The Brilliant Young Conductor who has recorded so much fine Light Music in recent years, is interviewed by ROB BARNETT
RB: Where were you born?
Gavin Sutherland: I was born in Chester-le-Street, County Durham. What was your family background?
Father was a factory inspector, mother a secretary for the local Council. In the North East arts were considered inappropriate as a profession – you were essentially bred as factory fodder – light engineering and so forth – and I couldn’t face that.
Were your parents or family at all musical? Well, I think it’s fair to say that we were a family that appreciated music, and the house was certainly full of music, but the only direct musical contact was my mother. She played organ at our local church but stopped before I was born (and actually stopped playing completely as a result). My father liked to sing around the house, and at many of the "go-as-you-pleases" – a forerunner to karaoke in many a working men’s club! My sister liked to sing (though used to regularly slide down in pitch from the key in which she started!!) and learned to dance, and so was a regular in several operatic societies. Your education ... I started to play our piano, unbidden, by ear, at the age of three. This slowly developed through the years, although I was still branded as self taught. It’s almost right to say I could read music before I could read, although I think my musical interests needed harnessing. Thus it was that I was given lessons on the trombone (we had no piano teacher in our education authority) from the age of seven. This got me into the county youth bands, and I found this wholly to my liking. I did all of my grades on trombone (all distinction, I’m embarrassed to confess!) but just let the piano wend its way of its own accord. My real early musical education was practical – sitting in the bands and orchestras – watching, remembering, absorbing. To this end I wish to pay tribute to two of my mentors from this time – Derek Scollard, my first trombone teacher, who arranged and conducted one of the bands I worked with. He gave me the impetus to start dabbling with arrangement, although my first few efforts (the first dates from the age of 7!) were lamentable…but I stuck at it and that’s where my love of writing and arranging music was born. The other leading light at the time was the late Jack Stobbs – a rather eccentric and totally fascinating teacher. I think he knew my interests and focused on them – plus his love of English music opened up my ears to the music of Walton, Elgar, Warlock, Finzi, Arnold, and so on. Added to that his encouragement and energy got me "to the next stage" as it were – a stage that is often difficult in a musician’s life, where one battles with the soul and, as Dave Allen famously put it, "the braincells become haemorrhoids" and Neanderthal tendencies creep in!! To this end, I didn’t really have time to notice that, as my quest for more experience led me to local amateur operatic societies and choral societies, first as accompanist then as conductor (I musically directed my first show at the age of 11, and, whilst the participants can’t take you seriously at that stage, at least it got me moving in the direction of conducting.). On the amateur operatic front I think I worked on over fifty productions until I went to university, and all the while it got me working with people. The music business doesn’t just stop with the total grip on thorough knowledge of your craft – social and people skills are profoundly important too, and I’m glad to say I made most of my mistakes and received most of my knocks when I was young enough for it not to hurt! I do have to say my other school studies possibly suffered a little but I was apparently oblivious to that. I did get a lot of jealous stick from my peers at school, and found solace in being able to lock myself away in a music practice room and simply play. It’s still a comfort blanket to this day! Have literary sources influenced your style or approach? You mean musical books? I had lots of them – Frederick Prausnitz’s "Score and Podium", William Lovelock’s "The Elements of Orchestral Arrangement", Piston’s famous orchestration tome, Adkins’ "Treatise on the Military Band", and so on. I have to be honest and say that although I tried to devour them, thinking it would be a bigger help than it subsequently was (!), I found the real way to learn for me was simply to practise and absorb other conductors. As for arranging and composition, scores were the great textbooks to me. Anything currently in our repertoire in the bands, full scores of classical and contemporary works, all of these came hurtling through our local library at a rate of knots! What direction did your musical studies take? Well, I tried for Durham University for my mother (who was determined I should get a job as a music teacher – something I think I could never ever have done!) but, as I only had qualifications as a trombonist on paper they couldn’t possibly consider me. I even offered to go and play for them, but that wouldn’t work! Newcastle said they didn’t really want to take many local students, as they were going more for foreign applicants (charming!). So it was that I headed south to see what was on offer. I was offered unconditionals by several of the main music colleges, but actually settled on Huddersfield University (Polytechnic for my first two years there) as it seemed to offer the most adaptable course and also pleased my mother as being "not London". Can you tell us more about your musical training? Huddersfield was a real eye-opener. Amongst many fine musicians, all of whom like me had applied and got in on their merits, I felt suddenly rather nervous. From the safe and cosy atmosphere of regular fun work in the North East it now all took on a more serious feel. As it turned out, I think I matured considerably at Huddersfield, both musically and personally. Some teachers became good close friends, one got me my first regular professional job (I had had a bit of freelance playing, conducting and arranging just before I got to Huddersfield, but not on a regular basis). I suppose I was counted as "a funny ‘un" since some of my teachers did not want to undo what I’d achieved musically and technically so far in my life. As a result I was taught more about interpretation as a pianist (with the marvellous Bernard Robertson), pushing out the boundaries of composition (with Peter J.Lawson – a real hero) and performance development as a conductor (first with John Gulley and then with another of my key influences in life – John Longstaff). But what of the trombone? Well, I’d had enough – I’d got a new instrument but it wasn’t making any difference at all – I really knew I wasn’t good enough, so it went back in its case just after I turned 19. I must have done something right, for I ended up getting a first, two prizes (the Krucynski Prize for Piano and the Davidson Prize for Distinction brought to the Institution) and, through John Longstaff, regular work as a pianist