we did it in Germany, there wasn’t a laugh in the house.’ Still, he says, in peppering his music with cultural references, he is ‘opening the door to the listeners.’

For Daugherty, accessibility is crucial. A lot of his works have profiled well-known historical figures, from Abraham Lincoln to John F Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline Onassis, and they’re often very tuneful, unlike most of the contemporary music we hear today: ‘I find that more and more younger composers are turning to the modernism of the seventies, where you found no references to modern culture, no melodies, no toe-tapping rhythms. I guess I’m kind of a lone wolf.’

Interesting, then, that one of Daugherty’s main supporters was the arch-modernist composer György Ligeti, with whom he studied in the ‘80s. ‘Ligeti was the one who told me that avant-gardism was dead, and that I needed to move on and do something different,’ Daugherty explains. ‘He also hated anyone to compose like him. He was very turned off by that. So, I more or less got my marching papers from him.’

That said, there is one similarity between Daugherty and Ligeti: a tendency to challenge musicians. In Dreamachine, Daugherty explains that the solo percussionist has to have ‘real chops’. But it’s not just about playing the notes, he says, ‘it’s about seducing the audience, the way you move on stage, like a great actor.’ So it’s lucky that Glennie is quite so talented: ‘She can improvise brilliantly. She’s a fantastic jazz drummer. Plus, she has a great Scottish sense of humour.’ And what is a ‘Scottish’ sense of humour? ‘I’m not sure exactly,’ laughs Daugherty, ‘but she certainly has a sense of humour. I’m assuming it’s Scottish.’

Written by Hannah Nepil.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Louise Dearman: heart, soul and goosebumps

Dearman-Louise-Photo

When singer and actress Louise Dearman steps onto the famous stage at Cadogan Hall on Thursday 19 May, she may just have one or two goosebumps as she prepares to celebrate some of the musical world’s greatest stars.

‘Many singers have great voices,’ she says, midway through a sellout tour of Guys and Dolls, in which she’s playing the role of Miss Adelaide, ‘but none give me goosebumps like Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand. They were powerhouses who bared their heart and soul. Every part of them was a performer. They had the X factor, pure and simple.’

Fortunately, the audience at Cadogan Hall will have the opportunity to enjoy Louise’s passion for these two great singers, plus others including Doris Day and Julie Andrews, when she performs some of their signature songs with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stuart Barr ­– himself no stranger to singing legends, having been the Musical Director to Dame Shirley Bassey since 2009 – in a concert called Symphonic Divas, presented by Cadogan Hall favourite Petroc Trelawny.

Don’t Rain On My Parade, The Way We Were, The Trolley Song… Louise will sing these and many more great songs in a concert that’s sure to generate quite a few goosebumps beyond her own.

‘I’ve chosen these songs, which are real favourites of mine, to celebrate these iconic women,’ says Louise, a star in her own right with a string of musical triumphs to her name. Chief among them, she is the first and only actress ever to have played both witches, Glinda and Elphaba, in the West End production of Wicked; she has recorded three top-selling solo albums, and recently performed at the Proms in a semi-staged production of Kiss Me Kate.

However, one experience above all promises to make Louise’s tribute to her favourite singers particularly special: last year, she starred with Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft in the UK tour of Judy – The Judy Garland Songbook.

‘Like her mother, Lorna never held back,’ says Louise. ‘She was fabulous to work with and gave me real insights into her mother’s personality and music. In fact, she introduced me to songs her mother had sung which, I’m ashamed to say, I’d never heard of. Her knowledge of her mother’s life and career is encyclopaedic, and I’m proud to say she is now a very dear friend.’

Wisely, however, Louise has vowed to make her concert a celebration of the great divas, and not a recreation. ‘Stuart [Barr] told me,’ she recalls, ‘“do it your way – don’t try to recreate the singers of the past. Put yourself on the stage.”’

Louise intends to heed those words. In any case, she has plenty of her own experience and personality to bring to these legendary songs. Like the symphonic divas she so admires, she shares that same streak of determination that saw her singing, aged just thirteen, in the chorus of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at the London Palladium. Just six years later, and having graduated from acting school where she won a clutch of awards, she began her professional career playing the role of the Narrator when the production went on tour.

The next few years saw Louise perform in smash-hit musicals including Grease, Evita, Guys and Dolls and Cats, both in London and on tour.

‘It’s been great and I’ve loved every minute,’ she says. ‘But I take nothing for granted. You can be on top one moment, and wondering where your next engagement is coming from the next. You have to be tough and resourceful to succeed in this business, and even that’s no guarantee.’

It could be a line spoken by one of her favourite singers. Louise Dearman may be singing songs made famous by the greats on 19 May, but it’s her heart and her soul you’re going to hear.

Written by John Evans

Posted in Concerts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A conversation with Vasily Petrenko

Petrenko-Vasily-Nov-15

This month, Vasily Petrenko (‘a conductor of crisp technical assurance and interpretive depth’ – San Francisco Chronicle) makes his debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. Having worked with many of the world’s finest orchestras as guest conductor, Petrenko now looks forward to performing with the RPO: “It will be a great pleasure and a big honour for me. It’s the only big London Orchestra which I haven’t performed with yet.”

Now the Chief Conductor of three prestigious European orchestras (the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and – his most recent appointment – the European Union Youth Orchestra), Vasily Petrenko finds some time in his busy schedule to talk to Jessica Duchen about what Gustav Mahler means to him, and his debut in our upcoming performance of the composer’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony on Tuesday 22 March.

Watch the full conversation:

Mahler’s Symphony No.2 (popularly known as his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony) proves to be one of the most magnificent symphonies of the late-nineteenth century, and of all time, with technically demanding part-writing for its huge orchestration in each of its five (not the usual four) movements. The epic work’s orchestration includes a large mixed-voice chorus, soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, double woodwind, ten horns, eight trumpets, four trombones, two harps, an organ and an expanded percussion section, all of which are employed with great sensitivity.

Joining Vasily Petrenko in his significant debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will be soprano Ailish Tynan, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and the 150 voices of the Philharmonia Chorus, also making it a momentous highlight of the RPO’s 70th Anniversary Season.

Posted in 70th year, Concerts, Conductors, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment