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I last heard Hilary Davan Wetton when he shared the honours with the late George Lloyd at a Royal Festival Hall concert to introduce London audiences to the latter's newest work: A Litany. Wetton's first half contribution was a superb interpretation of Elgar's The Music Makers, and knowing his reputation on record in Elgar's Enigma Variations and Holst's Planets Suite we planned to meet up, informing me that Hyperion was considering making a first commercial recording of Parry's Oratorio Job (now released).

The first thing I noticed - I think it was instinctive, as I hadn't glanced at your biography in the programme - was the similarity in your 'point of stick communication' to Sir Adrian Boult. 'I'm flattered - he was, of course my teacher. Beforehand, I studied with George Hurst, who was fine for technique, but what Boult did was simply mesmeric; there was never a gesture without purpose behind it, which is not a universal truth with conductors. I was doing a post graduate in my last year at Oxford when he came to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at what was then called The New Theatre, a concert that opened with Butterworth's Rhapsody A Shropshire Lad. I just never heard an orchestra play pianissimo like that, and yet the stick just lifted and came down again...he carried every phrase over whatever the tempo and there was never, at any time, any sense that the music wasn't breathing all the time. He was genuinely in command. Other strong personalities can rehearse well to achieve all sorts of things, but this after all is not half of what conducting is all about. If you were offered a choice of 10 pieces with Boult conducting to watch on video with the sound turned off, you could unerringly pick out the exact work in question in a matter of seconds!' Even Vernon Handley said he dare not try to emulate Sir Adrian in that sense of stillness during the slow movement of Vaughan Williams Symphony 5 - a kind of overall spiritual-pastoral quality. 'I studied with him, too, and he has made wonderful recordings of British music. As you know he used to deputise for Boult, but when Boult was in the last two years at the Royal College I "finished him off" - he resigned when I left and was in his last term or so. He'd been tremendously dedicated, giving up Thursdays every week almost relentlessly throughout his career, being paid I should think virtually nothing in order to take the conducting class. But then he decided it was time to retire in his late 70s. Tod (Handley) was most interesting having worked with Boult exclusively for those two years, and I was completely convinced, and still am, to find someone else who wasn't exactly the same but took some of Boult's conclusions even further. Just to imitate is always a mistake - it can only be a pale shadow - but you obviously learn. Long after he left, I would go to Boult with scores I found difficult first time round. Was there anything he could suggest that would be useful, and not obvious from the printed notes? "Oh, yes, I think you'll find there will be a balance problem here - there always is...and you'll find for some reason that the tempo always falls behind in this passage." When you went to the rehearsal, what he said would happen, did happen. Other conductors would say nothing about the score that you could work out yourself just sitting down for half an hour - they lacked the verbalising process and the mental image that Boult possessed in almost the whole mainstream repertoire. That was always fascinating to me, like the long accelerando in the final variation of Elgar's Enigma that I eventually recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, easy to take a little too quick and find you have to put the brakes on. I asked him when I should move from 3 to 1 in the bar. 'Oh, I don't know. I think I go for sorts of long country walks!' Silly old bugger! I went away and thought about it, and like so many of the other things he said, it was a profound truth. If you don't know the piece well it remains outside you, and any conductor who tells his orchestra how many beats he will make, doesn't really know the music.'

Musicians try to acquire knowledge of repertoire in a very short time, without absorbing the true meaning of the score. They have little idea of the pulse, how to bring out the emotional qualities, and so on. Solid grounding is very important, isn't it? 'Yes, and one of the big flaws in our culture from the mid-80s on is the tendency to create superstars out of immensely talented people who can't conceivably have arrived at genuinely well-thought out views on anything excepting a very small repertoire base. An example of how you should do it is Simon Rattle who was humble enough, even though his talent is manifestly prodigious, to take it slowly and to build his repertoire gradually, then repeat works he was working on with different orchestras. Most young musicians - certainly conductors - don't wish to work with a provincial orchestra for an extended period, building a real relationship, training them to establish a repertoire at the same time. This is the great weakness of the modern system. In the 1920s, conductors could go and work with the Hastings Municipal Orchestra, like Basil Cameron, Anthony Collins and Muir Mathieson to learn and make mistakes, a necessary part of developing their capacities. Nowadays, you win a competition and are jack-knifed into a high-powered existence, and inevitably many of your performances skate over the surface of the music. Orchestral players in this country know this and are very forgiving to the extent that they will do most of the work for you.' Woe betide the conductor who tries to tell the players what he wants, and they soon realise he has no clear views on the subject. 'Even in the case of very great conductors, my advice is to avoid telling players "Look, you do this all wrong. You should do it like this." Whatever their skills, any sensible conductor will let them play and move the music along. With only 2 hours rehearsal, generally, you simply don't have the time to dissect the score and rebuild it. I speak very quickly because that's the way my speech patterns work, and with the limited rehearsal time available it's almost an advantage. By and large, musicians prefer those who have come up through the playing persona with whom they can work better. Experience of playing in the National Youth Orchestra under great conductors, you learn things you don't acquire studying music academically as an organist, as I did. What you say is important, how you say it, less so.' The art of communication. 'Yes, and I do find it interesting when I conduct abroad where the divisional nonsense you have in this country doesn't exist. In Australia everyone said "With a voice like your's, they'll eat you alive!" Not a bit of it - it was one of the nicest things I've ever done, conducting in Sydney.' Many musicians go abroad because the climate is better and there are more opportunities, but is it easier to make headway? 'Often so. Here, reactions from players can occur based on their suspicion of an over-educated conductor, as opposed to a practical musician. This clearly doesn't exist in Australia, Iceland or Bulgaria, all of which I go to.'

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Copyright © 1 August 2000 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK




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