Saturday 28 November 2020

From Handel's contemporaries to a forgotten Malcolm Arnold opera: I chat to conductor John Andrews about reviving neglected music

Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master - John Andrews, BBC Concert Orchesta and cast at Resonus Classics recording session
Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master - John Andrews and BBC Concert Orchestra with Graeme Broadbent, Mark Wilde, Ed Lyon,
Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Carby and Fiona Kimm at Resonus Classics recording session

The conductor John Andrews is one of those figures who have popped up on my radar quite regularly over the last few years, whether it be conducting Wolf-Ferrari at Opera Holland Park, Mozart at The Grange Festival, Rossini and Donizetti for English Touring Opera, or Thomas Arne at the London Handel Festival, not to mention his series of recordings of rarely and never-before recorded music by Sullivan and his contemporaries.  Last month, Resonus Classics issued the world premiere recording of Malcolm Arnold's only full-length opera, The Dancing Master, conducted by John Andrews, and this seemed like a good excuse to catch up over Zoom.

There have been relatively few performances of Arnold's opera since it was written in 1952. Rejected by the BBC (it was intended for radio), it did not get a full staging till it was performed by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2015 [see my review]. John had conducted the work at the 2018 Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton. It was his first encounter with the work. Though he had talked about it a lot with the festival in previous years, it was only in 2018 that he properly got to know it. The opera was given a semi-staged production in a studio theatre with John's reduction for four players of Arnold's somewhat lavish scoring. The festival had considered staging the work as a radio play, which John thinks would be very effective, and they kept an element of that complete with the stage directions on audience boards. There are complications to staging the piece, and so having the radio play element solves a lot of these. And given the work's rather lavish scoring, reducing the accompaniment down to percussion, keyboard and strings worked well.

John was astonished that the piece had not had a recording. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performed it in 2006, but this did not make it to CD so the work was crying out for a professional recording.

John refers to Arnold's orchestral writing in the piece as flamboyant, but the best parts of the work are wonderfully engaging. And having performed it at the Malcolm Arnold Festival with reduced forces helped John in planning the recording. 

Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master - John Andrews and BBC Concert Orchestra at Resonus Classics recording session
Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master - John Andrews and BBC Concert Orchestra
at Resonus Classics recording session

Arnold wrote the piece straight off. He received a draft libretto from film-maker Joe Mendoza and set it immediately with no revision.

As the work was not given a full performance during Arnold's lifetime (just one with piano accompaniment) there was never a chance for the composer to revise it. Thus, there are traps in the piece. For instance, Arnold doesn't give the singers much help and loves bringing them a semitone away from the orchestral accompaniment. John comments that when it comes off, the effect sounds quirky but such passages are hard on the singers' pitch accuracy. 

The complexity of plot (which is essentially a Restoration farce) leads to staging difficulties, whilst some of the singers (particularly those playing Don Diego and Gerard) could do with a few bars rest inserting to recover their energy! The recitative sections (based on the original Restoration play) are somewhat wordy, and some performances have cut these. A few discreet revisions would have solved these problems and made the work more practicable. Also, the sheer flamboyance of the orchestra can lead to balance difficulties. When John's reduced scoring was performed at the Malcolm Arnold Festival in 2018, the composer's family liked the results so that is one way to go.

But all these problems are solvable, and John considers it a tragedy that the work has never been performed in a professional opera house. John has pitched the opera to serveral companies, to no avail yet. But he feels that the work needs it, it is so engaging. That Arnold wrote the work straight off is both a strength and a weakness. Whilst he never got a chance to revise it (and did not even have discussions with the librettist about the structure of the libretto), the music has a terrific sweep and energy to it.

That it is a one-act opera (and that Arnold never wrote a companion piece) historically contributes to the programming difficulties. What do you perform with it? But John points out that in these COVID-ridden times, companies are becoming less averse to one-act operas.

