Profile: Robin Browning, conductor

Who and what have been the most important influences on your musical career?

Paul Dyson, the very charismatic head of music at my rural North Yorkshire school, was a great role model. Accordingly, I used to pinch my mum’s knitting needles and carve the air in front of my bedroom mirror accompanied by the Beethoven Violin Concerto at full blast. The needles ended up getting quite warped. I was playing in the school wind band when he suddenly gave me the baton at the age of 13. I’d also been playing violin (which I loved) and had a go at clarinet (which I loathed). I went on to conduct the orchestra at University.

I’ve been lucky to have been mentored buy some of the key luminaries in the conducting world. On one occasion a half-hour lesson with Sir Charles Mackerras was extended to five hours. Amongst my conducting teachers, three crucial, inspirational and utterly amazing maestri stand out above all others: Paavo Järvi, who I was lucky enough to study with in Estonia, and whom I’ve assisted, along with his father Neeme Järvi; the legendary Ilya Musin, with whom I spent an unforgettable summer studying at Accademia Chigiana in Siena; and one of Musin’s star pupils, Sian Edwards, the head of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. In my opinion Sian is the greatest conducting teacher on the planet. Musin has a picture of her on the wall in his teaching studio.

Of those I never met, but wish I had, in particular I hugely admire Carlos Kleiber – he figures high in my musical inspiration – and Glenn Gould – such spontaneity.

What makes them all great? Simply, the rare ability to combine technical and intellectual rigour with artistry and spontaneity.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career?

The “gatekeepers” of the global music industry – in other words the record company executives and promoters of festivals and competitions – are so often narrow-minded, stubbornly keeping the door closed to all but long-established regulars. I certainly experienced this at the beginning of my career. Now it doesn’t bother me – I’ve forged my own path, after all – but I can see how it continues to impact younger musicians today, at all levels.

The pandemic has also been a massive challenge, with no live performances and the need to keep myself musically fresh in lockdown and maintain energy.

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

A lot of people think that conducting is all about standing in front of people and barking at them. A good conductor is an inspirer and enabler, as well as a manager, able to spot issues and getting people to perform well beyond what they think they can do. I try to emulate Claudio Abbado’s self-effacing humility, sharing the applause with the other musicians.

I am very fortunate not only to conduct a number of orchestras but also to run the conducting course at Southampton University. I love seeing gifted young musicians overcoming their nerves to express a musical voice which had been hidden when they had been playing their instrument, through conducting.

Are there any composers for whom you feel a particular affinity?

Sibelius springs immediately to mind. Right from a young age I was bowled over by his special soundscape – that beautiful “yin and yang”, that intellectual symmetry, ice cold water combined with molten lava of power and emotion. He appeals on so many levels. He’s got it all! Mahler’s depth and breadth appeal to multiple aspects of my musical personality. And Bruckner’s harmonious chords really appeal to me as a “harmony geek”.

These people unite rigour with freedom and emotional expression. By contrast, although I admire many composers such as Stravinsky, I’m not drawn to them. All that desperation amongst young conductors to do The Rite of Spring makes me think of teenagers wanting to drive a Lamborghini.

Which works do you think you perform best?

My strength of feeling for the above-mentioned favourite composers mean that I will be able to perform their works best, especially those pieces which have a big “canvas” in the form of a big symphony.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I can recall the performance of a Shostakovich 7 Leningrad Symphony in Southampton some years ago. This is a broad and long piece, which is ideal for me as it has a big canvas onto which to paint a story. Over the years I’ve developed “antennae” for judging the mood of the audience that are sat behind my back, and on this occasion felt that the audience was being carried along with us. Indeed, nobody could speak or clap for ages afterwards.

This kind of heightened awareness is really helped if I’m able to share stories about composers and their works – the what and (more significantly) the why. So, I’m a lover of pre-concert talks, which can give people a “map”.

What are your most memorable concert experiences?

In my 20s I was fortunate enough to get a ticket at the Royal Albert Hall for a seat right behind the French horns for a performance of Mahler 9 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado. The next morning, I could still see the imprints from my fingernails on my arm, so excited was I to have been there, basically staring at this magician for 90 minutes! I also realised how high the bar was for a professional conductor – a man who did everything from memory.

Incidentally, although there are only a few people who conduct well from memory, I have avoided it for many years due to my working pattern of mentally juggling multiple programmes at the same time. Having said that, it’s obviously ideal to “keep the score in the head, not the head in the score”.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

I’ll be straightforward on this: ask yourself deeply how much you really want such a career, and why. Only do it if you feel that music has “chosen” you. Otherwise keep music as a (high-level) hobby. There’s so much rough which goes with the smooth. Besides the current headwinds around Covid and post-Brexit touring, there’s also a huge amount of competition.

This is explained by the fact that many music students are leaving music college at a skill level that is higher than ever, and I’m glad to see that tuition standards are reaching new heights. I recall attending a rehearsal of Sibelius 1 played by young members of the Philharmonia that I recently attended: the players provided such a fresh, febrile performance.

How would you define success as a musician?

Success for a conductor is communicating the composer’s intentions, giving your all, in an authentic performance. Being true to yourself means communicating the composer’s intention but at the same time following your own “script”. You should deliver the blend of technical skills and intellectual rigour along with spontaneity and with the power to move.

What are your current plans for performances in the Portsmouth area?

On 19 June I am conducting Petersfield Orchestra in St Mary’s, Liss, in its first live concert for what will be sixteen months.  I’m obviously very excited about this. This promises to be an intimate, strings only affair, featuring local soloist Shoshannah Sievers in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, alongside Holst and Elgar.

As with all musicians in the UK and around the globe, I’m desperately hoping that we can find a way back onto stage soon, to share our skill and love for incredible music with you all once again.

Robin Browning is an established conductor and music educator. Praised as an “expert musician & conductor” by Sir Charles Mackerras, he made his debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Barbican, going on to conduct the Hallé, Northern Sinfonia, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Intercontemporain, St Petersburg Festival Orchestra and Estonian National Youth Orchestra.

Having won the inaugural Boosey & Hawkes Award at the Edinburgh Festival, and taken second prize in the NAYO Conducting Competition, Robin is now music director of de Havilland Philharmonic, Havant Chamber Orchestra, Petersfield Orchestra and SÓN Orchestra – currently in its third season as Orchestra in Association at Turner Sims, Southampton. He has worked with a wide array of soloists, including Guy Johnston, Aled Jones, Jack Liebeck, John Lill, Craig Ogden and Raphael Wallfisch.

Robin studied at the Accademia Chigiana, Siena, with Myung-Whun Chung and the legendary Ilya Musin, later continuing his training at the David Oistrakh Festival, Estonia, in masterclasses with Neeme and Paavo Järvi. He has subsequently assisted Paavo Järvi often, notably with Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie – for a complete Beethoven cycle at the Salzburg Festival – and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s complete Nielsen cycle. Robin also studied with Sir Charles Mackerras, Benjamin Zander, and Sian Edwards – participating in the first-ever Conductor Development Programme with Milton Keynes City Orchestra in 2012, with whom he made his debut a year later.

Passionately committed to the training of younger musicians, Robin works regularly with Essex Youth Orchestra, as well as conducting orchestras at Guildhall School of Music and Trinity Laban Conservatoire. He runs the highly-regarded conducting course at the University of Southampton, and has inspired the lives of many youngsters across the south through the innovative education projects he runs with SÓN Orchestra.

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