with Northern Ballet Theatre. To end up playing a piano concerto in my last end-of-year concert (Gershwin in F, of course!) must have angered many of the fine pianists in my year, for which I apologise, but I had left Huddersfield with a much better idea of my future, thanks to an assured and energetic training. As a conductor are you associated with a particular orchestra? This is actually a follow on from the question about training, since one of Northern Ballet Theatre’s then staff conductors was about to leave (this was about 1994/5) and, thanks to both John Longstaff (their Head of Music at the time) and John Pryce-Jones (their Music Director), I began to conduct more and more for the company (I had started playing piano for them during my second year at university), finally being appointed as a full-time staff conductor in 1995. My introduction to the world of ballet had occurred much earlier, playing for a ballet school for five years during my teens. Funny thing, fate… I did a very large share of the conducting with the company during this time, eager to develop and full of enthusiasm. After three and a half more years I decided to move on, and thought of London as the place to base myself, it being the epicentre of arts in the country. During my last season with NBT I had made my first CD – "Brian Kay’s British Light Music Discoveries" for ASV, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. I seemed to hit it off with them, and, on learning I had conducted for ballet, they offered me performances of "The Nutcracker" with Birmingham Royal Ballet at the end of that year. This then led to a current association with this fine orchestra, in the ballet pit, occasionally on the concert platform, but mainly in the recording studio. The funny thing is I form associations with many orchestras (the joke being "Gavin is always invited to conduct the orchestra at least twice – the second time to apologise!") – a recent one being with the Australian Pops Philharmonic Orchestra, for whom I’ve arranged and conducted a lot. I also became associated with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and have conducted significantly for them. My associations are always truly meant, and strong bonds are often important to maintain a stability in a hectic life such as mine. Given a free hand which ten works .. previously unrecorded would you want to record. and why in each case?
What would be your advice to a person considering conducting as a career? Go for it. The business is so diverse now that there are so many different avenues to pursue. Alongside the problem of gaining experience comes the fact that orchestral musicians can come over as the biggest cynics in the world. The only way to handle them is to be yourself and be clear. Technique can be taught, but people skills only come with trial and error. You have touched on this a little already but what qualities are necessary in a great conductor? This ties in with the previous question – being down to earth, energetic and enthusiastic, being able to breathe with the orchestra (Henry Wood often said that the best conductors would be string players – I rather disagree, as breathing in phrasing comes far more naturally with the techniques of a wind player). Along with this comes all the stick technique you can muster in back up to keeping things calm and easy to follow – all the greats had this gift. What is your attitude to the recording studio? One of my favourite working environments. The focus of concentration every time the light goes on is a feeling I adore. To know that at the end of a session your thumbprint is on every piece on that disc (or soundtrack, or whatever). The other thing is consistency. The preferred method of working for the discs I’ve done is to try and get down two complete takes, then go back and cover any "patches" that may need tightening. To do this one must feel the music since if a patch is to be dropped in to a track the tempi must match, as must the feel. The many discs I’ve done with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in particular are blessed by such fine playing and a really comfortable atmosphere in the studio that rehearsal can be kept on the economical side. When things start running against the clock, though, and we are pushed for time, the whole attitude shifts to sorting things out immediately in the most time-saving way possible, whilst trying to keep calm. How did you become involved with ASV and other record companies? It started with Ernest Tomlinson bringing Philip Lane and I together in late 1996. I possessed the scores to the "Carry On" films and Philip, already well respected as a record producer, told me he was keen to record a disc of them. We met for the first time at his house in Cheltenham, and further discussions took place in London, Bath and even in a hotel in Batley! The record companies he had tried thought the idea too parochial and so the idea was shelved for a while. Meanwhile Philip had began work on a series of British Light Music discs for ASV. I think Kenneth Alwyn wasn’t available, and Philip, having seen my work on the ballet podium and knowing my love of light music, asked me if I was available. Thus it was that I took two days off work at NBT (the first I had taken off in three years) to go to London and record the disc (this was April 1998). One disc led to another, which led to another, and so on…"The Carry On Album" finally got made in February 1999! What are your recording plans? I’ve just done a disc of Matthew Curtis’s music (my 30th disc made to date) with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia at Whitfield Street in London (with a man of whom I must make special mention – Mike Ross-Trevor, award-winning and highly respected recording engineer, and above all a very nice guy!) and then I made the cast recording of my musical "Little Women" (which enjoyed a short run at the Bloomsbury Theatre during July). The next projects are a further volume of British String Miniatures (I think it’s Volume 3 or 4!) and an interesting disc of the works of British film composers, but works they wrote for the concert hall. We feature works by Leighton Lucas, Bruce Montgomery, Anthony Collins, Eric Rogers and others. Other discs planned for the future include the music of Montague Phillips, Charles Williams, a tantalising disc known at the minute by the working title "The Denham Concertos" after the famous film studios (pieces written very much with the success of the "Warsaw Concerto" in the film "Dangerous Moonlight" in mind) , a possible disc of the music of Angela Morley, oh, and Carry On volume two! Have you been steered away from some composers by record companies? Not really. The record companies listen to people such as Philip, with his thorough research of suitable works for balanced discs, and his astute business skills make their recording viable. ....Or to some composers by record companies Safest to say "see above"! What would be your ten desert island CDs and why? Easy!
