Michael Dolan, Co-Principal Second Violin, retires this July after 30 years with the Orchestra.
How did you become involved with the RPO?
Barry Griffiths, one of the previous great leaders of the RPO, invited me to join. He was guest leading the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra where I was No.3 Assistant Leader and so I had the privilege of sitting with him and learning. I joined as an Associate in November 1982 and became a full member of the First Violin section in January 1983. In March 1983 I was appointed Sub-Principal Second Violin and then a few years later offered the Co-Principal chair by another great RPO player, Raymond Ovens, who was Principal Second Violin at the time. He had been Principal Second Violin in his early twenties, in Beecham’s day, then went on to lead and co-lead many orchestras in Britain before returning to the RPO after about thirty-five years.
What is the best thing about being a member of the RPO?
Even after thirty years I would still say it is my colleagues, the RPO ‘family’. The spirit they have to play superbly even under very difficult conditions is still the same although the players have changed over the years. The RPO has always been a friendly group of musicians and there are no barriers between sections, or elite hierarchies as in some other orchestras. Of course, making music with great conductors and soloists in so many countries and continents is also wonderful.
Who have you enjoyed working with the most whilst in the RPO?
There have been so many that I have enjoyable memories of, and not always the big names or maestros, but I have especially liked…
Yuri Temirkanov: Every occasion was inspirational. He never uses a baton and conducts with his whole body. In repertoire like Rachmaninov or Stravinsky he is amazing, but I will never forget the many great performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade with Barry Griffiths playing the violin solo.
André Previn: As well as being a great conductor and musician, people may not know what a superb pianist he is. He once played some Mozart piano concertos with the Orchestra that were easily as good as the top soloists. However, one performance I will always treasure is a concert version of Porgy and Bess at the Royal Festival Hall with amazing singers he brought over from the USA. It was one of the most enjoyable and fun events I have ever played in.
Daniele Gatti: A true master of his craft with a superb technique. A powerful presence before the Orchestra who demanded more and more from the musicians until he got what he felt was just right then smiled and said: ‘Now that this is really excellent, what else we can we find from within you to make it exceptional?’ Being Italian he was dramatic and I remember his Mahler cycle as being exhilarating but exhausting! The one concert with him I will never forget took place on 9/11.
Charles Dutoit: The present Artistic Director and Principal Conductor is a great appointment for the RPO. A complete master of ensemble and tonal colours. He is a great trainer of an orchestra and demands absolute attention to detail, which he manages with a very genial and encouraging manner. He has a fine sense of style in everything we have tackled but I find him superb in the music of Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky. He has already given me some great concerts to remember and I have chosen to play my last concerts with the RPO (ahead of my retirement) with Maestro Dutoit this July. A good note to finish on!
Where is your favourite place to perform?
The Musikverein in Vienna is a wonderful hall for a string player. It is beautiful to be in but I still remember how astonished I was at how easy it was to produce and hear my sound. No sense of needing to project unnaturally and also easy to hear the rest of the orchestra. I remember playing the Elgar Violin Concerto with a very young David Garrett as soloist and Yehudi Menuhin conducting. I could hear everything! Fortunately there are now some very fine halls around the world but sometimes I enjoy performing just because of the location. On the lake at Montreux is beautiful, in the Alhambra in Spain is magical and at home in London the iconic Royal Albert Hall is grand.
Do you have a defining favourite moment of your musical life?
I don’t come from a musical background and I didn’t hear a symphony orchestra live until I was sixteen. The Scottish National Orchestra (not Royal in my day!) played a concert in my home city Dundee and I went along on my own not knowing anything. I was amazed and thrilled at the sounds coming from the orchestra, especially the string sound in the big melody in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. I thought I would really like to play in an orchestra but it was two years later that I realised what would be required. I went to hear the great soloist Ida Haendel play the Brahms Violin Concerto. I had never heard a great solo violin before and I was completely inspired, yet daunted, that the violin could be played like this. I subsequently worked a lot with Miss Haendel and once when I met her on tour in the USA I told her my tale and she laughed and said ‘So you blame me for all this!’
What was the first recording you ever bought?
I was born in 1951 so I was nuts about The Beatles as a teenager and saved up to buy a single – I think it was She Loves You. However, the first classical record I bought was an inexpensive LP of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on vinyl. I still have it and recently a violinist friend told me that it was the great David Oistrakh playing on it and not the name on the sleeve. Apparently Oistrakh’s recordings were used under a fictitious name for some reason. No wonder I liked it: he is one of the violin gods!
What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given in relation to music and who was it from?
When I had just started at the back of the Second Violins in the Scottish National Orchestra, I once ruined a recording take by knocking a pencil off the music stand as I tried to turn a page quickly. Sir Alexander Gibson glared at me and said: ‘I don’t think you’ll do that again if you want a career.’ A very old sweet Glasgow violinist sitting near me took me aside and said: ‘Son ye need tae keep yer pencil behind yer ear like me. It’s always there when ye need it and it’ll never fall off and ruin they wax disc recording thingys.’ Needless to say I heeded his advice and developed it further by almost never marking anything in a part ever, so that although I own several pencils they don’t see the light of day unless behind my ear! Another bit of advice came from Yehudi Menuhin who told me that if I stood on my head for twenty minutes my practice would be much improved. Let’s just say that is a work in progress!
What if anything is different now from when you first joined the RPO?
I sense now that orchestras are seen as a luxury in some quarters instead of the wonderful resource for the nation that they are. Music enriches and enhances so many areas of our lives and more than pays its way in our society. As well as its mainstream concert work the RPO has always made music for films, television, backing tracks, advertising jingles, corporate events, festivals, opening ceremonies, pop stars, etc. Much of this work brings in foreign money and investment and creates such goodwill but the competition for this work is much greater now. Also, there is very little if any sponsorship to be found, so financial constraints mean a less varied repertoire. One new area of tremendous importance is the programme of education and community work started some fifteen years ago. This takes our music into prisons, hospitals, hospices, special needs schools as well as the whole spectrum of mainstream music education and coaching. I have been involved with this programme since it began and have had some of my most profound life experiences in this work in the community. Whatever changes happen in the Orchestra one constant remains – the terrific music that is produced by the players that make up the ‘orchestral family’.