Sir Mark Elder talks to Christopher Morley about the Nielsen cycle.
On Saturday, Sir Mark Elder brings his Halle Orchestra to Birmingham for the first of two concerts in the complete Nielsen symphony cycle promoted jointly by the Halle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
The CBSO has taken on all the even-numbered works out of the six, with the Halle claiming the odd numbers and the whole project being given both at Symphony Hall and in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.
Elder has been to Symphony Hall with the Halle before, but how does it feel being so closely again involved with the CBSO, with whom he was principal guest conductor at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s?
“For many years, I was extremely close to your wonderful orchestra and we did a vast array of repertoire, some wonderfully exciting evenings. I admire them enormously,” he tells me while relaxing at home. “Being with them at the opening of Symphony Hall was a very important thing to me.”
There is another nice link in the fact that Lyn Fletcher, once co-leader of the CBSO, is now leader of the Halle and Sir Mark is quick to pay tribute to her.
“Lyn is a colleague I don’t remember not knowing, if you see what I mean. We got on so quickly and so well when we met in Birmingham and I felt very comfortable with doing what I do and she doing what she does.
“She was one of the first people to come to me and say, ‘please, please come to Manchester.’”
The idea of two major orchestras sharing an important, extended project takes some working out. “I think it’s no secret that the first time the Halle embarked on a major project with another orchestra was a few years ago when we shared all the Shostakovich symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra,” he explains.
“And I really, really wanted this to happen, because it’s an orchestra with which I’ve had a very good relationship and I got to know their conductor, Gianandrea Noseda very well, very quickly after he came to Manchester and we had this idea of a cycle of Shostakovich symphonies. It was so successful that immediately I said ‘we must show everybody that this isn’t a flash in the pan, but that we must do something else, because the public responded so well’’.
“But when we came up with this idea of Nielsen, it didn’t fit with their plans. We immediately said, ‘we’re still going to do it, it’s still a marvellous idea, why don’t we ask the Birmingham orchestra, to see whether we can extend the idea of collaboration to another city?
“That’s what we did and [CBSO chief executive] Stephen Maddock is somebody I’d worked with for years in London, and know each other well and I’ve always admired him, he was a most wonderful collaborator. He was so enthusiastic and I think his energy and the energy of my colleagues at the Halle really brought this off.”
Though Nielsen is very much in favour with many conductors of Elder’s generation and younger, we can in fact look back to his great predecessor at the Halle, Sir John Barbirolli, who was a great advocate of the Danish composer. He made an early recording of the Fourth Symphony and Vaughan Williams was heard to say that though he owned the Danish-made LP of the Fifth Symphony, he never really understood it until he heard Barbirolli conduct it in a live performance.
Mark picks up the narrative. “I understand from a very longstanding member of the Halle audience that Barbirolli never did a cycle but that he did many performances of the symphonies,” he says.
“He never did the Third, and I think that’s very interesting, because I’m living with it at the moment, day after day. I think it’s the most invigorating piece so it will be a long time since the Halle’s played the Third. I imagine they did with somebody, but I ought to check when they last played it.”
A further neat link in the current cycle is the fact that one of Elder’s predecessors as principal guest conductor of the CBSO, Okko Kamu, has stepped into the shoes of the indisposed Sakari Oramo (himself the current PGC).
“I was a bit worried that Sakari’s illness would unseat the project,” says Sir Mark, “but I’m glad that it hasn’t.”
Currently, Sir Mark is the only British music director of a major orchestra in this country, and he has really turned the Halle around. “In my profession, timing is very important and I think that Simon Rattle’s arrival in Birmingham was a good moment for the development of the orchestra in the context of the development of Birmingham,” he says.
“I think, strangely and very, very unexpectedly, the same thing has happened with me. At the end of the 1990s, there was a great energy in Manchester to regain lost confidence and belief in itself as a modern European city and that started to move, very significantly,
“A lot of building work started to happen, a lot of renovation, but I think the Halle’s experience during the 90s wasn’t so happy and I think the financial and artistic profile of the orchestra lacked conviction and success, in a way.
“And it was just the right moment to sweep aside the past, get the finances onto a firm footing again, get a new chairman and a new board, a new chief executive and another music director. And I believe that the coming together of all those elements is very, very rare in the history of an orchestra and it gave me the opportunity to instil, to initiate and to develop my own belief, my own ideas I’ve been working at all my life.
“I had, of course, conducted the Halle in the early-1980s, and I have to say I didn’t enjoy it very much. I thought there were some fine individual players in the orchestra, but I didn’t sense any corporate energy in the orchestra. And so I sort of stopped, gave them a rest and when they approached me again, it was sort of slightly sceptically that I went along and met the orchestra again.
“And of course I remembered many of the players from those years before and I just found them a completely different group of people and I think that we managed to get along really very, very quickly, and I think they were looking for change. I think they’re a wonderful orchestra and I’m very thrilled to have the chance to be in charge of them.”
*Sir Mark Elder conducts the Halle Orchestra in music by Nielsen and other Beethoven at Symphony Hall on January 17 and February 3 (Box office: 0121 780 3333).