Oh, and my luxury would be a bag of crisps! GS Editor: this interview appears courtesy of the British Music Society. Readers who would like to know more about the British Music Society are invited to write to 7 Tudor Gardens, Upminster, Essex, RM14 3DE, or you can e-mail Rob Barnett at: GAVIN SUTHERLAND Selective Discography
ASV CD WHL 2113 BRIAN KAY’S BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC DISCOVERIES: The Roots of Heaven (Sir Malcolm Arnold); Suite of Scottish Dances (William Alwyn); An Impression on a Windy Day (Sir Malcolm Sargent); The Glass Slipper (Clifton Parker); The Coloured Counties (James Langley); The Barber of Seville Goes to the Devil (Gordon Jacob); Tarn Hows (Maurice Johnstone); Two Worlds (Alan Langford); Little Suite (Sir Richard Rodney Bennett). ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA ASV CD WHL 2119 THE "CARRY ON" ALBUM: Music from the "Carry On" films composed by Bruce Montgomery and Eric Rogers. CITY OF PRAGUE PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA ASV CD WHL 2126 BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC DISCOVERIES Vol. 2: Little Suite No. 4 (Sor Malcolm Arnold); The River (Wiloliam Blezard); Traditional Hornpipe Suite (Adrian Cruft); Rossini on Ilkla Moor (Eric Fenby); Wexford Bells (Raymond Warren); The Path Across the Moors (Arthur Butterworth); An Ayrshire Serenade (Anthony Hedges); An English Overture (Paul Lewis); Suite of Cotswold Folkdances (Philip Lane). ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA MARCO POLO 8225161 BILL WORLAND: Shopping Spree, Latin Lover, In the Shadow of Vesuvius, Pepita, Scottish Flower, Sombrero, Brighton Belle, etc. RTE CONCERT ORCHESTRA MARCO POLO 8225162 PERCY WHITLOCK: The Feast of St. Benedict, Ballet of the Wood Creatures, Wessex Suite, Music for Orchestra, etc. RTE CONCERT ORCHESTRA ASV CD WHL 2131 BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC DISCOVERIES Vol. 4: Partita (John Rutter); Suite Française (Sir Richard Rodney Bennett); The Padstow Lifeboat (Sir Malcolm Arnold); Fantasy on Dover Castle (David Fanshawe); Battersea Park Suite (William Blezard); Dance Diversions (Michael Hurd); A Miniature Symphony (Paul Lewis). ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA MARCO POLO 8225185 PHILIP LANE: London Salute, Diversions on a Theme of Paganini, Cotswold Dances, Divertissement for Clarinet Harp and Strings, Three Christmas Pictures, A Maritime Overture, Three Nautical Miniatures for Strings, Prestbury Park. ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA ASV CD WHL 2132 ENGLISH BASSOON CONCERTOS: Concerto in D (Eric Fogg); Concertino (John Addison); Concertino (Peter Hope); Summer Music (Arthur Butterworth). ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA ASV CD WHL 2133 BRITISH LIGHT OVERTURES Volume 1: Caramba (William Blezard); Overture to a Costume Comedy (Stanley Black); Overture and Beginners (James Langley); Tantivy Towers (Thomas Dunhill); Boy Wizard (Herbert Chappell); Festive Overture (Walter Carroll); Overture to an Unwritten Comedy (Michael Hurd); The Arcadians (Lionel Monckton); A Spa Overture (Philip Lane); Concert Overture (Thomas Pitfield); Sussex Symphony Overture (Paul Lewis). ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA ASV CD WHL 2138 LONDON LANDMARKS: Metropolis (David Watts); Rotten Row (Angela Morley); London Salute (Philip Lane); Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra (Christopher Gunning); London Fields (Phyllis Tate); London Landmarks (Haydn Wood); Festival of London March (Paul Lewis). ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA MARCO POLO 8225184 ALFRED REYNOLDS: Festival March, Alice Through The Looking-Glass, The Toy Cart, The Taming of the Shrew, 1066 And All That, etc. ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA ASV CD WHL 2134 BRITISH STRING MINIATURES: Divertimento (Gareth Walters); Elegy (Sir Edward Elgar); Suite (Michael Roberts); Two Aquarelles (Frederick Delius); Fiddler’s Green (Anthony Hedges); Two Pieces from Henry V (Sir William Walton); Partita (John Addison). ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA
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