Saturday 15 April 2017

Context matters: My encounter with David Curtis, artistic director of OOTS

David Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan performing in Mexico
David Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan performing in Mexico
The Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) has been celebrating its 21st anniversary during the 2016/17 season. Founded by David Curtis, who remains the orchestra's artistic director, the ensemble has developed a lively profile, commissioning new pieces and giving regular performances in Stratford upon Avon, Birmingham and beyond, including recent visits to New York, Mexico and Istanbul. I recently met up with David to find out more.

Engendering a sense of family

David Curtis
David Curtis
First off, I ask David what the Orchestra of the Swan means to him and his first word is family, explaining that they try to engender a sense of family including players, soloists, guest conductors, staff, friends and audience members, and he adds that audience is important because 'they pay our mortgages'. For David, it is people that count, you build relationships between people rather than between organisations, and it is important to nurture a relationship between the orchestra and the audience. He is keen on breaking down the perceived barrier between the people on-stage and the audience, and he almost always talks to the audience at a concert. As well as that, he encourages active listening amongst the audience members.

The Orchestra of the Swan (generally known as OOTS) is a chamber orchestra based in Stratford upon Avon and it runs a regular concert season at Stratford ArtsHouse, is an Associate Orchestra at Town Hall Birmingham and has residences at Huntingdon Hall Worcester, Number 8 Pershore and Malvern Theatres. The orchestra has a lively programme of Associate Artists, this year it is BBC Young Musician of the Year, Laura van Heijden. The orchestra regularly commissions new work and David Curtis conducted the premiere of Dobrinka Tabakova's Immortal Shakespeare for the Shakespeare 400 celebrations.

Nor does he favour the 'slip it in before the interval to get it over with' approach

In fact, the orchestra has commissioned 70 works so far. As David points out, they are not a specialist contemporary music ensemble and unlikely to do a whole programme of contemporary music, nor does he favour the 'slip it in before the interval to get it over with' approach. Instead, he feels you need to programme new work in context, so that you take the audience with you.

Three years ago one of the orchestra's trustees suggested to David that they commission a series of works to show off the orchestra's principals. This became the orchestra's four 21st anniversary commissions, and to provide a context and a way-in for the audience, David paired each new work with with an existing one for the same forces. The composers found it an interesting brief and the players certainly enjoyed it. So  Objects in Mirror, Concertante for flute, oboe, trumpet and violin by Douglas Cuomo (best known for his theme tune for Sex in the City) was paired with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in a programme which also included Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oakes and Steve Martland's arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. David points out that Cuomo used some of the structural devices and techniques that Bach used, and though this is not immediately obvious David feels that it takes the audience on a journey. See David's introduction to the work on YouTube.

He tells the players simply to go for it

Whether programming contemporary music or classics, David tries to make the programming distinctive and not always the classic, overture, concerto and symphony type programme.

As a conductor David aims to encourage the orchestra to give a performance; when performing, if you don't tell the story then he does not see the point. He mentions four bars in Elgar's Introduction and Allegro which never get any easier, and whenever they perform the work he tells the players simply to go for it. He want to create the freedom for them to feel that they can try and, if necessary, fail. He enjoys working with soloists like Tamsin Waley Cohen (with whom David and OOTS recorded RVW's The Lark Ascending) and pianist Peter Donohoe (with whom they have just recorded the Shostakovich piano concertos), two very different performers but it is the story behind the music which is important to both of them.

The orchestra's slow growth has been part of its success

David founded the orchestra in 1996 whilst he was still the viola player in the Coull Quartet (and he had been with them since 1977), with no thoughts of being a conductor. He was asked by the then director of the Stratford Festival if he could fix a cheap string orchestra so that one of the director's daughters could play the William Mathias Clarinet Concerto. There was no budget for a conductor, so David conducted. They repeated the exercise the next year and it occurred to David that in Germany a town the size of Stratford-upon-Avon would not only have its own theatre but would have an orchestra too. The result was a season of six concerts, though they got a small grant David lost money.

But the season grew, and a number of people in the orchestra then are still there, and they are still friends. David thinks that the orchestra's slow growth has been part of its success. Three years ago they lost their Arts Council funding, but are now in an even stronger position.

David and the orchestra were in New York in February performing David Matthews' Piano Concerto with the young American pianist Thomas Nickell. The orchestra has been invited back for May 2018 and David hopes to find a way to fund a tour, he comments that when things are going well, it is time to work even harder.

George laid his hands upon the music and the sound of the scratch orchestra changed

David did not expect any of this, in the early years with the orchestra he was still in the Coull Quartet; he finally hung his viola up in 2004. Whilst in the quartet, they had taken part in the Canford Summer School where George Hurst used to take the conducting class. After David started conducting OOTS he sat in the back of viola section in the class and watched George Hurst work, When Hurst took over from one of the conducting students in Brahms Symphony No. 2, David felt it was almost as if George laid his hands upon the music and the sound of the scratch orchestra changed. David thought to himself 'what's just happened, what has he done?'.

