Charles Dutoit discusses Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Charles Dutoit Mar 13 (c) Larry Ho USE

Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit speaks to Hannah Nepil about the challenges and implications of Bartók’s dark opera.

Sinister, enigmatic, and yet so simple: such is the story of Béla Bartók’s one-act 1911 opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. A young woman enters her new husband’s home – a huge dark castle with seven locked doors. Despite her husband’s protestations, she insists that all the doors be opened, at first to allow light into the gloomy interior, and then out of insatiable curiosity. What awaits her is a series of gruesome, disturbing, perplexing sights – among them a blood-stained torture chamber and a lake of tears.

What does it all mean? There’s an essay question, if ever there was one. Scholars and students alike have attempted to unpick this tangle of symbolism and inference. And that, according to Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, is part of the fun. ‘You can open a book and look for an explanation. You can discuss the relationship between the couple at length. You can have your own interpretations.’ As for his interpretation? He chuckles, ‘this opera describes the curiosity of women in general – you know, the way they want to know things, and in the end, they are punished for that curiosity.’

Dutoit will have plenty of time to ponder the issue this January, when he conducts the 55-minute-long opera in a concert performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As he admits, the work is filled with technical challenges, both in terms of its rhythms and balance – ‘the orchestra is huge, so one has to be careful not to cover the voice.’ But for him, the effort involved is more than worthwhile: ‘This is a heavily psychological work, which is normal for the time in which it was written – at the beginning of the Expressionist period. It’s so dramatic and powerful.’ And much of that, he points out, is down to the music, which ‘fully illustrates the text. When the fifth door opens on Bluebeard’s vast kingdom, for example, the use of extra brass instruments is very telling, and when the text mentions tears, you hear that in the music too.’ He continues: ‘The public has this idea that Bartók is difficult (to understand). This work is not. The story is very simple and well-known and the music speaks by itself. It’s one of the best pieces written by the composer.’

Maestro Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 27 January at 7.30pm.

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2015 regional concerts: preview

Venues - Generic Regional-small

Concerts in the New Year feature such acclaimed artists as Grzegorz Nowak, Morgan Szymanski, Eduardo Portal, Sarah Beth Briggs, Natalie Clein and Freddy Kempf, amongst others, and you can now book for more 2015 events at The Baths Hall (Scunthorpe), Wycombe Swan (High Wycombe), Orchard Theatre (Dartford), Ipswich Regent Theatre and Marina Theatre (Lowestoft).

The Baths Hall, Scunthorpe

Following its hugely successful performances in 2014, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is delighted to be returning to The Baths Hall with numerous colourful programmes in 2015. The new season will open with a St George’s Day Concert on Saturday 25 April 2015, filled with music by some of England’s finest composers, including Vaughan Williams’ tributes to pastoral England in Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending.

Following the success of last September’s patriotic extravaganza, Last Night of the Proms will be back in Scunthorpe on Saturday 12 September, in which the Orchestra will play some of the most influential music of the last few centuries, including Sibelius’ Finlandia, Puccini’s Nessun Dorma from La Turandot and Parry’s Jerusalem; music that is bound to fill you with musical joy and inspiration.

Marking the end of its 2015 concerts in Scunthorpe on Saturday 28 November, the Orchestra is set to play alongside British pianist Freddy Kempf in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and end its Scunthorpe series with a ‘great classic’, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

Ipswich Regent Theatre, Ipswich

On Wednesday 1 April 2015, the Orchestra is honoured to be led once again by respected British conductor Barry Wordsworth at Ipswich Regent Theatre in Dvořák’s beguiling ‘New World’ Symphony (the composer’s Ninth), Glinka’s magical Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture and Tchaikovsky’s famous – and, arguably, perfect – First Piano Concerto, in which British pianist Freddy Kempf is the evening’s soloist.

Marina Theatre, Lowestoft

The Orchestra’s 2015 concert series at Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre offers a wide variety of repertoire and themed concerts, featuring regular guest conductors of the RPO and soloists that include mezzo-soprano Jeanette Ager, soprano Annette Wardell and pianist Alexandra Dariescu, the latter of whom will team-up with Principal Associate Conductor Grzegorz Nowak for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto on Friday 17 April 2015 (the Theatre’s Opening Gala Concert).

Our themed concerts include a Celebration of the Sea (Friday 3 July; 350 years after the English Naval victory in the Battle of Lowestoft), the RPO’s popular, patriotic Last Night of the Proms (Friday 25 September) and an evening of Magnificent Movie Music (Friday 27 November), following 2014’s James Bond sell-out success. This concert series surely leaves no stone unturned!

Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Dartford’s Orchard Theatre will welcome two awe-inspiring pianists to its stage in the RPO’s 2015 concert series: Sarah Beth Briggs, ‘an artist of extraordinary magnetism’ (The Daily Telegraph), will join the Orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s virtuosic Piano Concerto No.21 – one of the composer’s sunniest compositions – on Sunday 24 May.

A Viennese-flavoured concert on Friday 7 November will see Duncan Riddell, one of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s esteemed leaders, lead the Orchestra and soprano Sarah Redgwick in works by Johann Strauss II (The Blue Danube Waltz, Thunder and Lightning Polka), Franz Lehár (Gold and Silver Waltz, The Merry Widow) and Émile Waldteufel (The Skater’s Waltz); an elegant evening of enchanting Viennese classics.

Wycombe Swan, High Wycombe

The RPO’s 2015 concert series at Wycombe Swan will open with a Spanish Fiesta; an evening of impassioned orchestral favourites, infused with the sounds and rhythms of Spain on Saturday 7 February. Rising star Morgan Szymanski will join the Orchestra for the centrepiece of the Fiesta: Rodrigo’s ever-popular guitar concerto, Concierto de Aranjuez.

On Wednesday 27 May, young Spanish maestro Eduardo Portal will lead the Orchestra in Rimsky-Korsakov’s colourful epic Scheherazade, preceded by Dvořák’s melancholic Cello Concerto, featuring world-class cellist Natalie Clein. To conclude the season, Freddy Kempf, one of today’s most talented and popular pianists, will join the Orchestra for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto on Sunday 29 November, under the baton of Christoph Koenig.

The Orchestra enjoys established residencies in Croydon, Northampton, Hull, Lowestoft, Reading, Crawley, Ipswich, High Wycombe, Aylesbury and Dartford, as part of its extensive regional touring programme. Other venues on the agenda this season include Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, Cheltenham Town Hall, G Live in Guildford, The Baths Hall in Scunthorpe and Cambridge Corn Exchange. For a full listing of RPO events, including our regional series, please visit our website:

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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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