Duncan Ward reflects on his 2014/15 season and his work with the NYO Inspire Orchestra


Author: Nina Large


We’re only half way through 2015 and you’ve had an incredible year so far getting involved in a wide range of projects which all seem to reflect your own dynamic and direct approach to performing and composing music.

Sinfonia Viva is a great case in point – an orchestra with a pretty unique take on embracing music.  You took over as Principal Conductor in January, what makes this orchestra so important?
Viva are a phenomenally flexible bunch of musicians who bring the same passion, curiosity and flair to accompanying a new student song alongside five teenage drummers and a primary school brass band, as they do to tackling a Beethoven symphony. I love this open-minded and eclectic approach to music making, and the fact that after a sparkling performance of Mendelssohn and Britten, I can take some of the jazzers from the ensemble to a hotel bar and invite the audience to join us for a jam. Perhaps most special, however, is that with Sinfonia Viva ‘education work’ is not just important but truly at the heart of the ensemble and organisation. The scope of the projects is huge from creative work with students in special needs schools, to toddlers, to multi-media extravaganzas like the recent award-winning Dark Clouds marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

What plans have you got coming up with them?
Going inflatable! Viva have secured a grant from the Arts Council to buy an innovative new inflatable venue!

That sounds fantastic!
Yes it’s enabling us to take professional music making out of city concert halls and into the heart of remote local communities – performing on a village green, beach or just about anywhere like an old-fashioned traveling circus.

You also had your debut with the Luxemburg Philharmonic in January – and no ordinary debut either with 8 world premieres!
Yes…8 premieres by Luxembourgish composers – I became an overnight expert! And it proved to be an exciting scene to discover, with talented young voices alongside established masters such as Georges Lentz. A fantastic orchestra too of course, with a beautiful concert hall to rehearse and perform in. It was a terrifically challenging week of work for us all but we came out of it smiling, and luckily so did the audience and composers.

January was rather a whirlwind quite besides Luxembourg in fact…from a thrilling concert in Cologne of Bartok, Ligeti, Haydn & Mozart with the wonderful Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, to a Viennese Gala with Kate Royal and the CBSO, and from my inaugural concert at Sinfonia Viva to a performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – with the strings performing on instruments which had once belonged to victims of the Holocaust that have been collected and restored.

A whirlwind indeed!  As a child you were a member of the National Youth Orchestra and you recently took the post as Associate Conductor. How important was the NYO to you when you were younger?
Life changing. I’ll never forget that sound pulsing through me as we started rehearsing The Planets on my first tutti rehearsal with the orchestra. There were so many unforgettable experiences, musically, socially, also as a composer with the players trying out my early pieces and occasionally whistling them at me across the dining room.

What do you hope to achieve with your new NYO role today?
It’s a thrill to re-join the organisation and give back to the young players some of what I’ve since learnt, from experiences with professional orchestras around the world.

At Easter for instance I was rehearsal conductor for Ilan Volkov in an exciting programme of Grainger The Warriors, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin. On an NYO residency you have the conditions to realise a dream interpretation of essentially any piece imaginable…165 extremely talented and insatiably keen musicians, an expert coaching team of distinguished international players, lengthy rehearsal periods, and a holistic care and activity schedule to keep everyone in tip-top health and spirits. It’s an incredible opportunity to explore the repertoire in such depth in those conditions, and I look forward to helping create musical experiences that the young members will never forget regardless whether they go on to play professionally or to discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s…

One of their most exciting recent ventures is NYO Inspires where NYO members are going out to run up to 3-day projects with young musical teenagers at various venues in the UK.  The impact of this could be very important, what are your thoughts on it all?
The NYO Inspire program aims to extend the potentially transformative power of a high quality orchestral experience to an ever-growing number of teenagers from all backgrounds across the UK. In Manchester right now we have the first Inspires residency and tour of the newly formed NYO Inspire Orchestra. We are busy rehearsing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, George Lewis’ epic group improvisation work Shadowgraph 5, as well as a new arrangement of recent chart hit Uptown Funk complete with street dance choreography! We tour this programme to five cities around the North West of England, where we will go into secondary schools or music hubs and run workshops on the repertoire with the opportunity for the local young musicians and singers to join us in playing as a super-sized orchestra before then performing ourselves.  There’s a great buzz about the project, and after only a couple of tutti rehearsals and individual section coaching days the level of the orchestral playing is growing astronomically…

You will be returning to Glyndebourne this autumn to make your debut for Glyndebourne on Tour conducting Don Pasquale. What excitements and challenges does opera present to you?
Opera is in many ways the epitome of the art forms in all the disciplines that it unites. That striving for perfect synergy between staging, scenery, choreography, costume, singers, chorus, orchestra etc is what makes it so challenging but ultimately so rewarding for all involved and not least the audience when it works…Glyndebourne is a truly special environment in which to strive for these ideals. For a start if the artistic heat gets too much, you only need to step out the door to be in the glorious Sussex hills with the sheep! I had a great experience there last summer assisting Sir Mark Elder on La traviata, and I’m really looking forward to conducting Donizetti’s masterpiece of wit and charm in sixteen performances of Mariame Clément’s superb production this Autumn.

