Next to going out to live concerts, Youtube really is a great place to hang around and run into your next favorite artists. Do you like this rendition of Beethoven’s 1st symphony? If yes, me, too! Aside from listening to the music being played I love watching how it is being conducted (after all, I spent some time playing orchestra clarinet in my high school and early college years). There are some great conductors around whose beat and musical intention I have the hardest time deciphering. This young maestro is probably one of the easiest conductors around to follow, though. You only have to look at him to know exactly what he wants out of what orchestral section. His name is George Jackson, and, lucky me, the young British maestro was kind enough to agree to an interviewed:
You started out as a violinist playing for hometown Ealing Youth Orchestra. What got you interested in classical music in general and the violin in particular?
My story goes back further than the violin, and classical music altogether! As a 15 year old teenager, I was a ‘heavy metal’ drummer in a band of school friends, which led quite quickly to becoming the guitarist and lead singer of my own ‘punk’ band – we did quite well, with a highlight being a gig at the London Astoria.
As a child, long before those teenage musical kicks, I had always expressed an interest in playing the violin and, after a failed attempt at the piano (I refused to practice!), I switched and started violin lessons at the age of 10. I played in school orchestras and that sort of thing, until a very close friend (who was concertmaster of the Ealing Youth Orchestra) invited me to hear one of their concerts. I immediately rushed to join. The highlights included summer tours across Europe, and a great chance to get to grips with the core orchestral repertoire – the more social aspects of playing music with other like-minded young colleagues was also a benefit, and I made lifelong friends in the EYO. The conductor of the orchestra (Mark Forkgen) had a fascinating ability to explain the stories behind the music (I think we used to all sit back on our chairs for ‘storytime’): I remember working on Symphonie fantastique and being fascinated at the sheer imagination of the sounds that the orchestra could make, made even more special by the meaning that Berlioz had contained within.
Did you have favorite composers/musicians growing up? If you do, what made them special to you?
I have had an unusually wide variety of musical obsessions, which have included phases of the Rolling Stones, Planxty, Van Morrison, Slipknot, Bob Marley (I am in the middle of a quite heavy Beatles phase right now!). In terms of composers, I think my first musical obsessions always stemmed from contact with individual works – the focus on composers always came as a subsequent result of that. Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Mahler’s 4th Symphony, Mozart’s Requiem stick out the most. They were all pieces that I played, which of course led to interest in their other works, and then an interest in the composers’ lives themselves. I went through a serious ‘New Viennese School’ phase too, and was also interested in programmatic music. My encounters with orchestral story telling (like the Berlioz I just mentioned) were definitely the beginnings of my current interest in opera, encouraged too by my first visit to the opera at around 17 years old (Tosca at the English National Opera).
Tell us about your journey from being a young orchestral violinist to switching to conducting? Was that a difficult transition?
I would love to say that there was no conscious transition, but now you ask me this question, I do remember an incident during my brief stint as a violinist in Dublin. Early on in my time at Trinity, I remember sitting at the back of the second fiddles and watching the orchestra’s conductor plow through Mussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition -we reached the ‘gnome’ movement, and something just didn’t click. I didn’t agree with anything musically, and felt very strongly that it should be performed differently. After the rehearsal, I went home with a passionate determination to conduct the orchestra myself one day, and two years later, I conducted the Pastoral Symphony with them in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral. Aside from this small anecdote, it did feel natural- that event merely opened up my realization that I started to feel very passionately about how music should ‘go’ – this passion lit the second fire: the desire to share that passion with the musicians and, ultimately, the audience. Relating back to being an orchestral violinist, I maintained (and still maintain) the idea that everybody is a ‘cog in the works’, especially the conductor – I am fond of the team-playing approach, rather than an autocratic style. I suppose that means that my beginnings as an orchestral violinist helped me to develop collegiate aspect of my conducting.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of conducting? Is it the same when conducting an instrumental concert as when conducting an opera?
The German conductor Christian Thielemann once said to a group of students that learning to conduct is learning to ‘develop an opinion’, and I think that this is a clever way of summarizing the most challenging aspect. Stage one is having an opinion, and stage two is communicating it, and funnily enough, stage two can only exist when stage one is firmly in place. When comparing instrumental concerts or opera, there are different sets of challenges. With the former, rehearsal time is often sparse, so problems need to be solved quickly – there is often only one performance at the end of it all too, so the process runs like lightening. Opera, on the other hand, can be a ‘slow burner’, with vocal coaching, production rehearsals, orchestral rehearsals, and a longer run of shows that allow the piece to grow through repeated performance. Both provide challenges in time management and pacing, which are important skills to develop through experience, like a tennis player learning how to pace a rally, then a game, then a complete set.
Another challenging aspect of pursuing conducting is the level of rejection, from master classes, jobs, competitions, universities, etc. At the beginning it is tough, but you have to use that disappointment to ‘get back on the horse’. I remember my mentor Peter Shannon (conductor of the Savannah Philharmonic) told me that as he started out, he could have ‘papered his living room with rejection letters’: hearing that from a successful professional was encouraging, and I am willing to bet that my newly-wallpapered living room is larger than his.
