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Christopher Warren-Green - Guest of the Week on Perpetuum mobile
Conductor Christopher Warren-Green will take over the Radio Chamber Orchestra, in the first concert of this spring at the Radio Hall. On Wednesday, March 1st, 7 PM, he will conduct the event, which will open with a short piece by English composer George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow, inspired by British folk songs.
The evening will continue with Haydn: Concerto No. 2 for cello and orchestra, an opportunity to see the cellist Răzvan Suma, soloist of the Radio Orchestras, artistic director of Icon Arts Transilvania and founder of the PlaCello Ensemble. The concert will end with Schubert's Symphony No. 5.
Christopher Warren-Green is the Music Director of the London Chamber Orchestra, in the UK. He is Conductor Laureate and Artistic Advisor to the Symphony Orchestra in Charlotte, North Carolina, after a 12-year tenure as Music Director. He is also president of the Young Musicians Foundation. Christopher Warren-Green spoke to Lucian Haralambie about his return to Bucharest.
Welcome back to Bucharest. Is there anything you particularly enjoy here?
The orchestra... is a wonderful ensemble to look out for, because we are losing orchestras in the world when we need more. I worked with the Radio Chamber Orchestra and with the George Enescu International Festival, but more than 15 years ago, before going to the United States as music director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina.
Ten years ago, I performed in Bucharest with the London Chamber Orchestra, also for the George Enescu International Festival. Now, however, it is the first time I have had the opportunity to visit and understand Bucharest. I know a lot of Romanian musicians from all over the world and I have an affinity for them, but also for the Romanian people, and it was great to visit the Village Museum on Sunday and appreciate the city.
You are kicking off Wednesday's concert with George Butterworth's work - "The banks of Green Willow". Why this choice?
I'm one of George Butterworth's great admirers. Sadly, he lost his life in the First World War. He was awarded the George Cross twice; the first time he was thought to have died, although he had not. The second time, he received the medal posthumously. He was a hero who died young. We have him to thank forRalph Vaughan Williams' debut, because he encouraged him to write symphonies. And we're very glad Williams did.This question remains: What if Butterworth had lived longer? Like Vaughan Williams, he uses many folk motifs in his music. Two are found in The Banks of Green Willow: a story - Banks of Green Willow and the song "Green Bushes". This was back when Ralph Vaughan Williams and folklorist Cecil Sharp would go to the countryside and collect all these songs from villagers. They would write them down, just as Bartok did in what is now Romania. It was a wonderful time, musically speaking.
Unfortunately, after the war, at least in England, composers began to experiment a lot, sometimes even coming up with music that was hard to listen to, andditched folk tunes.Richard Rodney Bennett, for example, one of my friends, wrote a completely atonal piano concerto in the 1960s, a pure experiment. He later abandoned this path and wrote much more melodic music, at one point even a cello concerto for then Prince, now King Charles III. I think we are now slowly returning to the spirit of classical music, to something that is new but also accessible.
One of the problems with new music is that the public doesn't engage with it... "if I don't know the composer's name, I don't want to listen to it"... and that's sad. British broadcasting played a part here, because there was a time - after the war - when they only played experimental music.Composers were afraid to write tonal, melodic music... because they risked not being broadcast. If we don't ask for new music, if we don't give young composers a chance... young composers, because there are some very talented ones... then we won't have new music.Of course, The Rite of Spring came as a shock to audiences in Paris, but it was quickly accepted. It was something new... the first performance was an absolute riot, as we know, but here it is a hundred years later. I'm not criticising new or different music in any way, it's just that,in the last half century, we've managed to turn audiences away from new music and it's a shame...
I'd like to come back to Wednesday's concert programme and ask you to talk about the Haydn Concerto and the Schubert Symphony.
Haydn had very good cellists at the Esterhazy Court. The work is written for one of them.As a matter of fact, he also had very good horn players, better than Beethoven had in his time. Originally from Bohemia, they were very talented, so Haydn could write anything he wanted. The cello concerto is for a small orchestra. I still don't know if we'll use the same formula Haydn had when he presented the concerto, that is with only one cellist in the orchestra. The first cello was the soloist, so that left only one player in the ensemble. We used this formula, it's an interesting one because it has a different sound.
Schubert's Fifth Symphony, for me, is the beginning of the way to the Eighth Symphony, an arc between classical and romantic music. It was strongly influenced by Mozart's music. You can clearly hear it in the third part - Menuet and Trio - similar to Mozart's Symphony No. 40.It's strange that the Menuet starts in a minor key and ends in a major key in the Trio, totally unusual. One thing that my wife - Rosemary Furniss, a much better musician than me - found out is that this part of the symphony, that Schubert wrote when he was only 19, was actually a quartet in Schubert's opera - The Devil's Pleasure Palace - which was not performed until the 20th century.It told the story of a young knight who falls in love with a girl. Her uncle summons all sorts of spirits in the palace to scare the knight away, but love wins.Interestingly, we talked to the orchestra about how to play the minuet, in the score with the indication Allegro molto - the fastest tempo Mozart used - they remembered the story and played completely differently. The last part sounds more like Haydn's music. It's a symphony in classical form, without a slow introduction. It's one of Schubert's best-known symphonies... I think most people are familiar with the Eighth "Unfinished" Symphony, but this Fifth Symphony is somewhat closer to me.
