Saturday 28 October 2023

Exploring his musical roots: conductor Duncan Ward chats about his jazz-inspired, Eastern European & French music coming up with the London Symphony Orchestra

Duncan Ward and Philharmonie Zuidnederland
Duncan Ward and Philharmonie Zuidnederland 

The conductor Duncan Ward has two concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) coming up, one featuring music by Gary Carpenter, Barber and Abel Selaocoe as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival [16 November 2023, further details], and the other featuring music by Bartok, Janacek, Chausson and Debussy with soloist Isabelle Faust [23 November 2023, further details]. Duncan is chief conductor of Philharmonie Zuidnederland (South Netherlands Philharmonic) and music director of the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, a new position created by the Festival d'Aix

Duncan Ward (Photo: Hugo Thomassen)
 Duncan Ward (Photo: Hugo Thomassen)
Both of Duncan's programmes with the LSO are typically eclectic. The works in his first concert seem, at first sight, to only have a tangential relationship to jazz, but he assures me that this is not the case. He describes Gary Carpenter's music as funky, with a distinct jazz influence and his piece Dadaville includes raucous saxophone and trombone solos, uses an expanded drum kit and builds into what Duncan describes as quite a riot. Barber's Medea's Dance of Vengeance is a work that Duncan describes as building up into a groovy frenzy. It is a work that he heard as a teenager and was hooked from the opening, the mysterious strings, the build-up into a frenzy. He heard it in the car, his mother was running him to a rehearsal and he insisted they could not get out of the car until the end was reached. Strangely, it is a piece that is rarely programmed. He has tried to persuade orchestras to perform it, but often the answer is no. 

The third work in the programme is Abel Selaocoe's Cello Concerto: Four Spirits with Selaocoe as soloist. Duncan describes Selaocoe as a man of many influences, his music is eclectic, with jazz, folk and other influences making it tricky to label. In his solo performances, Selaocoe often plays and sings, he does that in the concerto and will be expecting the orchestra musicians to do the same. Selaocoe will be joined by a percussionist playing a world music drum kit. The concerto has reflective and hypnotic moments alongside the more rhythmic sections. 

Jazz was a massive part of Duncan's musical roots. He is not from a family of musicians, but when his sister was bought a keyboard as a random toy, he played tunes on it and composed little tunes. He did have lessons, but a lot was self-taught. He composed in a light style, he was into musicals and at the age of 12, wrote a musical version of Alice in Wonderland. He took the score to one of the teachers who amazingly encouraged Duncan to perform it, and he organised the performance. No-one taught him to compose, orchestrate or conduct (though a cellist in the orchestra explained how to conduct 3/4). But he did it, and everything was instructive. 

He also played jazz, loved Scott Joplin and had a jazz band for a period in his mid-teens. Whilst he was in his teens he was bunking off class at school, playing the piano and was heard by members of a New Orleans Jazz band that was playing that evening. They invited him to join them that evening, which he did, and then he went on a tour of UK traditional jazz festivals. He was 13, and most other musicians were in their 60s. In his later teens, he had a jazz fusion band, but since then jazz has rather taken a back seat though he admits that when he is somewhere like New York, he makes time to listen.

His second concert with the LSO features Janacek's Taras Bulba and Debussy's La Mer along with two solo violin works with Isabelle Faust, Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Chausson's Poeme. Janacek's Taras Bulba is a work that Duncan discovered as a teenager when he played with the National Youth Orchestra. Though he didn't actually play the organ, but he was asked to play the organ part in a performance of Taras Bulba at the Royal Albert Hall (his RAH debut) with Sir Colin Davis conducting. Duncan didn't have a chance to try out the organ before the dress rehearsal, and in the loud section, Duncan managed to make the organ so deafeningly loud that everyone stopped. Sir Colin evidently decided that it wasn't too loud, though Duncan was then fielding bribes from other players to make it even louder. 

Perhaps, not surprisingly he has loved the work ever since. Duncan finds Janacek's music one of the most distinctive sound-worlds. The composer had an original way of writing which makes the music hard to perform. It is awkward for instruments with terrifying key signatures, such as E major written as F flat major. Pierre Boulez described Janacek as the greatest ever second-rate composer, second rate partly because Janacek does not manage to get an idea across simply. But Duncan feels that the music is worth the work, giving the performers a fabulous time. 

The concert was put together to combine two of Duncan's favourite repertoires, Eastern European, Bartok and Janacek, and French, Chausson and Debussy (he describes La Mer as most heavenly). Another feature of the concert is that Duncan likes to break up the concert format, so there are two major pieces and two shorter concertos. He points out that there is a lot of repertoire that is too short for concerts, and soloists feel that they don't get enough podium time. Isabelle Faust was keen to move things about by playing two short concertos, one opening each half.

Duncan's repertoire is remarkably comprehensive, from Rameau to contemporary music, and he feels that his repertoire is getting wider, not narrower. There are things he is happy to want to do more of, pieces he wants to come back to. But he is always on the hunt for the known, forgotten pieces that need to be brought into the limelight. For the last few years he has been championing Louise Farrenc's Symphony No. 3, he is coming up to his ninth orchestra that he is performing it with.

