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So when did you take the plunge and decide you wanted to conduct? 'Quite early. I went back to the Royal College after Oxford and studied organ under George Thalben Hall - a consummate musician who made music breath, who could play at enormous speeds with never a sense that there wasn't space inside the notes or that one beat tumbled into the next. Whilst I was there, Harvey Phillips - a lovely man who had been a fine cellist - re-established the conducting class. Having plans to become a cathedral organist complete with the basic skills, I thought it would be useful to conduct as well. I started with the Franck Symphony, thinking "This is a wonderful way of making music, it can become a very self-regarding occupation." I was really bitten. Unless you're completely hopeless, you feel strongly that you are affecting what happens - undeniably a nice feeling. After 30 years in the business, you realise that if you put two people in front of the same orchestra in the same piece 10 minutes apart, you won't get the same sound. You can't explain why, but some claim you can measure exactly what the conductor does with the stick to determine the result, but that's only partially true.' Reading the mind of the conductor, and eye contact also comes into it. 'And power of personality. I've seen conductors with a rudimentary technique able to make orchestras play wonderfully, because of the physical excitement coming out of their bodies. Furtwängler, whose technique by any standards was not textbook, was a powerful instance. He had the power to hold players in the palm of his hand and conjure dynamics from ppp to fff, changing from one to the other with a lift of an eyebrow. Something happens! Returning from Australia, feeling gloomy through jet-lag and experiencing a strange cultural shift over 12000 miles, I suddenly plunged back into the British way of life. My first concert of the season at Milton Keynes featured Beethoven 8, which I knew like the back of my hand. The concerto soloist, a distinguished cellist, made an incorrect entry, and there was some untidy wind playing. I had been with my orchestra for 20 years, and a half-dozen players came up to me with apologies like: "I'm sorry, I just don't know what's the matter. I'm not playing at all well." I knew exactly what was wrong - I was radiating a sort of pessimism and gloom that was clearly undermining their confidence. A cine film wouldn't have shown it, but players know when a conductor communicates something below the conscious level. I felt very guilty, and it taught me a lot. The rostrum, every fibre of concentration and your subconscious mind should focus on what you have to do.'

Wetton and the Milton Keynes Orchestra are enjoying their marvellous new auditorium. He is also Director of Music at Tonbridge School in Kent. 'It's been a great school for 400 years, although I spend much time away with their blessing (as he did previously at St. Paul's Girls School). Milton Keynes has about 30 plus concerts a year and I conduct about half, spending a lot of time thinking it's a very exciting place with an absolutely marvellous orchestra'. In the main it consists of London players with one-third residing within a 25 mile radius of Milton Keynes, and at its formation the Guildford Philharmonic was its model. Whilst living in Guildford, he played harpsichord continuo for Handley and his orchestra, realising the advantages of doing away with the old concept of the one-night stand, replacing it by a permanent body with a real, continuing relationship. 'Against Guildford's 70-strong band, Milton Keynes has a smaller combine of some 34-35 players much more likely to be arriving every time and feeling far more significant in their 20 or so years existence. We have a renewal of personnel when some retire and new people join up, and audiences are very loyal and supportive.' Unicorn-Kanchana records feature their 5 Mendelssohn Symphonies and rarely performed British music by Wesley, Crotch, Sterndale Bennett and Potter, and there is Holst, Vaughan Williams and Raff on Hyperion.

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Copyright © 8 August 2000 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK




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