Meet James Williams: the RPO’s new MD

 

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James Williams was appointed as the RPO’s new Managing Director in March 2016

Earlier in our milestone year, we welcomed James Williams as our new Managing Director. Hannah Nepil caught up with him in a recent phone interview to find out more about how he’s settling in and future plans for the organisation.

James Williams sounds surprisingly relaxed. Perhaps, after only a couple of months as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s new Managing Director, the stress of the role hasn’t fully set in. Or perhaps he is just concealing it. After all, as he points out, it takes a lot of work ‘to get under the skin of these big, complicated organisations. You have to do a lot of listening to people to get a feel for the culture and the organisation’s values.’

Happily, he is nothing if not prepared, having spent his career working in arts management. A former tuba player (‘though not professionally,’ he hastens to add), he studied Music at York University, before landing a job on Yehudi Menuhin’s Live Music Now scheme. ‘We brought live music to people who had fewest opportunities to access it, such as elderly people with dementia,’ he explains.

Then came roles as Programming Manager at the Royal Northern College of Music and, most recently, as Director, UK Programme and Creative Projects at the Philharmonia, where he indulged his passion for contemporary music, curating the Music of Today Series, and masterminded initiatives including the Philharmonia at the Movies film music series and iOrchestra, a major digital and education project in the South West.

Still, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia are rather different beasts, as Williams points out himself. ‘The RPO in particular has always had to be very entrepreneurial. So its USP [Unique Selling Point] is really its flexibility and the sheer diversity of its repertoire; this ability to perform a Mahler symphony one night and the next to perform symphonic rock, and somehow be able to click from one to the other without any compromise on quality.’

What kind of changes, then, is Williams planning? ‘I’m going to be terribly boring and a bit tight-lipped at the moment,’ he says, before dropping a few carefully-worded hints: ‘I have a real interest in new music, community and education work and digital projects, so clearly I’m not going to lose any of that enthusiasm here.’ He also stresses the need, especially in these lean times, to stay mindful of ‘changes in society, changes stylistically in music, what is in vogue, what isn’t in vogue to make sure that what we’re doing is relevant to the communities we serve.’

Still his main priority, he insists, is ‘to continue to value what is so special about the RPO, without setting off in a totally different direction.’ Which means that the Orchestra’s flexibility, its diversity, and – phew – its annual Bake-Off, should remain in place. ‘I’ve already identified a few fantastic bakers in the organisation,’ says Williams. Is he one of them? ‘Probably not. Even though I do enjoy cooking, I’m very rarely at home to actually cook ever because most of the time I’m out at concerts and networking events. But I understand that the RPO Bake-Off is legendary. Long may it continue.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

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Not one, not two, but three milestones

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This year marks fifty years since Charles Dutoit’s first performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; since his first performance at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in May 1966, in a period Dutoit recalls as ‘an amazing time in London’. Now the Orchestra and the Swiss maestro look forward to celebrating two other major milestones – the ensemble’s 70th anniversary and Dutoit’s 80th birthday – in the RPO’s 70th Anniversary Gala Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 19 September.

Charles Dutoit’s first performance with the RPO, four years after he first travelled to London, began an inspiring musical collaboration that would keep on growing and thriving. Today, since 2009, Dutoit is proud to be the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the “nation’s favourite orchestra”: ‘The RPO is a very flexible orchestra; can do anything… film music or jazz, or very serious stuff like concerts we gave last night [Tuesday 31 May, Royal Festival Hall]. This is what makes an orchestra a great orchestra… the possibility of being flexible, and do[ing] everything – and I think it’s extremely important for the future of any orchestra, and, of course, the RPO.’

Members of the Orchestra often recall performances with Dutoit as some of the most memorable experiences in their orchestral careers and have the utmost admiration for his musical accomplishment and his vast experience of the pieces they perform – none more so, perhaps, than the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Leader, Duncan Riddell, who reflects fondly on why he took up the position: ‘One of the really big attractions of coming to the RPO was the chance to be working regularly with Charles Dutoit… The sound that he can get from the Orchestra: it takes a while to get that, but he’s the kind of guy who will never give up until he gets what he wants.’

This driven attitude to live performances ensures that the Orchestra ‘is always at its best when playing for their principal conductor Charles Dutoit’ (The Guardian), which will no doubt be the case in their upcoming concerts together in the UK and on tour in Switzerland, Germany and the Baltics.

In a conversation with interviewer Jessica Duchen, Dutoit describes The Firebird as one of his favourite pieces. It is fitting, then, and perhaps even more significant to the milestone year that as well as performing the Suite in next month’s Gala Concert, Dutoit will conduct Stravinsky’s full colourful work in a series of concerts on tour in Montreux, Switzerland, at the end of August. The tour will feature not one, not two, but three of Stravinsky’s ballet scores (including Petrushka and The Rite of Spring).

Watch the full interview in A Conversation with Charles Dutoit, featuring footage of our Southbank Centre rehearsal in May:

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Ian Maclay: Reflecting on four decades

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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

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A Last Night to remember

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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.

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Dreamachine: connecting man and machine

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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.

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