2013 – Nuns, Vicars and Requiems

As 2013 draws to a close, it is time for my annual review of the year. It has been a really exciting and varied year, with many highlights and memorable performances.  Many of last year’s frustrations linger on, but changes to my career are imminent, and I look forward to 2014 with real anticipation!
Before all of that, the statistics……
48 Concerts with,
35 different soloists or collaborators (not counting an opera cast!)
13 different orchestras.
And so to the highlights…….
Favourite new orchestra
This year saw only two new orchestras. This is an area I need to improve on in 2014 but it is also a sign that I am returning to other orchestras more regularly, which is something I am particularly happy about. More of this later.
In February, I made a trip to Millfield School and conducted their orchestra. The invite was to conduct a concert featuring their talented pupils as soloists and they did not disappoint! The highlight was a performance of Mozart K.488 with 3 different pianists, all very skilled and musical. 
My “new orchestra of 2013” prize goes to the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. I visited them in July to conduct a concert of music highlighting their 2013/14 season. The programme comprised of 15 different pieces of music, ranging from John Williams to Britten. As I have written in a previous blog post, this type of programme is a real “conductors exam”, with many styles and genres, but one I was happy to take on.
The NSO were on great form, with a really friendly approach to rehearsing but also a willingness to listen and work hard on problems. They are a very talented orchestra, with many great principal players, a good string section and warm sound. Conducting the Storm for Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ alongside some of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ really excited me and made me want to go back and conduct them in some meaty repertoire!
So what about the other orchestras? Well, as I mentioned, it has been nice to make return visits to orchestras and continue a relationship with them. I returned to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and particularly enjoyed performing Elgar’s Enigma Variations with them.

I also took my concert tally with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra up to 9 this year – I have tended to be involved mainly in Family Concerts with them, they are great fun to work with and I feel that there is now a level of mutual trust and respect for each other. I’m looking forward to 11 more concerts with them in 2014.

I returned to the RTE Concert Orchestra this year and again, because we trust each other, we worked together well and put together a very tricky programme with great results!

The Ulster Orchestra is an orchestra I love working with. This year, in just one week, we performed music by Grant Still, Dello Joio and Schubert, all broadcast on BBC Radio 3, all to a high standard and all with a really nice atmosphere of trust and respect but also with friendliness and a real sense of wanting the very highest possible results. I will be back with them in January to conduct my 350th concert.

Favourite Soloist
As I said, 35 soloists or presenters, and that doesn’t include a whole opera cast! So many to choose from, so many highlights!!
Starting at the end of the year, I was lucky to work with a stellar team of soloists for Britten’s War Requiem with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and the CBSO. With Emma Bell, Peter Hoare and Neal Davies, the performance was in safe hands, beautifully and expressively sung and with so much character! Thank you to all three and I hope to work with them all again soon.
I was also lucky enough to work with Claire Rutter and Ruby Hughes in 2013 – both wonderful singers. Ruby was a late stand in with the Ulster Orchestra when we did some Schubert songs (more later about this concert) and Claire sang 5 opera arias from the movies with the CBSO and myself. Accompanying her in Korngold’s “Gluck das mir verblieb” will remain with me for years!
It was a privilege to work again with Ian Bostridge. It had been quite a few years since we had last worked together but we got on again as if it was just last week! And Ian singing Britten – does it get any better than that?!
If any orchestra managers or Chief Executives are reading this, I can highly recommend the Estonian pianist, Mihkel Poll. We worked together twice this year (and will again in 2014) and he is fantastic. In both the Liszt and the Grieg concertos, he didn’t put a finger wrong, with a really musical approach and attitude. See you for Rachmaninoff soon, Mihkel.
During 2013, I had the pleasure of conducting Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 twice. The first time was with my good friend, Ben Dawson – a pianist I worked with twice this year and one I love working with. Ben played it with such musicality and personality. It was also a great chance for the Sinfonia of Birmingham and myself to get to know the piece before we performed it again one month later with Stephen Hough.
Stephen had been booked by the Sutton Coldfield Philharmonic Society to appear with us and it was my favourite collaboration of the year. He was so inspiring to work with, really kind to the orchestra and myself, but more importantly, trusted us to respond in the concert when he really turned it on! The orchestra played their socks off and the whole performance was one that we all will treasure forever.
Favourite new piece
Not as many new pieces this year but some notable highlights.
My first fully staged opera performances took place in 2013, with the Symphony Orchestra and Vocal Dept. of the Birmingham Conservatoire. I loved every second of learning and conducting Puccini’s Il Trittico!
Still at the Conservatoire, our series of concerts at Symphony Hall in collaboration with the CBSO has thrown up quite a few great pieces over the last few years and 2013 was no exception. ‘The Garden of Fand’ by Bax is a beautiful piece and is a work that is unjustly neglected. Britten’s ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’ is programmed but is surely one of his masterpieces. It is also a piece I hanker after doing again very soon, hopefully as well as we did back in March!
As I mentioned earlier, I conducted some Britten with Ian Bostridge. It was my first Les Illuminations, one I thoroughly enjoyed.  Such great writing for the strings and voice!
My favourite new work of 2013 was Bruckner Symphony No.4. I conducted it with my old friends, the Birmingham Philharmonic, back in February. It was my first “Bruckner” and it was a joy to work on. I had been longing to conduct some Bruckner for many years and it was worth the wait. I loved the architectural challenges, the challenge of making the orchestra sound warm and grand enough, while keeping warmth and beauty, the pacing and grading of dynamics……..it is why I do this job!

