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MAESTRO’S MUSINGS – Jeremy Siepmann talks to the British conductor Andrew Penny

September 23, 2010

Instrumentalists start early, or so the legend has it. Conductors often take their time. Andrew Penny, for instance, was well into his teens when his love of music finally crystalised into artistic ambition. Before one decisive encounter he wasn’t even headed into music. Since that, he’s never looked back. ‘In my later years at school I was actually looking to the law as a profession. But then a music teacher arrived at the school who’d been at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the 1920s. A man called William Arter. He’d had quite a career as a professional pianist, up until his service with the Eighth Army in North Africa, where he was the sole survivor of a gun crew which got blown up. His hearing in one ear was severely damaged and completely gone in the other, and he’d subsequently turned to teaching. He’d had conducting lessons from Hamilton Harty and accompanied the then Principal of the RMCM, Adolf Brodsky. It was Arter who suggested I audition at the Royal Manchester, which later became the Royal Northern. I played the clarinet and had done some conducting at school, and with the Youth Orchestra, but I was never anything like a prodigy. My father, a geologist, was a good amateur flute player, but we had no professional connections. So it was quite late—only, really, when I was actually at College—that music took centre-stage in my life.’

Andrew Penny

At that point, Penny’s performing career was fairly limited—mostly playing clarinet in chamber and orchestral music at school—but it was there that his attraction to the orchestra took root. From the age of 16 he’d been making arrangements for the school orchestra, specifically so that he could conduct them. No sooner did he enter the College, however, than his conducting ambitions were put on hold. ‘At the College you weren’t allowed to study conducting at 18, and rightly so, because you should first become proficient as a player. I was lucky to study with Sidney Fell, an ex principal clarinet with the LSO. He was a major influence too. Nevertheless, I organised a number of groups—I particularly remember mounting a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldiers Tale. It was a great time. When it became the Royal Northern, the building lent itself so well to performance, and there was a lot of money about in those days, too, for the College to spend on promotion. It was all very exciting. I remember so well attending the first performance in the concert hall, the first production in the opera theatre, etc, and it was an exciting time to be innovative as well. I formed an orchestra, as I said, and put on concerts in different parts of the building. I also got involved in opera, becoming rehearsal conductor in the opera unit, and I directed the Percussion Ensemble for a few years, working with Gilbert Webster. When they established a post-graduate conducting course I applied for it at once. I was one of the first two onto that, and it was during this time that I first came into contact with Timothy Reynish and Charles Groves. It was a conducting course, yes, and very useful too, but always the emphasis was on the music, on well-rounded musicianship as the essential basis of conducting. One of the things I did around this time was to immerse myself in Elgar, with whom I’d always been quite besotted. I conducted The Dream of Gerontius as a post graduate, which I organised myself. One of Tim’s ideas I remember.’

Timothy Reynish and Charles Groves were both conductors and teachers; teachers and mentors. In the realm of conducting, the boundaries between these functions are more than usually murky. If you’re a singer or an instrumentalist, you bring your instrument with you to your lesson. If you’re a conductor, or an aspiring conductor, you haven’t that luxury. Even supposing it were possible, how many teaching rooms can accommodate an orchestra? The question therefore arises, ‘How much can conducting really be taught, and how much has to be learnt by doing—and by watching?’

‘Well, it’s a bit of everything, of course, as you suggest, but observation is tremendously important. Watching at concerts, attending the rehearsals of contrasting conductors, this should really be something that goes on all the time. One of the first things I did when I got to Manchester was to join the Hallé Choir, not because I had a great voice (that was irrelevant) but because we were conducted, in my first year, by Daniel Barenboim, James Loughran, Meredith Davies and Owain Arwel Hughes, and in performances with the Hallé Orchestra. This was really quite an education. Unforgettable, actually—as you can imagine. As far as teaching is concerned, I learned a tremendous amount not only from Tim Reynish and Charles Groves but from Edward Downes, with whom I did three separate courses. I particularly enjoyed analysing how people produced the sound they did. How the same orchestra could have a completely different sound according to who was conducting them—the art of clarity, the art of gesture, avoiding duplication of the beat and so on. One important thing you notice fairly early on is that an orchestra picks up on a lot more than a conductor’s technical skill. That’s one of the reasons why many orchestras particularly love being conducted by composers, who may lack the finish of highly-trained conductors but communicate so much about the music itself—its spirit and movement.