It seems many conductors find themselves specializing into concert conductors and opera conductors. Some even sub-specialize into specific musical period. Your repertoire ranges from Haendel to Adams! Do you plan on focusing in on any particular Fach or do you enjoy conducting music from different periods through out the years?
My interest in conducting represents a wider interest in story telling, and the concert, choral and opera repertoire tell stories in different ways – the concert hall and its rituals are also as much a part of theatre as an opera or ballet might be. I think focusing on a particular area of the repertoire is inevitable, and mirrors the film industry, where actors are quickly typecast into their recurring roles (Hugh Grant, for example!).But I also feel that a young conductor’s priority is to explore and experiment, which is the reason why my repertoire is so wide-ranging.
On the other hand, I am a strong believer in the connection between music and language (even in a purely orchestral context), and sometimes being a native Russian speaker (which I am not!) can be a pre-requisite to performing a Tchaikovsky symphony, for example. In that respect, my relationship to Vienna, Austria, Germany and the German language, as well as my British background, puts me in a strong position to specialize in music that represents those areas. Somebody very wise once said ‘don’t conduct what you like, but like what you conduct’, a mantra which I try to place at the centre of my musical activities.
You studied musicology and composition at Trinity College Dublin, so you are well familiar with musicological problems with performance traditions and audience expectations, especially in earlier period opera (where the surviving scores leave a lot of room for interpretation/ornamentation). How difficult is it to pick the right balance and come up with ‘what the composer probably wanted’ that also satisfies the audience that might be used to hearing certain works/arias done in a certain way (even if that isn’t quite what the score indicates)?
This is a very complex question, but it is great that you asked it! This was an area that the recent production of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas touched upon. All that survives of this opera is a copy of the full score, copied out by the King’s music librarian in 1690. This removes many of the problems that musicology can present to performers: the contradiction of sources. With the Charpentier, performers today are all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, so to speak. What makes this opera further unique is its small performance history – this means that any secondary sources (recordings, for example) complement our own reading. Picking the right balance is therefore dependent on context: aside from Jonathan Del Mar’s noteworthy editions, it is impossible to ignore the wealth of recorded sources of the Beethoven symphonies, for example.
My conducting teacher in Vienna, Mark Stringer, has been influential in encouraging the consideration of notable recordings of pieces of music – a well-informed performance of a symphony may use a critical edition, but should also consider its interpretations on record. This last point deals with the end of your question: presumably, the nature of our interaction with music today means that audiences’ expectations are influenced by recordings more than the concert hall, suggesting that music’s un-notated elements are preserved in a sonic form of notation (like the oral traditions in ethnomusicology, for example).
The informed part of ‘historically-informed performance’ is the most important, and I think that combining musicianship with an informed and insightful context is a fabulous way of using the vast resources available to us today. Lastly, to know what a composer ‘wanted’ is impossible, particularly with the implication of desire in the term ‘want’: I prefer to think of what the composer may have ‘expected’, and our job as conductor is to consider this expectation in modern times.
You were also Yves Abel’s assistant conductor at the Bavarian State Opera last year and worked the rehearsals during the I Capuleti e i Montecchi featuring Anna Netrebko and Vesselina Kasarova that was live-streamed all over the globe and got more than 241,000 hit. What was it like working with maestro Abel in such a high profile project with such popular stars?
I was, and Yves has been so kind to me – he took me to London with him as his assistant during his debut there in 2010, and then to the Vienna State Opera for a series of productions in 2011 and 2012. The Munich engagement was a similar situation – Yves was flying backwards and forwards for La Fille performances in London, and the souffleur needed somebody to conduct the Act I duets between Romeo and Giulietta, and suddenly there I was!
What I found fascinating was how easy it was to follow them both – they breathe so early, and with such character that it is impossible NOT to be with them every step of the way. With regards to working with ‘stars’, I suppose the glamour of the outside opera world is absent from the rehearsal room in a very positive way: both are there to do the job, and they didn’t treat me with any less respect for being the ‘new kid’ (I even got a high five from Anna at the end of the rehearsal!).
One thing I found particularly interesting was how much they both question elements of the staging, something which Yves is also interested in too – the conductor can be a major part of the stage direction, and can intervene or express differences of opinion when necessary. I learnt a lot from him, and that is why I enjoy collaboration with directors.
You recently took part in the London SymphonyOrchestra’s Discovery Masterclass with Michael Tilson Thomas. What was that experience like?
The experience with the LSO was super, and it was a real treat to get close to such an orchestra – like driving a Ferrari, which is superior to my rusty Nissan Micra! Part of the Masterclass includes permanent access to the orchestra’s rehearsals, providing an incredible learning opportunity in future years. Working with the LSO on repertoire that is close to their hearts (Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra‘) was also a privilege, and the experience has shaped the way I will perform that piece in years to come.
