Belfast, Birmingham & Buenos Aires – PART 1

The life of a conductor can often be a varied one, especially when one is starting out on a career. Not many fledgling conductors have the luxury of jetting into an orchestra, performing a concert(s) consisting of overture, concerto and symphony, and then jetting off to the next venue and doing much the same again with a new group of musicians. The fledgling conductor often finds that he has to take on many different types of project and be ready to adapt to any situation.
As luck would have it, over the last 10 days I have had three distinctly different projects to handle. This post will deal with my trip to Belfast to conduct the Ulster Orchestra for two days – but hot on its heels will be my thoughts on conducting in Birmingham and Buenos Aires. Three different cities, orchestras and projects, each with their own problems, solutions and joys.
This was the third time I had worked with the Ulster Orchestra but, barring one rehearsal day 18 months previous, the first time I had worked with them in their home, the Ulster Hall.
The first time I worked with UO was in January 2009, at a time when the Ulster Hall was being refurbished and the orchestra was rehearsing in many different venues around Belfast. During my stay I chatted to several players, usually over a pint of ‘the black stuff’, who almost unanimously agreed that they couldn’t wait to get back ‘home’ and play in the Ulster Hall again.
Well, two and a half years on and they are firmly back home and what a home it is! A conventional shoe box shaped hall with a really clear, bright and lively acoustic which, during the ‘dark days’ of playing in converted churches and other all-purpose venues, they must indeed have longed for!
Having said that, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any acoustic ‘anomalies’, but I will come to those later.
The lions’ share of the project was to rehearse/record Nielsen Symphony No.2, The Four Temperaments. This really was a joy for me – one of my favourite symphonies and one I had conducted a lot before. The first task on Day 1 was to rehearse the orchestra in readiness for the following days recording session. We were allotted 4 hours to record both the Nielsen and the incidental music and overture from Weber’s Turandot. This means everything needs to be rehearsed and in order so that during the sessions we can all focus on getting the best performance in the short time available.
At this point I must say that rehearse/record is not the ‘ideal’ way to make a recording! I have sat in countless recording sessions, of all types, and there better ways. Ideally one would like to make a ‘live’ recording in the concert hall of your choosing after having performed the piece many times previously over an intense period. This is the way that many of Sir Simon Rattle’s later recordings with the CBSO were done and is the preferred way of the CBSO to record under our new Music Director, Andris Nelsons. I don’t care what you say, something happens in a concert that never really happens in the artificial conditions of a studio recording. Of course, unless you have a record company ready to go, and willing to record the repertoire you programme ( or vice versa ), this way of recording is a luxury that rarely happens.
The next best option is to record in a ‘studio’ ( often a concert hall ) after having performed the piece in concert. Many great recordings are made that way and the luxury here is that the rehearsing is already done, the piece has been performed, many mistakes are ironed out and many interpretive ideas have been tried and tested by conductor and performer alike. There is also often many more hours allotted to get the thing ‘in the can’. The conductor has more chance to go and listen to takes during the session time or overnight, the recording engineer has more time to get just the right balance and quality of sound. The orchestra is less pushed for time, meaning more breaks between takes, getting less tired and being able to produce better results. I don’t know an orchestral player who doesn’t go to one of these sessions armed with a book, newspaper or iPhone loaded with games, such is the amount of time sitting around!
Finally we come to the ‘rehearse/record’. It is the least favourable of all the scenarios but sometimes time and money insist that it is the only option. The great thing about the orchestral player, and one I think the UK is proud to be probably the best at, is that they know the game! They know we have 4 hours to make a recording of a 30 minute symphony and 20 minutes of incidental music and to make it sound as good as scenario 1. And true to form, the UO did just that – during the many takes we made they kept their levels of concentration up to the highest degree with a friendly yet professional manner and we got the job done.
As I mentioned, the recording process did throw up a couple of acoustic anomalies. Because of the way the stage is built, the brass are up quite high over the strings and as the hall is so responsive, it can be quite difficult to balance the orchestra correctly in many passages. It has to be said that Mr Nielsen doesn’t help – in the early stages of his career he often just marks the entire orchestra fff which leads to having to mark the brass down. The problem is that they can only go down in dynamic so far before they feel they can’t play freely or even at times feel like they are not wanted! This couldn’t be further from the truth yet due to the halls layout we did have to be careful. The flipside to this is that in many acoustics the Woodwind struggle to be heard – not in the Ulster Hall. They come over clear and clean with any trace of needing to force their sound. When I went to listen to some takes during lunch, both Marie Claire, the BBC producer for this project, and myself agreed that the balance was clear and that the orchestra were sounding very well over the speakers. Let’s hope that transmits over the airwaves when the BBC use these recordings sometime later this year.
Going back to different types of recording, one ‘throw away’ comment from a player really got me thinking about the process, attitudes and approaches to rehearse/record. This player said,
“It’s only a studio recording, not a CD!”
As I said, a ‘throw away’ comment. But it left me bristling inside because, for me, it was more than that. This was my chance to get down on tape my interpretation of a well-known symphony with a top-class orchestra and it meant the world to me! I am a firm believer in the fact that a recording can only ever be a snapshot of your musical thoughts on a work – a thought frozen in time as, later in life, my thoughts on Nielsen 2 are bound to be different. But at the moment, that is how I believe it should go and I was taking it very seriously.
So should there be a difference between a ‘studio recording’ and a recording for commercial release? No, not in my eyes. Every time we make a sound we are there to be judged technically, musically, interpretively etc.
It wasn’t a comment I took to my heart – I am used to the ways of the hardened UK orchestral player! But it did lead to the formation of this post and thoughts on recordings….
Next time (and probably quite soon as I have a lot of free time here in Argentina!) a look at another aspect of an up and coming conductors career – the outdoor fireworks concert OR, as I like to call them, the conducting exam!
As usual, all comments welcome, good or otherwise!
Until the next time, I’m off for a rehearsal and then one of these – cannot wait!
Mike Seal
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4 comments on “Belfast, Birmingham & Buenos Aires – PART 1
  1. Ben says:

