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BBC Symphony Orchestra - Interview with Paul Hughes, General Manager

Tuesday, 23 October 2012 , ora 10.42

13thSeptember, 2012

One of the five orchestras of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, performs in London's Barbican Hall and all its concerts are broadcast live by BBC Radio 3, BBC's classical music station. Paul Hughes is here to tell us about the history of the ensemble.

The orchestra was born because BBC- at the time, in the year 1930, it was a newly formed institution which it had been founded only a few years earlier - realized that the musical groups of the time could not sustain all of BBC's demands. Although the economic situation was difficult, even very difficult, the institution decided it would invest in music and that they would create their own orchestra, believing that music is a way in which people could overcome that unfortunate state of affairs, and that the audience needs music. So, BBC had good reasons to establish this orchestra, a high quality one, the first symphonic ensemble of its kind and of its level that London had ever seen.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra will be playing in the opening and closing nights of The Proms. What are her duties?

The opening the the closing of the festival are the most publicized nights of The Proms; BBC will be broadcasting live, so millions of people around the world will see and hear them. It brings us great joy but it is also a great responsibility: we have to make sure that we are offering our best, but at the same time, we are very happy to be able to play at such an event.

How would an unofficial job description for a musician of the BBC Symphony Orchestra look like? What kind of interpreter and what type of personality are you looking for, Mr. Hughes?

They must be flexible; they have to enjoy performing a vast repertoire, from Bach to the music used in the sketches and in the movies of Monty Python, the surreal comedy group, and everything in between. They need to be comfortable travelling through many music genres. Our musicians must have a very good technique and be able to play a score at first sight. We want our musicians to be friendly, to be open and optimistic, to enjoy being a part of a team and to have the ability to listen to one another. Finding a musician that meets all these requirements can take quite some time, but because the music that we play is so varied, it is very important that our artists cope with this type of repertoire.

How do you build such a repertoire in the concert seasons of the BBC Symphony Orchestra - are there concert series or themed concerts and similar events?

I believe that the most important and significant aspect of our seasons is the attention we focus on new music. In the season that we will be opening soon we will have eighteen first auditions - totally Londoner, totally British, made by the orders of the BBC. We also have a series called 'In detail': we offer throughout an entire day symphonic and chamber concerts, lectures, film screenings; they are usually dedicated to a certain composer's work but sometimes we focus on the musical profile of a certain country. It is a very popular series. Also very important is the fact that we also perform operas; each year we offer two or three titles in a concert version. In my opinion, that which defines the BBC Symphony Orchestra repertoire is the balance of its programs, and I believe that this is also what sets us apart from other ensembles. Moreover, we play new pieces, unusual pieces, ignored pieces, hard to stage, and I believe that this is what makes us remain interesting, makes us different, and it makes us interested in the music that we play.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra also offers educational concerts during its seasons. What can you tell us about them, Mr. Hughes?

They vary a lot. We never do just a simple concert for children or for youths. Our musical education program takes many forms. For example, we have a series of projects built around the idea of family orchestra, meaning an orchestra made up of musicians of different ages - children, parents, grandparents, all playing together. It is a very popular series. We also have a cycle named 'Elbow', where amateurs - children, students, adults, can come and play with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, alongside our musicians. These concerts too, are very popular. We also have 'Intro', where we present to young people and families pieces that we are going to play in certain concerts, selling the tickets at very low prices. I would also like to mention the fact that we work with special needs children, that have physical or mental disabilities and we also work with music composition students. We have a wide range of activities, which we believe are for the benefit of both the musicians and the community.

An orchestra is recognizable and gets its fame by its sound; what is the sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra?

That's a very tough question! I can say that we have some very good string, with a wonderfully warm and wide timbre, our wind instruments are excellent, the team is made up of some of the best musicians of the genre; but exactly because we have such a diverse repertoire, the orchestra doesn't have only one particular sound - if we play Czech pieces we have one sound and if we play Birtwistle, Boulez or Britten we'll have a totally different sound. I believe that the BBC Symphony Orchestra is characterized precisely by the flexibility of its sonority.

The ensemble invites a musician to become its associate artist; currently, the position is filled by composer Oliver Knussen. We are not familiar with this position; Mr. Hughes, what exactly does an associate artist do?

I can tell you that my first collaboration, from the time I became General Manager, was with composer Mark-Anthony Turnage: we played his pieces in concerts, we played some of his scores as first auditions, and we ordered a couple of songs. After that, we worked with John Adams for six years and he was both our composer and our conductor. The idea behind this is that, in this way, we have the opportunity to get really close to a certain composer, to know his music and have the opportunity to hear it performed by the composer himself. After John Adams we started working with Oliver Knussen, wanting to make official the friendship that we've had for quite some time. We will probably work together for another four or five years and we are very happy to have Ollie as curator of the concerts with opposite written by other composers - he has the gift of creating exciting concert programs, extremely diverse, coherent and he is also a very good conductor. Of course, we also play his music and we'd love to play a first audition but Ollie writes in an exceptionally slow pace. So, an associate artist is more than just a conductor or just a composer, he is a mix of the two. And this makes it a very interesting experience for us.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is also a radio orchestra - its concerts are frequently broadcasted live. Mr. Hughes, what is your relationship with BBC's classical music station?

In the BBC, BBC Radio 3 truly embodies the role of a public broadcaster: precisely because it is a commercial station, it has the duty to serve the niche area of the market, the niche for people in love with good music, who want to know all its aspects. BBC Radio 3 also broadcasts jazz music and world music, but first and foremost, it offers classical music. The fact that we are a part of this achievement if of critical importance for us. BBC has five orchestras, all of them providing music for the BBC Radio 3 shows and this is what sets this station apart from all others and makes it unique. BBC Radio has devoted a large part of its program grid to live broadcasts.

On 28
th and 29thSeptember, the BBC Symphony Orchestra will be coming to the Palace Grand Hall in Bucharest, at the Radio Orchestras Festival. It will play two of George Enescu's rhapsodies. Is this your first contact with our composer's work?

No, we've played Enescu before - not often, but we have, and we are glad that we can do it again. His music is attractive, rich, very well written and I believe if fits our orchestra, which is thrilled by this new meeting, this reunion if you will, between them and Enescu's music. We are hoping for a good show and we hope to return to Bucharest - we are excited by the idea of visiting your city, it's not an area we often get the chance to see. We can hardly wait.

Maria Monica Bojin
Translated by Chirita Daniela
MTTLC, Bucharest University