And for all the complexities, it is quite a small-scale work. The setting is domestic and there is no chorus. The whole plot takes place in a Restoration town-house. And though the music is fantastic, John feels that it really is a work for the theatre. After all, it is based on a Restoration farce, the modern equivalent for which is not opera, but spoken theatre.

One thing that is noticeable about John's CV is its wide range, from Handel and Arne, to Mozart, to Italian bel canto to Sir Arthur Sullivan and his contemporaries and beyond. Partly this is deliberate, but some of it has been what he refers to as happy serendipity. Once he had done a new thing reasonably successfully, he is happy to take on more of the same.

Rossini Fireworks! - Elena Xanthoudakis; Catherine Carby; John Andrews; Luciano Botelho; John-Colyn Gyeantey - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Rossini Fireworks! - Elena Xanthoudakis; Catherine Carby; John Andrews; Luciano Botelho; John-Colyn Gyeantey
English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)

His PhD was on Handel, on politics and society in 1740s London and the inter-relationship of society and music. So this, and the operas of Mozart were very much his starting point, though he started out as a symphonic conductor. But chance and opportunity led him to opera. He spent some time on the music staff of Garsington Opera where he worked on operas by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Offenbach. This opened a new world to him, and he immediately found the music engaging and enjoyable.

His interest in Handel's younger contemporaries such as Thomas Arne, John Eccles, Maurice Green, JF Lampe arose out of his Handel research, particularly the oratorios of the 1740s. And this led him to a wonderful vein of neglected English music, which led him in turn to him giving performances of the music of Arne and Eccles at the English Music Festival in Dorset. It was the festival which requested he perform Sullivan's incidental music for Shakespeare's Macbeth [subsequently recorded, see my review]. Sullivan wrote the music in 1888 for Sir Henry Irving's production using a chorus of 60 and a 46-piece orchestra (far bigger than would be economic nowadays). Though Sullivan's suite is fairly well known, the complete music is far more extensive. 

John was already familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy Opera (The Yeomen of the Guard was the first opera he conducted), but the Macbeth incidental music led to John's on-going series of recordings of neglected works by Sullivan, notably the non-operatic ones [the oratorio The Light of the World, see my review] and the operas written without Gilbert [Haddon Hall, see my review], and of the operas by Sullivan's younger contemporaries such as Alfred Cellier [The Mountebanks with its libretto by Gilbert, see my review].

He points out that whilst the two areas, bel canto and late 19th century English music, might seem disparate, in fact, everything which is important in bel canto opera is important in the later English music. So the two areas of John's musical life effectively come together.

His interest in composers and works that have undeservedly dropped out of the repertoire extends further, so that for the English Music Festival he did a recording of the Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra by Percy Sherwood (1866-1939) and Symphony No. 5 by Frederick Cowen (1852-1935) [see my review], both works and composers that have been shamefully lost to the mainstream repertoire. He admits that he is curious and that he loves discovering music off the beaten track. And he points out that pieces that have fallen away often tell you more about the society that created them than works which have gone on to gain fame. Well-known works often have an element of universality to them, whereas works that have dropped by the wayside are often strongly rooted in the society that created them.

For operatic works, there can be good reasons why pieces have not been staged my mainstream opera houses, whether it be expense or complexity of staging, and sometimes works drop out almost by accident. But reviving such pieces always comes with an element of challenge. For English Touring Opera (ETO), John has conducted stagings of Donizetti's Pia de'Tolomei [see my review] and Rossini's Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra [see my review] and he comments he and James Conway (artistic director of ETO) have a similar mindset, just because a work might be hard is not a reason to grab it by the throat.

Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Mary Plazas, Luciano Botelho - English Touring Opera (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Mary Plazas, Luciano Botelho - English Touring Opera
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

This leads him on to a more general point, that with our modern striving for perfection we often neglect works which are good but not perfect. John feels that this is not helpful, either to the music or to ourselves, and only looking for perfect pieces puts pressure on ourselves. In Mozart's time, it was accepted that new pieces could be good but not perfect. Whereas today, a new piece is only allowed to be a masterpiece, which puts too much pressure on - damaging the music, the performers and the composers. The composer Stephen Sondheim once reckoned that only around half of his music-theatre works were hits, and there is no middle ground between hits and misses. 