For similar reasons, studying Copland (Short Symphony) and Shostakovich’s Fifth with Michael Tilson Thomas was also unique, because both are central works in his repertoire. On a sonic level, the experience of being involved in the cultivated sound of the orchestra was also a highlight. Although young conductors are taught that every tiny movement we make has an effect on the sound, I believe that it is a two-way street – the sound of the orchestra acts physically upon the conductor, and the relationship is reciprocal. Exposure to that sound has changed an aspect of my physicality that will have an effect on all of my forthcoming conducting engagements. It is very comforting to know that orchestras and conductors, however prestigious, recognize their place in the cultivation of a next generation of musicians, and I salute the LSO for continuing to prioritize its involvement with the community around it.
You founded the Speculum Musicae Opera Company in 2010 and have conducted Pergolesi’s La serva padrona and Charpentier’s David et Jonathas. Did you stage them, too? or were they in concert form?
That is correct, although the opera company is perhaps best seen as a project-orientated ‘collective’ rather than a regular working company. I have always been fascinated in opera for its theatrical qualities, and am interested in theatre that uses weird and wonderful locations (‘site-specific theatre’, as it is often known). Both of the productions you mention were fully staged collaborations, but taken out of the traditional opera house context. The first was a project with the French director, Béatrice Lachaussée – we took Pergolesi’s comic intermezzo and performed it amidst a working Viennese coffee-house setting, at the sixth district’s famous Café Sperl (brought to fame as one of Franz Lehár’s regular hangouts). The waiters and waitresses would continue their daily grind amongst our performance, and the audience could place their orders as normal.
The second production was a collaboration with Kai Schuhmacher (currently on staff at the Stadttheater Mainz), and took place at the Vienna Music University’s black box theatre. Like the Pergolesi project, we worked with the notion of challenging the traditional pit-stage relationship. This time, the orchestra occupied a small box-like enclosure under the stage in a Bayreuth-like setup, and was free to rise up as a central part of the set. This formed a series of uneven ledges that became the singers’ playground, so to speak. Going back to your earlier question about challenges in conducting, this was a great example of solving technical difficulties: with very little direct sight lines to the singers, everything happened through monitors, which encouraged a different style of conducting: for me, this lies at the heart of my interest in opera, where theatrical concepts can have a direct effect on how musicians adapt their technical skills to contribute to the end goal.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
There are lots of aspects that I enjoy about my work, but the most significant is the privilege of sharing a composers’ masterpiece with the world. Score study can be so exhilarating, because it is like getting to know a new person (or being on a date!) – you ask questions, you want to know more, you share your own experiences with that ‘person’. But ultimately, it is an isolated act, which brings me to the next great joy – moving from the one-on-one relationship between conductors and scores, to being in a room and sharing that work with 70 people who add to that relationship, and then finally, the audience’s eventual involvement at the performance.
On June 13th you will make your conducting debut with the ORF at the Wiener Musikverein with 5 other conductors. What work will you be conducting? What does the piece speak to you?
I am very excited about conducting at the Musikverein next week, and I am lucky to have the chance to work with the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell. This performance will be the Austrian premiere of his orchestral piece ‘Ombres’ (‘Shadows’), and as I am ‘jumping in’ for a sick colleague, this has meant a very quick turnaround, with just two weeks to prepare the score.
My dialogue with the composer has been mostly practical, working out any errata in the parts and solving technical problems that will help the orchestra. This has allowed me to develop my own independent view of the piece, which I feel is important when working in collaboration with a composer. I find that a lot of music finds its place in the world through parallels with other art forms, particularly fine art (the traditional Schoenberg-Kandinsky or Debussy-Monet connections, for example).
My feeling with ‘Ombres’ is a relationship to abstract expressionism in art.Paintings by Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still, for example, have helped in my imagination of the piece – the idea of a single dark texture with a contrasting white line across the centre, for example, finds aural equivalence in the piece: the dark texture in Rothko is formed by Jarrell’s cantabile backdrops (tremolo strings or woodwind effects), offset by the contrasting ‘white lines’ in the form of louder pizzicato gestures in the strings, or sforzato ‘stabs’ in the brass – Jackson Pollock-esque pointillist textures are also prevalent. I feel that the visual-aural relationship that music exhibits is of enormous benefit to conductors, and helps to initiate the flow of imagination between conductor-orchestra and then orchestra-audience. ———————————————————————–
The man is so fascinating and refreshing I wish I live in or near Vienna so I can catch Maestro Jackson live in action at the ORF concert next Thursday! Luckily he is quite young yet, so I expect to have many chances to attend his concerts in years to come. In the meanwhile, though, check out George Jackson’s official website for more info about the maestro. And if you are in Vienna you can catch him at the Musikverein next week (and come back here to tell us about it afterward!), too!
Photos courtesy of George H Jackson.