Saturday 7 September 2019

To avoid being the sort of group which comes in, does a concert & goes away again: I chat to violinist David Le Page, artistic director of the Orchestra of the Swan

The Orchestra of the Swan
The Orchestra of the Swan
The Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), founded in 1995 by David Curtis, is a chamber orchestra based in Stratford-upon-Avon with concert series in Birmingham, Hereford, and Coventry. Having led the orchestra for 20 years, violinist David Le Page took over as artistic director in March 2018. I recently met up with David to chat about the orchestra and his ideas for its performances, the importance of audience engagement, their outreach work and going beyond the concert hall.

David Le Page (Photo Natasha Bidgood)
David Le Page (Photo Natasha Bidgood)
The 2018/19 season was inevitably a mix of influences, with both David's ideas and prior commitments whereas the forthcoming 2019/20 season is more David's mix of ideas. Audience engagement is a very important to David, and the new seasons includes three immersive residencies, in Stratford, in Hereford and in Birmingham as well as concerts further afield.

Extra, non-concert activities which are different in each place

The residencies will involve extra, non-concert activities which are different in each place, working with students, schools and special needs, with many of the audiences then coming to the orchestra's main concerts. The main aim is to try to avoid being the sort of group which comes in, does a concert and goes away again.

In Stratford, the orchestra's home base where they perform at Stratford Playhouse, there is a loyal audience and the concerts are frequently full, but the orchestra hopes to engage the Royal Shakespeare Company audience more, and to make its presence more visible. In Hereford, where they perform at the Courtyard, the emphasis of their residency will be community based, with extra community concerts which feed into the main performances. Whilst in Birmingham they will be working with the students of the Birmingham Conservatoire, including side-by-side performances, as well as programming works by student composers, which will be chosen by Joe Cutler (who is head of composition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire). Regarding the side-by-side events, David refers to it as one of the most important things that OOTS does, and many of the OOTS players too part in such events when they were students.
Repertoire for 2019/20 will include works which the orchestra has premiered by which have only been performed once. Including Joe Cutler's Music for Sunflowers, a concerto for viola and strings commissioned 10 years ago by the orchestra, as well as works by Huw Watkins and Dobrinka Tabakova.  More than that, David promises surprises and unusual pairings in the programming. Building on what David Curtis achieved with the group, the big aim is to try to turn the orchestra from a successful regional orchestra into one with national and international significance.

It is interesting for the orchestra to try lots of different conductors

OOTS work in care homes
OOTS work in care homes
Given that OOTS founder and first artistic director, David Curtis, started out as a viola player [see my interview with David Curtis] but developed a second career as a conductor, I was interested to know whether David was planning to move his artistic directorship of OOTS towards conducting as well. But his answer is a firm, No! He thinks that it is interesting for the orchestra to split things, and try lots of different conductors. In fact there is something of a three-way split, as founder David Curtis combined artistic director and conductor with much of the administration, whereas now the orchestra is trying having three different posts.

The result of this is that David takes an active interest in the orchestra's feelings about conductors, and after working with one he solicits opinions, what they think both of the performance and the rehearsal management.

A 'dynamite combination'.

The issue of rehearsal management is one which is important to David. He felt that the orchestra needed more rehearsal time for concerts, and points out that even core repertoire is tricky when coming back to it on minimal rehearsal time. The orchestra has a core of regular members, but it is a freelance group, so for each concert there is a different mix of players. For the new season, David has got funding for extra rehearsal time for the concerts, so how conductors manage the rehearsal time is an important factor for the orchestra. From experience, David knows that some conductors have no knowledge of the psychology of managing a rehearsal, whereas others are both practical and inspiring, David calls this a 'dynamite combination'. As the leader of the orchestra, David does not want to undermine the conductor, but he is certainly concerned to get the best out of the situation.

Practice ... is brutal and that you need to trick yourself in order to keep the interest

In a wide-ranging conversation we covered quite a number of topics. Regarding practice, David commented that it is very necessary but it is brutal and that you need to trick yourself in order to keep the interest. We also talked about playing on gut strings, and he commented that for a modern instrument player this would involve changing the whole way that the bow approaches the string, and to play on gut he would need to investigate anew the way his bow interacted with the string.

The very qualities that make music difficult for some people also make it interesting for others

During 2020, Coventry is the UK City of Culture and the orchestra will be starting a concert series there. There is a very diverse community in the city and David sees the new series as an exciting challenge. This all feeds back into his interest in audience engagement, which he sees as something of a conundrum. The very qualities that make music difficult for some people also make it interesting for others, with some being put off and others enjoying being able to contemplate complex structures.

David wants to find ways to invite people in, that are not intimidating and yet does not compromise the programming. So whilst aware of the need to engage audiences, he does not want OOTS programming to be simply lowest common denominator, and so he will be including unusual juxtapositions. So for one programme violinist Thomas Gould will be performing Beethoven's Violin Concerto alongside the concerto by the contemporary jazz composer Django Bates, who is a great admirer of Beethoven's music and Gould will be playing Bates' cadenzas for the Beethoven concerto! Another series is the Night Owl series, which takes place in a cocktail bar, and David plans to be able to slip something unexpected in.

David Le Page (Photo Natasha Bidgood)
David Le Page (Photo Natasha Bidgood)
David comments that musicians often forget that a composer like Schoenberg is still difficult for audiences, that we should not forget what things are like from the audience point of view. David feels that one of his strengths is he does not forget what it is like to be an audience member, to be intimidated, and to not want people to talk down to you.

See the orchestra's What's On page for the latest concert information. 

Elsewhere on this blog
  • The Late Romantic Violin: music by Vladigerov, Poulenc & Seaborne (★★★) - CD review
  • Prom 61: Ultimately, rather uninvolved - the Vienna Philharmonic in Dvořák and Korngold (★★★) - concert review
  • All was stylish & expressive, leaving us to enjoy the music & the comedy in such an engaging way that the time sped by: British Youth Opera in Rossini's La Cenerentola  - opera review
  • An unforgettable night: a true slice of history in the making: Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic & Emmanuel Ax at the BBC Proms (★★★) - concert review
  • A passionate evening: Bellini's I Capuleti ed I Montecchi  at Grimeborn (★★★) - opera review
  • A dazzling carnival erupts onto the stage and we don't want it to stop: Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini at the BBC Proms  (★★★) - opera review
  • Une soirée à Grenade: Spanish-inspired piano music by Debussy and friends (★★★) - CD review 
  • A very human drama: Allan Clayton as Handel's Jephtha at the BBC Proms (★★★) - concert review
  • The success of a competition is nothing more than the success and career development of the competitors: I chat to Lars Flæten, director of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition - interview
  • Zawazawa: recent works by Dai Fujikura (★★★½) - CD review
  • Noah Mosley and Elisabetta Campeti's Aurora at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★) - opera review
  • Less can sometimes be more: Verity Lane's The Crane at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★)  - opera review
  • Home

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