Christopher Morley evaluates a revealing film insight on CBSO conductor Andris Nelsons.
The world of classical music is still reeling from the astonishing impact of Andris Nelsons’ arrival as music director of the CBSO, and the sheer magnetism of his opening concerts.
Now the heady atmosphere of those days early last autumn can be relived in Andris Nelsons: Arrival of a Maestro, a promotional film downloadable from the CBSO website, and which had already received more than a thousand hits during the first week of its launch midway in December.
Tommy Pearson, a popular presenter with the orchestra, host of its monthly podcast, and for many years an engaging voice on BBC radio, produced and directed the video for Red Ted Films. He told me how the project started.
“As always with these ideas, I think, it stemmed from Stephen Maddock, the chief executive, and it was really an extension of the podcasts we’ve been running for some time now.
“Because I’ve been doing a lot with other orchestras, and the London Barbican Centre, nothing but visuals, we thought it would be a good idea to do something like that for the CBSO. We weren’t quite sure what it was going to be, but then we were presented with this idea, that here you are with a brand-new music director, a very exciting one.
“Everybody’s very excited, the atmosphere is really electric. Everyone knew what Andris is like, but this actual first week of him being in charge as music director was always going to be something a bit special. So we thought, let’s capture that!
“We put it to Andris, can we follow you around for a week, and of course he said, almost without any hesitation at all, absolutely fine!
“We spent at least two days in rehearsals, because that actually is where the electricity happens.
“The real spark and the X-factor moments come in the performance, of course they do, but the work to make sure those moments happen, is in the rehearsals, and for me that’s always been the most fascinating area. How does the conductor actually get those moments from an orchestra?
“The extraordinary thing about Andris is that he knows exactly what he wants to do, and, unlike many conductors, he is able to translate that to nearly 100 musicians.
“And Andris’s technique, what I like about it, particularly when we were filming, was how he explains the music to the orchestra.
“A lot of orchestras don’t like to have music explained, but what he often does, he gives the context to the musicians. It seems strange to say it, but a lot of musicians don’t necessarily know the story of the music that they’re playing, particularly if it’s something like a ballet, or maybe even if it’s an opera overture or something (Nelsons’ opening concert featured examples of both: Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin and Wagner’s Rienzi Overture).
“You might play this music a thousand times, but you might have no appreciation of what actually it was meant to be. I think Andris is rather good at doing that, at saying to the orchestra ‘this is why the music exists, this is why Bartok has done it this way.’
“And he has an entertaining way of doing it, as you can see on the film. And it’s a window on rehearsals for people who’ve never had the chance to witness what goes on.”
Though the original idea was to have the film just for internal use by the CBSO, as an advertisement to send to promoters and venues around the world, it soon became clear that this was something supporters of the orchestra would be fascinated to view. And as it has some stunning shots of Birmingham – not just Symphony Hall, but the Bull Ring and the canalside area – it could also be a spectacular tool promoting the city itself.
Among the many films Tommy Pearson has made are interviews with conductors, including an enthralling discussion on Mahler with the LSO principal conductor Valery Gergiev, and an exhilarating consideration of “Brahms: love him or hate him?” from players in the same orchestra.
“It’s meeting and engaging with such fantastic people that makes this the best job in the world,” he says (rather like the task of a music critic).
Pearson is something of a Renaissance man. As a percussionist he played in the Kent Youth Orchestra (led by Michael Seal, now a violinist with the CBSO and the orchestra’s assistant conductor), and studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Many years’ of work with the BBC followed, including his own children’s programme Music Machine, broadcast daily at teatime on Radio 3, concert-presenting in the golden days when the BBC regularly beamed the excitement of live musical events to all parts, as they happened, and many specially-made features.
He’s also a rugby player (“I was a tight-head prop in the front row”), though back problems forced him to retire. “If I were to take up playing again now it would be as a veteran,” he grimaces.
But his passion is not only film-making, but film music itself. His knowledge of this important genre is encyclopaedic, and he pays fulsome tribute to the skill and technique of the great music masters who have made such vital contributions to the silver screen.
Paramount among these is John Williams, whom Pearson is fortunate to count as a personal friend. And there is a nice link-up here with the CBSO.
“I’m in New York later this month doing various interviews,” he tells me, “but I’m coming back to present a repeat concert of John Williams Blockbusters on January 24, with Mike Seal conducting the CBSO. The original concert in October was sold out, and there was overwhelming pressure to do it again.
“And the next day I’m jetting of to Los Angeles to do an interview with John himself. My air-miles are going to be pretty good this month!”
* Tommy Pearson presents John Williams Blockbusters at Symphony Hall on January 24 (7pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.
* www.cbso.co.uk. To view Andris Nelsons' film.