‘As to how conducting can be taught, there are various ways. With the help of a pianist, or a pair of pianists, standing in for the orchestra and picking up on all the gestures, you can actually teach a good deal of technique—but like everybody else, and this is so important, conductors need the experience of doing it wrong! So sometimes you really have to form your own orchestras, and/or find opportunities to conduct already existing amateur orchestras. Among other things, you have to develop your knowledge of the repertoire, and learn how to deal with the time constraints. No teacher can give you the full, necessary balance of clarity of mind, an ability to deal with people, and an awareness of time, all of which are very important. Stick technique can certainly be taught to a considerable degree, and nowhere does it come into its own more than in the opera house, where complete independence of gesture, as between the right and left arm, is pretty well indispensable. Left and right hand technique should be equally clear but different, the left sometimes operating as a cueing device and something quite divorced from the right hand—conveying meaning and significance, while never, as I say, duplicating what the right hand is doing.’

So what were the most important things that Penny learned from his various conducting teachers? ‘I’ll try to be as concise as possible. From Tim Reynish: developing a good sense of what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. With Charles Groves, quite apart from his actual teaching, I used repeatedly to go to his rehearsals and recording sessions and simply observe. From a gentleman named David Jordan, who was the staff conductor at the College and did the orchestral repertoire sessions, I learned a huge amount about the sheer practicalities of rehearsing and conducting: working out how an orchestra should be seated, familiarising oneself with the library and its contents, preparing orchestral parts, coming to grips with the sheer weight and turnover of repertoire and different styles and so on. When I went on summer courses with Edward Downes, I was taken up to an altogether new level by this quite extraordinary man, whose eyesight was so bad he was virtually blind. His sheer intellect was breathtaking. Here was a man who could speak several languages, had an astonishing appetite for reading, a vast knowledge of figures like Verdi and Wagner, an ability to complete half-finished sketches by Wagner etc—and on top of it all he was just so businesslike. I came to know him and to see him regularly over a period of some 30 years. And it’s funny, you know: when I did my complete cycle of Malcolm Arnold’s symphonies for Naxos (ARNOLD Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 8.553406, ARNOLD Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 8.553739, ARNOLD Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 8.552000, ARNOLD Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 8.552001 & ARNOLD Symphony No. 9 8.553540), I never once consulted these two great influences on my life, Edward Downes and Charles Groves, both of whom, as it happens, knew Arnold well and were very closely associated with his music. Yet critics recognised in my performances the influence of these two great mentors.’

One does not, of course, learn only from being taught. Who, I wondered, among the great, the legendary, conductors were Penny’s principal role models? ‘When I was a student I was very much influenced by Rudolf Kempe, and in particular his cycle, with the Dresden Staatskapelle, of the complete orchestral works of Richard Strauss. That had a big impact on me. He came to conduct the Royal Philharmonic at the time when Beecham was coming up to the end. Less famous, but a conductor who had a formative influence on me, was George Hurst, whom I liked enormously. And Carlos Kleiber too. I never heard him in a live concert but his recordings and television performances made a huge impression on me—I was simply amazed at the extraordinary results he could get from an orchestra. Bernard Haitink was another I admired enormously, especially in the big Mahler things.’ And what of his favourite composers (always a simplistic but sometimes a revealing question)? Who would he choose, say, as his top five? ‘Elgar [the answer came at once]. Richard Strauss, I think…Vaughan Williams. [long pause] WagnerVerdi…’ Despite the upward inflection of his voice, suggesting still more, I let him off the hook.

While not by any means a specialist, Penny is widely associated with British composers. Does he feel any sense of obligation to champion them? How important is their Britishness? More to the point, how is their Britishness manifested in their music? ‘Well first of all, the music business does tend to typecast people. Ever since my first cycle for Naxos, of the theatrical music of Sir Arthur Sullivan, back in 1992, a lot of English music has come my way. And a lot of it I’m very keen to promote—English and British music. That said, I do think there’s a tendency in certain circles to overestimate, to over-praise, both works and composers—actually to the detriment of the works and composers in question. A lot of British music suffers from that. I think we need to acknowledge that there’s a lot of music which is certainly worth hearing, worth championing, even, but which is not out of the absolute top drawer.