In 2022, you celebrated 50 years of activity. 5 decades of working with ensembles such as the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Chamber Orchestra, The Nordic Chamber Orchestra... and the list goes on. What were the highlights of these 50 years?
I think when I made the decision to stop playing violin and just conduct. Because I've always been a conductor; I started when I was 17.I wanted to learn conducting because I dreamed to be a concertmaster. That's how the idea of conducting was actually "born", from bow to baton.When he came to London, Haydn sat at the piano in front of the orchestra as music director, and Johann Peter Salomon, his agent and the orchestra's concertmaster, sat at a large desk set in the piano's recess, swinging the bow and sometimes the score, and conducting the ensemble. That's how I saw myself, as a leader of the orchestra, as a conductor, and I would like young conductors to keep that in mind: you have to give musicians the opportunity to grow and inspire them.I was conducting all the time. In many concerts I was both soloist and conductor with the London Chamber Orchestra; at St. Martin in the Fields, I was concertmaster, and I was both soloist and conductor. When there was repertoire that required it, I just conducted. Eventually, nobody wanted me to play the violin anymore. And I didn't.
Lorin Maazel, one of my mentors, along with Charles Mackerras, was conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra on tour in Japan. He asked me to come and be the concertmaster of the ensemble and I told myself, "Yes, I'll do that, because he's an old friend who helped me become a better conductor."At one of the rehearsals, Japanese radio and television wanted everything filmed, just a few hours before the concert we were to perform. Maazel didn't agree, the Japanese insisted... we had a problem. In those days, British orchestras didn't have what we now call assistant conductors.The conductors of the orchestra told me that I'd have to conduct the rehearsal. I didn't know whether I should conduct seriously or pretend I didn't know how to conduct; while I was concertmaster there, I didn't show that I could do that.It's very important, because not many conductors appreciate that. But I conducted the right way, and at the end, the orchestra came to me, said they didn't know I could do that, and invited me to conduct Philharmonia concerts. That was a big moment, I was invited to come back in front of an ensemble... it meant I was good at what I was doing, and I kept going. And now I'm grateful to Lorin Maazel, because I think he did it on purpose; he was one of the few conductors who knew that I was conducting too... he was teaching me even then.
Are there any other big names in this whole five-decade trail?
Riccardo Muti was the first music director I worked with. I was 25 years old, the first concertmaster of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He was incredibly charismatic and inspired us all... a wonderful musician... very tough and had a strong influence on me.Sir Charles Mackerras helped me with older music... again, for younger conductors - focus on baroque and classical repertoire! If you can conduct that music, up to Beethoven-Brahms, you can conduct anything. You will get the hang of it; anything will be doable. If you ignore this period... The Rite of Spring is not the hardest score for a conductor, but it's hard to give it the dance beat, because you forget it's a ballet. But if you understand baroque, you can conduct The Rite of Spring. There are many conductors who start with modern music, then Mahler, Bruckner... which I like to conduct too, but if you only do that, and you don't master the baroque or the Mozart-Haydn repertoire, then it's hard to succeed as a conductor.
Do you have a message for those listening to Wednesday's concert live on the radio?
I'm very happy that we will be broadcast live. My message is to encourage people to sing in choirs, listen to the radio, and come to the concert hall. No disrespect to radio, but bring young people and those who haven't been to a concert hall, get them involved!I guarantee that every time we do this, people will want to come back. But the most important thing is to provide music education for your children.If they study the arts alongside science and all other subjects, they will do better in every way. They will have better jobs, earn more money and, at the same time, contribute to the gross domestic product... the arts help business.The reason me and my wife, Rosemary, are so involved in youth music programs all over the world - Brazil, London, and we've started one now in the United States - is because, in Brazil, I knew a kid who at 9 years old was stealing on the bus and they couldn't catch him... he was dangerous... one day, he ended up in one of the activities in the music program there. At 14, he was playing saxophone in a trio, he didn't want to steal on the bus anymore, just to play.If we keep this in mind, let's think how important the arts are. This is what I encourage at home: get your children involved in the arts, get governments to include the arts in the national curriculum, not just music... dance, theatre... whatever, but don't ignore the arts!
Translated by Andreea Zofotă,
University of Bucharest, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, MTTLC, year II
Corrected by Silvia Petrescu