The biggest of Richard Wagner's operas are works that he will grow into, he has also not done much of the epic Russian repertoire, operas by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, yet. He also loves Haydn symphonies, performs Rameau often and will be doing his first St Matthew Passion in 2023, and he performs Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler too. When starting out as a conductor, he was still active as a composer and contemporary music ensembles were keen to have him. He still enjoys performing contemporary music and enjoys performing contemporary pieces alongside older ones, provided there are connections.

He conducts quite a lot of repertoire (including Farrenc's Symphony No. 3) from memory, though it is sometimes not possible. Where it is possible, he finds it freeing, not having to turn pages and be head down.

His repertoire crosses symphonic and operatic, but he picks carefully. He finds both fulfilling and inspiring, and conducts two to three operas per year, partly because the process of creating them is far longer. He also loves the contrast, being in one place for some time with the same team, and the contrast to flying in and out.

With his orchestra in the Netherlands, they rehearse for three days and then usually give four concerts. The orchestra is flexible, performing the whole spectrum from Rameau to world premieres, and they play for some opera with Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle in the 2024/25 season. During the 2023/24 season, they will be performing Strauss' Alpine Symphony, Holst's The Planets and Britten's Our Hunting Fathers with Mark Padmore

Duncan also works with period instrument ensembles, and he comments that if musicians are keen to create that sound-world, then it is always a joy. It is not the same as performing the repertoire on modern instruments, but you can get close so that with strings you think about the Left Hand and the bow technique. He takes particular joy in working with period instrument groups adapting their instruments to newer repertoire. He worked on Verdi's La Traviata with the period instrument ensemble, Balthazar Neumann, creating a very, very different sound world. The musicians had to be extraordinarily dedicated; the performance was risky, for instance, the period woodwind instruments are more precarious. The performance was perhaps not at the same level of TV broadcast perfection, but that is not what you do it for, what is important is the distinctive sound-world. He has also worked with Les Siècles, recently recording a disc of French film music with them with Renaud Capucon.

Whilst the LSO is not a period ensemble, it is one of the most flexible that there are, and he feels super lucky to work with them and he first conducted them at the age of 20 in a masterclass. Since then he has done a range of concerts including streamed ones, smaller programmes, string ensembles at LSO St Luke's, and Stockhausen's Gruppen in the Tate Turbine Hall.

Coming up he has Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with Zurich Opera,  and when Duncan and I spoke (in June this year), he was about to go to the dress rehearsal of the 2023 revival of Peter Hall's classic production at Glyndebourne Opera [see my review]. Performing such repertoire in Europe, there is far less baggage and it can be liberating. He describes A Midsummer Night's Dream as a masterpiece, and he recently saw it in Frankfurt. Other Britten operas he has worked on include Peter Grimes and Death in Venice. In Europe, orchestras perhaps know some of Peter Grimes but the repertoire is not mainstream like in the UK. Duncan conducted the Chinese premiere of Peter Grimes in 2013; the performers had never done Britten before and came to the opera based on what it reminded them of. It was unusual, everyone involved was excited about the music and the storytelling. He returned to Peter Grimes in Cologne in during October 2023.

This Summer he returned to the Aix en Provence Festival with the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, made up of young players from all sides of the Mediterranean, 22 countries including North Africa and Syria. They play imaginative Mediterranean programming, with new and unusual works, including this year a work by a 20th-century Egyptian composer. Lots of the musicians in the orchestra have folk or improvisation backgrounds, and a group from the orchestra gives performances with music created orally. His post of music director is new, and his role is to draw together the two ways of making music together. Last Summer, they performed a piece in concert that had no score, it was created orally during rehearsal with a bit of help from Duncan. The result was a 12-minute rhapsody that was moving and powerful, really a hit. He is planning to take this further, there is a blank section in the programme.

Also in the pipeline, a programme with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in February 2024 with violist Lawrence Power. This is a contemporary programme including Sofia Gubaidulina's Viola Concerto and a premiere by Minas Borboudakis [further details]

Duncan Ward (Photo: Oliver Killig)
Duncan Ward (Photo: Oliver Killig)

From the age of 12 he loved doing music and this developed during his teens, but he wasn't necessarily aiming to be a conductor, he was busy composing, but he played the piano and the horn, as well as studying Indian classical music with Ravi Shankar. There was a point when he wondered whether to read English or Modern Languages at University, but ultimately he decided to do music. He started conducting more at the University of Manchester, with he conducted the University Symphony Orchestra and the contemporary music group. He did the joint course, run with the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) and he was heard by a professor from the RNCM who advised him to send off audition tapes. The result was that LSO masterclass, work with Boulez and an audition in Chicago. His conducting career simply grew from there and he never questioned it. 

His heroes include conductor Carlos Kleiber, and he admires other conductors who are similarly generous in spirit such as Mariss Jansons. Living conductors he admires include Simon Rattle who mentored Duncan and whom Duncan finds a very inspiring human being.

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