‘As far as what makes British music sound like British music, I think a significant part of this derives from the organ loft, the British choral tradition, the British amateur tradition. And I think someone could write a substantial Ph.D. thesis on the subject of triplets in British music! There’s often, too, I think, a feeling of a kind of connectedness with the past, with a past, a sense of nostalgia for a past we ourselves never knew, but whose traditions we somehow recognise. I think a lot of it evokes, harks back to, a time before the First World War.’

Both in his training and in his professional life, Penny has moved easily from the concert hall to the opera house and back again. Has his experience as an operatic conductor influenced him as a purely orchestral conductor? ‘Oh it certainly has. No doubt about that. And I come back to Ted Downes here, who worked very much in each field. He once said to me “I have the best of all possible worlds. I can bring the architecture of the concert hall to the theatre, and the drama of the theatre to the symphony.” I like that very much. I think that puts it very well.

CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO Shakespeare Overtures
Vol. 1

West Australian Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Penny, conductor


The art of Shakespeare was a recurring fascination for Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In addition to two operas and numerous settings of songs and sonnets, he wrote 11 Shakespeare Overtures which here receive their first ever complete recording. Deploying all the resources of the symphony orchestra, these are some of the twentieth century’s most dramatic and tuneful orchestral works, spectacular evocations of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Volume Two is available on Naxos 8.572501. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s settings of Shakespeare songs can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223729.

It’s certainly a blend that Penny catches with practised skill in his latest release on Naxos. As their title suggests, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Shakespearean Overtures have a foot in each camp, the theatrical and the symphonic. When confronted with concert music, such as this, of specifically theatrical inspiration, does Penny ever have the sense that he is in fact conducting instrumental operas? ‘Well you’re certainly right about the specificity. And this goes way beyond the titles. The scores are full of verbal quotations. In fact he begins each section with a direct quote from Shakespeare (from the particular play in question, of course); then there’s four or five minutes of music and then another quote, which may be a whole act further on. But the Overtures aren’t by any means his only Shakespearean excursions. Shakespeare was a recurring theme in his output. In the early 1920s, for instance, he set 33 songs from the plays (in 12 volumes, no less!) which are still available and sung today. Then as well the 11 Overtures he also made settings of 35 sonnets, as well as basing two of his four operas on Shakespeare plays.’ This begins to look like obsession. But Castelnuovo-Tedesco didn’t set out to rewrite Shakespeare in musical terms. ‘No, that’s right. The music of the Overtures doesn’t have the consistency and chronology you’d expect in a tone poem. His scheme of illustrated quotations sees to that. But though the overtures don’t attempt to tell a complete story, there’s plenty of drama. They really are quite extraordinary pieces and I’m thrilled to see this project coming to fruition. I come back to what I was saying a while back about British music: there’s no point in claiming these are great works. But they’re very fine indeed. Very much worth hearing.’

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Penny is hardly alone in his enthusiasm. Castelnuovo-Tedesco is little heard today, and he was never top of the classical pops, as it were, but in his day he counted among his admirers and promoters Arturo Toscanini, Sir John Barbirolli, Jascha Heifetz and Andres Segovia, to name but some. So why is he so neglected? ‘Could it be the dreaded connection with Hollywood, do you think? He wrote more than a hundred film scores, and even though he rarely got an on-screen credit, he became widely known as a Hollywood composer. And at his best he was exceptionally good. I’ll always remember the first time I saw the Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None. I was just so struck by the music—and that film, in fact, was one of the relatively few where he actually was credited. It was also his own favourite of his film scores. Not all his scores were as good as that, by any means, but he had an influence, nevertheless: among his pupils were André Previn, John Williams (the composer, not the guitarist), Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle.’

As the Overtures make plain, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a bold and ambitious orchestrator. But again, according to Penny, not a great one. ‘He was a very good orchestrator, certainly; he wrote very well for the strings, for the winds, especially the oboes; he was an excellent professional, but he was also very conservative. Of course Respighi and Puccini were pretty conservative too, but I don’t think Castelnuovo-Tedesco was in their class. That said, though, I repeat: this really is music that should be heard. In fact I think some of it could even become genuinely popular.’

More important still than popularity, a fickle mistress, is the fact that the music is now going to be out there, awaiting discovery by countless music-lovers who may until now barely have heard the name of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, much less tried to pronounce it. Nor will any derive greater satisfaction from this than Andrew Penny, who combines a crusader’s zeal with an artist’s circumspection. His enthusiasm is informed by deep knowledge and wide experience. His tips are sound.

Andrew Penny Biography & Discography


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