    You know I’m incapable of commenting seriously on work things in a public forum so can I just put in a request for more photographs of different cuts of beef with an array of drinks in the background.

    That said, I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog as time goes on. Nice work, mate.

  2. John Broggio says:

    Absolutely agree Mike.

    Don’t want to believe that a player who wants to be considered professional would not give their all for any rehearsal/recording session/concert (well, unless they were accompanying someone of my calibre!!!) but sadly I suppose this one is not the only one out there.

    A great shame, for they let down all their colleagues and potentially sully the good name of their orchestra.

    Mmmm beef steak! I would say “have one for me” but I don’t think you need the slightest bit of encouragement…

  3. Michael Seal says:

    Thanks for your comments, John.
    I think either you’ve got the wrong end of the stick or I have misled the reader in some way – there was never any question over the players of the UO “giving their all”, they gave their all for every second of the two days!
    I think the comment is more about the level of detail I wanted to go into over the recording. It might be argued that, if it is “only for a broadcast” rather than for commercial release that I did not have time to go into so much detail and that I should be happier with a more hastily put-together product. The fact was that the orchestra were playing ( to a man/woman! ) to a very high level anyway and I just wanted to keep adding extra layers and try for an even more exciting performance!
    If I have misled, let me know and I shall edit accordingly.
    Off for a steak…..


  4. violaman69 says:

    Hi Mike, like the blog.I completely agree about the “its only a studio recording” thing. Whatever the nature of a recording, the aim, from the engineer, the conductor and the musicians should be to make it as satisfying as possible. Any recording, by its very nature is always only a “snapshot” but it doesn’t mean there’s any excuse for it to be out of focus, badly composed, or to cut peoples heads off! Any way the steak looks good, I think I will go and have one too.
    See you soon, Julian R.

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