A special mention must go the BPO horn section – this amateur orchestra has a horn section that some professional orchestra would be happy with! They played so well, barely a foot wrong, with a big, grand sound and sureness of attack. Thank you!!

Favourite Concert of 2013
So which will win this year?
Amongst the highlights were…..
My CBSO Subscription concert of Elgar and Britten with Ian Bostridge – the CBSO on top form in Elgar’s In the South & Enigma Variations coupled with a stunning performance of Les Illuminations.
The Sinfonia of Birmingham tour of Abruzzo –  three really fun concerts, with 3 different soloists but also three performances of Beethoven Symphony No.1 to cherish, all set in that wonderful part of Italy.
Making 5 different audiences of schoolchildren laugh by doing this in front of the CBSO!


This video was shot from the 3rd trumpet chair during a CBSO Schools Concert. The audience were asked to copy my every move and you can just see the children laughing and trying to copy me. Since posting this on Facebook, it has been seen by nearly 39000 people! Whether it has done my career harm or good is debatable but it does show I can conduct!!

Scoring 74 not out to help the CBSO beat the Birmingham Clergy was definitely a 2013 highlight, if not actually a musical one!

The performance of the War Requiem with the CBSO and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus in December was one to treasure. Thank you to the chorus for being so welcoming and working so hard, but also thank you to the CBSO for following me so diligently, especially after so many performances of that work in 2013!
Second has to be a concert I conducted in Enniskillen, with the Ulster Orchestra, as part of the Happy Days Festival. Ruby Hughes sang four of Schubert’s Lieder in the first half and the second half contained Mahler’s arrangement of Death and the Maiden. It took place in a tiny hall, with the audience almost sitting on our laps, all recorded for BBC Radio. The orchestra played with such skill and passion and the audience was rapt in its attention and responded so enthusiastically!
But the winner for 2013 is Il Trittico at the Birmingham Conservatoire. To be involved from the casting, all the way through to the end, and watch everything slowly evolve and come together was a life changing experience for me! To conduct 4 performances of the complete Trittico over 3 days was, on paper, an exhausting task, but in actuality, it was a joy. Yes, it was tiring, yes at times it was “fraught” both onstage and backstage, but it is possibly the highlight of my career so far! I learnt so much about my conducting technique, about music making, about psychology……the list is endless. All I can ask for is to get back in the pit again very soon and do some more opera.
My thanks must go out to all of the students who sang in these performances – they were all so committed and passionate about the whole project. It is my real belief that amongst the cast for the 3 operas were some stars of the future!
So that was 2013! What lies ahead?
At some point in 2014, my violin case will be shut and I will be going “fulltime” as a conductor. It is something I am talking about with my employers and it will happen this year. I will be making the announcement as soon as the details are sorted out but I feel it is something I have to do and the time is right.
Up to that point there is plenty for me to be getting on with and, time permitting, I intend to keep writing blog posts about my conducting career. It is my real intention for this year to take off and for me to start knocking people for six……..


Yes, that was me!
In the meantime, have a great New Year and see you in 2014
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