Before COVID, John had a five or six-year plan of late 19th-century music to perform and record, such as Sullivan's ballet L'Île Enchantée (written in 1864 as a divertissement at the end of Bellini's La Sonnambula at Covent Garden) which was recorded many years ago but since then the manuscript has come to light. And in January 2021, he should have been recording Sullivan's The Martyr of Antioch (written in 1880 for the Leeds Music Festival). This is technically a concert work, an oratorio, but Sullivan did a version of the ending so that the piece could be staged. John is also interested in recording Sullivan's other non-Gilbert operas, and the early piece Cox and Box has never been recorded complete.

And having recorded Cowen's Symphony No. 5, John points out that a recording of the composer's Symphony No. 4 is lacking. This would then put all of Cowen's surviving music on disc (a lot of the composer's work does not survive). Whilst in the English Baroque, a lot of works have come out in good modern editions so there is another vein to min there. John would love to conduct a Beethoven symphony cycle, but no-one has asked him, so he is happy to continue in his world of neglected pieces and rarities. To a certain extent, the lack of symphonic repertoire is partly down to the accident of the circles you find yourself in.

He began life as a tuba player, which in orchestral music meant spending a lot of time not doing very much. He wanted to be a composer and would get the scores and whilst he was waiting in rehearsals would follow what was going on in the score. He ended up mentally commenting on what was around him, engaging with the score creatively so that conducting rather crept upon him.

At university, John did nothing but conduct, that was what he wanted to do. But he was at university with a stellar group of conductors, Edward Gardner and Daniel Harding were a couple of years above him, whilst Rory MacDonald was a contemporary. He has always been good at budgets and planning, so after university he decided to go into arts administration, even getting himself financial training.  But he found it was a mistake, he could not live without conducting. He only realised conducting meant something to him when he decided not to do it. So he went back to college and did his PhD, and looked more at conducting.

John Andrews (Photo Peter Mould)
John Andrews (Photo Peter Mould)

A few days before we chatted, John had read an article by Ivan Hewett in The Spectator, In defence of the tyrannical male maestro, though the article was more nuanced than the headline. But John was thinking of writing a reflection on this [which you can read at Notes from the Podium]. He does not regard himself as a tyrannical conductor, he is more introverted and he aims for his rehearsals to be friendly, calm affairs and he saves the fireworks for the show. With the lack of rehearsal time that is prevalent in the UK, John views rehearsals as having to be practical affairs - collegial, warm, dotting the i's and crossing the t's. He has complicated poetic ideas in his mind but does not talk about them, relying instead on gestures.

As a young conductor, John watched Colin Davis rehearse and Davis' advice was to conduct the people, not the music, to remember you are not conducting Mozart but conducting the London Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart. John feels that this is something it is easy to forget, to think that you are the one making the sound. He regards it as his job to let the potential in the room out. Another conductor that John watched was Bernard Haitink, whom he saw rehearsing Parsifal apparently without saying or doing anything. Haitink didn't even correct mistakes, he just looked pained, yet this was enough. 

John also learned so much from David Parry, whom he assisted on a number of operas at Garsington Opera, and sometimes John would conduct the rehearsal, with Parry listening. In opera, John learned from Parry's sense of theatre, that a conductor has to collaborate with the director and create a team. Parry also showed John how to negotiate bel canto, to have rubato whilst keeping a clear sense of the tempo.

