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A violinist playing with heart

Why do you undertake player-directing?

Because the musical rewards can be so great, and because it opens up the possibility of turning orchestral repertoire into a wonderfully collaborative, supersized chamber performance.

Under what circumstances do you think it works best, and in what kind of repertoire?

It works best with an ensemble like Britten Sinfonia whose members regularly perform together, and who have plenty of chamber music experience. Our self-directed repertoire covers a lot of ground: beyond, of course, the chamber canon itself, all the string orchestra works are ideal – from Tchaikovsky and Elgar to Britten, Bartok, Tippett and Finzi; baroque concertos and suites; classical concertos and symphonies. To give an idea, highlights this year include an early Haydn symphony paired with Stravinksy’s Dumbarton Oaks, Finzi’s Dies Natalis and Elgar’s Serenade for strings in one upcoming tour programme, Bartok’s Divertimento and Tavener’s The Protecting Veil in another.

What are the pros and cons, compared to “normal” conducting?

Pros: more engaging for the players and can lead to more committed performances

Cons: requires more rehearsal time, and to some extent the safety net of a conductor is removed.

What challenges does it pose for you and for the orchestra?

For the person undertaking the play/direct role it is an exercise in multi-tasking - you have to think about so many things whilst not neglecting your own playing. For those in the orchestra a much more detailed understanding of the score is necessary than when playing with conductor.

Do you remember the first time you tried it? What was it like?

As a student at the Royal Academy. We were accompanying Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Mozart piano concertos but he left a lot to us.

What do you enjoy most about it?

I prefer not to be told what to do - it’s more satisfying to find one’s own solutions even if it’s by trial and error.

Thomas Gould directing Britten Sinfonia in Max Richter's Recomposed: Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (photo: Tom Lovatt)

Are there any circumstances, or any areas of repertoire, in which you absolutely wouldn’t try it?

Sure, if the score is too rhythmically complex or if the instrumentation is too large. In fact we were playing a piece the other week with Britten Sinfonia which we realised quite late in the day would need a conductor - Elizabeth Maconchy’s Symphony for Double String Orchestra.

How does the Britten Sinfonia function most often? How does the feel of the orchestra change when they are player-directed, rather than working with a conductor?

I guess it’s something like a 50:50 split, but because we definitely feel we can be most ourselves when working without a conductor, most of our self-presented, self-curated concerts tend to be without one. And when working with a conductor some of that ‘DIY’ attitude carries over - we fix problems ourselves.

Do we still need conductors?!? If so, why?

Yes, we do still need conductors, but we don’t need them to be paid 100 times more than orchestral musicians. The old hierarchy was so skewed and I’m delighted that it seems to be finally shifting.

How is Britten Sinfonia bearing up generally, given the loss of their ACE grant?

Our Play On campaign has got off to a great start. Hundreds of individuals, alongside Trusts & Foundations, are being very generous - raising so far ¼ £million of the £million that we’ve lost from the Arts Council cut. But we’ve got a long way to go before we know we can realise our ambitious, important plans in the mid- to long-term. In the meantime, our schedule is rich and varied, with international touring returning, a busy summer and autumn of festival dates and recordings, and plenty of concerts at our home venues in London, Saffron Hall and Norwich. Our rethought Learning & Participation programme feels like a rocket that’s just about to take off.

Does the ability to play from a full score on an iPad now make player-directing even more viable for the future?

Playing from the score is often necessary for play/direct programmes, and playing from iPad makes this much more possible. We’ve started doing all-iPad programmes earlier this year – no paper, no turning pages - and it’s been really liberating. For the audience, it looks great too, because standard concert lighting (overhead white light) is no longer necessary.


On 6 September Britten Sinfonia performs Max Richter’s acoustic and electronic 21-century re-imaging of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Lera Auerbach’s re-working of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Corelli’s Concerto Grosso and Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli.

Extracts from this interview appeared in Jessica Duchen’s article in The Times: