As the last concert by Havant Chamber Orchestra for 2018-19 approaches, Havant Orchestras Administrator, Stella Scott, asked maestro Robin Browning for his thoughts on the current and upcoming seasons. The first part of this appeared in the Havant Orchestras Newsletter but here’s the whole conversation about venues, Brahms and Haydn.
What would you like to ask Robin? Enter a comment below or email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org!
SS: This will be our last concert in Ferneham Hall and that’s an ‘end of an era’ moment for our orchestras. You’ve been with us for the last 6 years of our time there. What are your impressions of Ferneham as a venue? Any high/low points?
RB: Gosh is it really 6 years? I’ve loved my time so far with the orchestra, and actually I really like being in Ferneham Hall (unlike some who are quite, ahem, unkind about the acoustics). Yes, the sound could be better and so on. But as a performer, I weigh up all kinds of things alongside this. Simple things mean so much to a professional musician on concert day: ease of parking, good dressing room, privacy. The hall has all those. And, as most HCO supporters will know, we’ve moved the band down onto the floor which connects us far more with our audience, and vice-versa. Making it far more intimate in such a wide hall. For that reason I think our more recent concerts together have been higher points, it definitely feels like the orchestra, audience and myself are growing together more.
SS: How do you feel about the move (although theoretically temporary) to other venues?
RB: I’m quite excited about it, despite what I’ve said above. It’s a time of transition. It’ll take some time for HCO to find its feet in new venues, to establish a presence and understanding of the sound world each one place has. It’s easily overlooked by those who come to concerts quite how much musicians are aware of the acoustics and “feel” of a performance space. Top musicians adjust alarmingly quickly, and it’s a key component of their skillset, one which isn’t remarked upon very often. One has to change almost every single thing about one’s playing — attack of the note, volume, decay, colour, the lot — within minutes to recalibrate in a new venue. As a conductor, I must adjust quickly too, addressing balance issues promptly and learning fast (very fast, as rehearsals are never long enough). It’s one of the reasons touring is very stressful for a conductor (not that HCO tour — yet!) because every venue is new and different, especially when abroad. The learning curve is steep. People always underestimate acoustics. It’s one of the chief tools in a musician’s kit. I’ve seen world-class recording engineers utterly transform an acoustic (of, say, Walthamstow Town Hall — a famous recording venue of recent decades) in moments simply with curtains, cloth, and moving them around.
So, anyway, the move will be interesting for all – I genuinely hope our loyal audience will follow us openly and feedback their thoughts about the places we explore next season.
SS: We are particularly looking forward to your Beethoven ‘exploration’ next May. Can you tell us a bit more about it without spoilers?
RB: Beethoven is the bedrock of any chamber orchestra. HCO is a “Beethoven-sized” orchestra, i.e. double winds, double horns & trumpets, timpani, strings. It’s a fixed scale, because of Beethoven, and his symphonies should be our bread and butter. His 250th birthday is a huge global celebration, and we will be playing our part. Over the last few years, in all kinds of settings including the work I do with “SÓN” in Southampton’s Turner Sims, I’ve realised how much thirst there is amongst audiences for an exploration beneath the surface of the music. Yes, people can read programme notes, but they rarely do. And we’ve a perfect chance, exploring new venues as we will be doing, to bring the dots off the page as a Beethovenian birthday present. Even if people gain one little glimmer of info from the first half, where I’ll be pulling the music apart with the orchestra around me, it’ll subtly alter the way they might listen to the complete performance in the second half.
There’s loads to say about the Pastoral symphony, and Beethoven’s language in general. I can’t wait to bring it to you all, helping the music leap off the page a little more. There’s scope for questions, too, perhaps even some tweets to be answered. And, if people like things like this, we can work on something similar every year. Not every concert, no, but a series. We did one in Emsworth, where we explored Shostakovich with the strings of HCO, and the feedback I got from the audience was off the scale. As a performer, one really can tell how the audience are listening, and how much they’re engaged with the performance, even with my back to them all. Orchestral concerts should be a two-way process: not simply “we perform for you” (that’s an increasingly outdated format that builds barriers and pushes people away), but rather “let’s engage in this and explore together”.
SS: Apparently, the very first performances of Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto were hissed rather than applauded by the audience. What do you think about audience ‘etiquette’ nowadays? Should we encourage hissing?
RB: Absolutely not! Booing and throwing things (very La Scala) merely shows up the audience, nothing else. I’m not suggesting for one moment people need to sit agonisingly still, but I do believe we need to encourage people to be aware, and actively listen (not merely switching off and letting it roll over them, it’s not Max Richter’s “Sleep”!) I think that if the performance on-stage is sufficiently absorbing, then the audience will be absorbed, too. Besides, the spirit and morale of the musicians on stage is, to my mind, paramount, and that kind of thing is unforgivable. I couldn’t care less what audiences wear, what they drink, who they bring, but I deeply care how they choose to listen. I think all those “old” etiquettes are breaking down now, which is a good thing, but we must be careful that we don’t stop truly listening during concerts. Tweeting and filming is all very well, but it’s not Glastonbury, it’s an orchestral performance with some of the most incredible art ever created, and a massively wide dynamic palette (unlike a rock band, for example), so we owe it to our neighbours, friends on stage, and the continuing high quality of performance to maintain a certain decorum, and awareness.
SS: Our concert this time highlights the esteem in which Brahms held the father of the symphony and the string quartet, Josef Haydn. Brahms supposedly kept a bust of Haydn in his bedroom! Who would you keep a bust of in your bedroom?
RB: Hmmm. Tough one! Probably not Haydn, I’m sorry. Actually it wouldn’t be in my bedroom at any rate, I couldn’t cope with a musical legend watching me getting dressed. Perhaps Mahler. Probably Mahler. I guess it’s like the “which five musicians of any era would you invite to your dinner party?” (which is, I’m aware, re-writing your question). My choices would be Mahler, Glenn Gould, Fritz Kreisler, Carlos Kleiber (him again) and Jeff Buckley (go google if you need to). And no, probably none of them as a bust in my bedroom!