Next year David took one of George Hurst's courses at Canford Summer School, and he also did courses with the renowned Finnish pedagogue Jorma Panula. David describes Panula as a bear-like Finnish version of George Hurst, Panula was unforgiving of arrogance on the podium, you were given short shrift if you pretended to know things, but he was generous if you went to him for advice. One of Panula's dictums was 'it is not your job to interpret, it is the conductor's job to realise'. David finds this telling, he sees interpreting as laying something on the music from outside, whereas realising is to burrow into the score to understand the composer's intentions.

With contemporary music, David would not take liberties with a piece because the composer is usually in the room. He questions why you would do any different because Brahms is dead, even if the instantaneous effect is exciting yet is made at the expense of the overall structure of the piece.

David thinks that OOTS does have a particular sound quality, and suspects that this might be influenced by his background as a viola player. He likes to hear a lot of the middle of the orchestral texture, so brings out the second oboe, the second violin, and he feels that this gives the sound real depth.

The orchestra has commissioned some terrific repertoire

After the orchestra had been operating for six or seven years and was receiving Arts Council funding, the music officer suggested they start commissioning pieces. David admits that it is expensive, there are the commission fees, the costs of the extra rehearsals and costs arising from the smaller audience. But the orchestra has commissioned some terrific repertoire, and David feels that it is good for the audiences to experience it, particularly if programmed in the right context. He refers back to earlier in our conversation with the pairing of Douglas Cuomo's work with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, commenting that he hopes the pairing with enable the audience to listen to Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 with new ears. And how he tells and audience for a contemporary piece that they must not listen with 19th century ears,

We return to David's concern that context matters, whether it be Elgar or a new piece, you have to think about what repertoire you programme with it and with a commissioned work he asks the composers what work complements it. So with the recent performances of the David Matthews' Piano Concerto in the UK and in New York, he paired the work with Britten's Frank Bridge Variations.

Foreign travel

New York is not the only foreign trip the orchestra has done recently, thanks to a bursary from the ABO, the orchestra has made recent trips to Istanbul and to Mexico. Both trips seem to have come about through David's bumping into people and making connections, he talks about chatting to someone from the Istanbul Festival which led eventually to the orchestra's visit.

In Istanbul they had a great time, Tamsin Waley-Cohen played Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and David followed this with Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream in a version with narration, the narrator being a popular Turkish actress. The result was highly successful, if somewhat alarming in execution as David's lack of Turkish meant that in the melodramas he and the actress had to rely on eye contact and a smile.

In Mexico they gave three concerts in three fantastic venues, working with local El Sistema-type orchestras. They played the RVW Concerto Grosso with two local orchestras of young people, whilst in Leon they performed the BBC 10 Pieces version of RVW's The Lark Ascending with 23 members of OOTS and 60 young people from the Trinitate Philarmonia. This El Sistema-type scheme has been running for seven years, and David says you can see the positive effects is has had. In a very poor part of Mexico, taking part in the scheme has given the young people hope and aspirations, and not just them, but their family and friends.  David's adds that music is so powerful on so many levels, on the one hand the transformative effect he saw in Mexico and on the other the power of a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 he heard recently conducted by Paavo Jarvi.

Helping transform lives

The orchestra plays its own part in helping transform lives, last year members of the orchestra made 90 visits to care homes and homes for people with dementia. They spend a lot of time fundraising to cover the costs, but David thinks that such things are important, he would like to be able to say ' I hope I made people's lives better'. Music has a tremendous effect on the lives people with dementia, on their carers, but it is not about the music per se rather it is about using music as a language to communicate.

David thinks that these visits also benefit the players, subconsciously they understand that performing is not about the notes it is about communication and this has a benefit to their regular performances, so it is a virtuous circle. The orchestra works with the Gloucestershire company Mindsong which provides the training, and OOTS is now a dementia friendly organisation with the staff, players and trustees having undergone training. For David, it is personal as well as professional as his father-in-law has dementia, but he finds the work hugely rewarding and is concerned to feel that he is giving something back. On Sunday 23 April David is running in the London Marathon to raise money for dementia charities (see my article).

David Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan performing in New York
David Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan performing in New York

Besides OOTS, David has been appointed the principal guest conductor of the North Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, he will be with them seven weeks per year and describes it as great fun. He does not speak Hungarian, but his son has bought him a learn-Hungarian CD! He travels to Hungary in a couple of weeks time for an all French programme and then in September he is performing a programme consisting of two new works, and Holst's The Planets.

His third orchestra is the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, a non-profession group whose Thursday night rehearsal's David enjoys enormously because the players are simply there to make music (he comments that half of them seem to work at GCHQ). Overall he feels that the orchestra's players achieve far more than they expect to.

Full details of the Orchestra of the Swan's forthcoming concerts from their website.

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