Like many artists, 2020 has been a taxing year. John managed to get himself through the Summer by thinking that he would be back in the recording studio in the Autumn, but September was a miserable moment when he realised that recording dates were being pushed back again. He finds it difficult to be creative without that sense of pressure, and without the feeling of connection with an audience. Like a lot of people, he has not read War and Peace and has not learned Russian. But he has started to listen to repertoire that he does not know well enough, to get back to composers whose work he is more unfamiliar with. Usually, he does not have enough time, normal life does not allow such listening.

Malcolm Arnold The Dancing Master
Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Carby, Fiona Kimm, Ed Lyon, Mark Wilde, Graeme Broadbent, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews
Resonus Classics
- see my review

Available from Amazon, and from

John Andrews on Planet Hugill:
  • Arthur Sullivan: Haddon Hall - Ed Lyon, Henry Waddington, Adrian Thompson, Ben McAteer, Donald Maxwell, Sarah Tynan, Fiona Kimm, Angela Simkin, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews; Dutton Epoch - see my review
  • Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail - Lucy Hall, Nazan Fikret, John-Colyn Gyeantey, Richard Pinkstone, Matthew Stiff, Alex Andreou, dir: Stephen Medcalf, cond: John Andrews; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire - see my review
  • Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret - Clare Presland, Richard Burkhard, John Savurnin, dir: John Wilkie, cond: John Andrews; Opera Holland Park - see my review
  • Thomas Arne: The Judgement of Paris - Mary Bevan, Susanna Fairbairn, Gillian Ramm, Ed Lyon, Anthony Gregory, the Brook Street Band, John Andrews; Dutton Epoch - see my review
  • Rossini: Elizabeth I (Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra) - Mary Plazas, Luciano Botelho, John-Colyn Gyeantey, dir: James Conway, cond: John Andrews; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire - see my review
  • Arthur Sullivan: The Light of the World - Natalya Romaniw, Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately, Robert Murray, Ben McAteer, Neal Davies, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews; Dutton Epoch - see my review 
  • Percy Sherwood: Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, Frederic Cowen: Symphony No. 5 - Richard Marshall-Luck, Joseph Spooner, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews; EM Records - see my review
  • Gilbert & Cellier: The Mountebanks - Soraya Mafi, Thomas Elwin, James Cleverton, Sharon Carty, John-Colyn Gyeantey, Catherine Carby, John Savournin, Geoffrey Dolton, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews; Dutton - see my review
  • Thomas Arne The Judgement of Paris, Handel Semele (excerpts) - Soraya Mafi, Gillian Ramm, Susanna Fairburn, Ed Lyon, Anthony Gregory, The Brook Street Band, John Andrews; the London Handel Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square - see my review
  • Rossini: Fireworks! - Elena Xanthoudakis, Catherine Carby, Luciano Botelho, John-Colyn Gyeantey, cond: John Andrews; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire  - see my review
Elsewhere on this blog
  • Ohrwurm: recorder player Tabea Debus delightful debut recital on Delphian  - CD review
  • A theatrical family & a damaged dancer: Christoph Loy's new production of Rusalka at the Teatro Real, Madrid - opera review
  • Beautifully conceived and performed: La vanita del mondo, Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse in Italian oratorio arias  - CD review
  • Short and not entirely sweet: Prokofiev by Arrangement from violinist Yuri Kalnits and pianist Yulia Chaplina - CD review
  • Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony - Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic in a new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet - CD review
  • Despite lockdown, Handel's Ariodante returns to the main stage of Covent Garden  - opera review
  • A restlessness with the present: soprano Katharine Dain chats about her new recital disc Regards sur l'infini - interview
  • Handel's Rinaldo recorded live in a vividly engaged performance from Italy - CD review
  • Born in Latvia, trained in Paris, lived in Canada: introducing Talivaldis Keninš, a very global 20th century composer - CD review
  • A riot of colours and textures: Avi Avital's imaginative programme of over 300 years of music for the mandolin - Art of the Mandolin  - CD review
  • The Auditions: Augusta Read Thomas' new ballet score on disc as part of Nimbus ongoing series devoted to her music  - CD review
  • Home

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