How do you enjoy working with singers?
I love working with singers! Great instrumentalists are a dream, and a symphony orchestra is perhaps the most infinite colour palette, but in a way every instrument is merely trying to imitate the pure beauty and direct emotional resonance of the human voice.

You said a while ago that you thought the ultimate thing would be to conduct and compose a full-scale opera in a big house.  Is that still the case?  Why is opera the pinnacle for you, why not a concerto or symphony?
It’s certainly still an important dream. I’m very interested in all the elements that contribute to making an opera – with my background and passion in dance and artistic roller skating too for instance, I’m always fascinated and sometimes even get involved with the choreography or dramatic staging of a production alongside the music – and therefore for me whilst big orchestral works and concerti will always be a total thrill, opera remains the ultimate challenge.

I imagine there is a great synergy between your conducting and your composing
Absolutely – as a young composer developing a really intimate knowledge of the workings of each instrument is crucial to be able to write well for them, and obviously this can be useful knowledge as a conductor to be aware of particular challenges and what you can do that may help and what certainly not. Similarly as a conductor to study such a broad range of repertoire in the depth that you have to in order to stand in front of an ensemble and deliver it is naturally also constantly helping fuel my compositional fire…

On a purely practical level too the artists that you form a close musical relationship with as a conductor or performer may then ask you to compose something! For instance, my next composition will be for the extraordinary Russian soprano who set Glyndebourne alight in her performance of La traviata last summer – Venera Gimadieva – who told me that her dream had always been to have a large-scale duo for soprano and percussion and asked whether I might consider taking on the challenge.

That sounds like a difficult balance, how is it going?
It actually works extremely well as a combination. The infinite range of softer colours on percussion instruments are often more interesting to explore than the crash bang wallop variety in any case, and Venera has a big voice…! It’s very early days – I’m still considering a number of texts – but a really exciting project to embrace.

You spent two years 2012-14 in Berlin as the Conducting Scholar of the Berliner Philmarmoniker Orchester-Akademie and you still maintain great musical relationships in Berlin. A collaboration with Peter Sellars?
Yes, Peter will be Artist-in-Residence at the Berlin Phil this coming year and one of his key visions as part of this was to do a new staging of Kaija Saariaho’s stunning La Passion de Simone in her chamber orchestra arrangement. Peter’s work on the St Matthew and St John Passions over the last few years in Berlin has been one of the most deeply inspiring and moving experiences, so to collaborate with him and conduct this project in what will also be the Berlin Phil’s first every venture into Deutsche Oper’s Tischlerei (where our two performances in November take place) promises to be a very special process. I know he will carry everyone involved to as profound a questioning and insight into the life and work of Simone Weil and Saariaho’s setting of it, as he did with the insights he brought out of Bach’s responses to the tellings of the Gospel.

You are also doing some arranging for Magdalena Kozena?
Yes Magdalena and Simon (Rattle) asked whether I would enjoy arranging a selection of Magdalena’s favourite Dvorak songs as the finale for her European tour next January/February. The skill in arranging is trying to really enter the sound-world of the composer and faithfully and imaginatively reproduce it with the ensemble to hand – in this case piano, string quartet, flute and clarinet – so I’m devouring Dvorak’s chamber music at the moment. Simon will be the pianist (and the tour includes his Wigmore Hall debut), so in a typically self-deprecating manner he asked for not too many semi-quavers!

Is there an area of the repertoire that you are most immersed in at the moment?
I tend to get so totally engrossed with whatever I am performing or studying at that particular moment that that becomes my obsession: to understand it to the very core of its creation and really do the composer justice. So this week I’m very happily in Shostakovich land (with a side-dish of Martinu – La Revue de Cuisine that I just performed this lunchtime with the NYO tutors and a touch of kitchen costume/props/choreography), but last week it was a brand new commission for the LSO strings and next week it will be Rossini in Salzburg…the more repertoire I discover the more I realise I haven’t yet discovered and that is perhaps one of the biggest joys of this profession.

You’ve got plans with the Salzburg Festival this summer; can you tell me a bit about that?
Yes, next week I will start rehearsing an exciting new staging of the Barber of Seville for children’s audiences, by Elena Tzavara. We will perform it nine times during the festival with soloists from the Young Singers Project. Elena and I worked together on a wonderful children’s version of Manon Lescaut for the Baden-Baden Easter Festival with the Berliner Philharmoniker last year so I’m thrilled to be able to collaborate again so soon.

Whether you are working with kids or teenagers, in an inflatable concert venue or on the stage it seems that reaching people is something which really drives you.
Music is about connection…the connection of sounds to silence, the connection between performers united in a common interpretation of a composer’s work, the special connection between performers and audience in a live concert, the connection between listeners when there is a shared magical 30 seconds silence at the end of powerful rendition Mahler’s 9th Symphony or when an Afro-Cuban groove somehow connects your knees, hips, and heart and you simply have to dance.

Music is an inexplicable, immensely powerful force, and one that I intend to spend the rest of my life sharing with as many people of every age and background from all over the world.

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