Report of Sir Mark Elder’s Talk to the Society.
Review of lecture given by Sir Mark Elder to the Wagner Society Manchester, 15th November, 2020.
Manchester was the first industrialised city in the world. In addition to its renown for the development of engineering and technology, it has a long tradition of excellence and innovation in the Arts. One major jewel in its crown is the Halle Orchestra, founded in 1857, Britain’s first fully professional symphony orchestra, now under Sir Mark Elder, Music Director and Chief Conductor since 2000.
Sir Mark is Patron of the Wagner Society Manchester. With the slight reduction in constant demands internationally on him at present, we were fortunate that he was able to give a lecture to the society, on ‘Conducting Wagner’. We were rewarded with an extremely interesting and enjoyable outline of his professional life, in particular his work in conducting Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Sir Mark’s interest in Wagner was first ignited when, as a seventeen-year-old schoolboy, at a gathering with friends one of them put on an LP of the prelude to Act 3 of Siegfried: he was immediately drawn into this music, the like of which he’d not heard before. Thus began his ‘journey’, as he termed it, with Wagner.
Sir Mark said he’d had the good fortune, after graduating from Cambridge, to be a protege of Sir Edward Downes and to gain experience in conducting in Australia. He said he’d subsequently learnt much from other renowned conductors, notably under Sir Reginald Goodall at ENO, first as pianist for him, then conductor, particularly of Wagner, and in his substantial work with Solti at Covent Garden on The Ring Cycle. Sir Mark further talked about his important time as Music Director of ENO, 1979 – 1993, when Peter Jones was General Director and David Pountney was Artistic Director. He said they’d sometimes had divergent views but always worked well in collaborating together.
He made interesting observations about conducting style, clearly believing in ‘less is more’ and the vital importance of being quietly in control while communicating clearly with the players in the orchestra.
Sir Mark commented on his good fortune in his many appointments to conduct in the most prestigious opera houses, such as ROH, ENO, Glyndebourne, Paris, Munich, Bayreuth and many more. He said whenever he gets the chance to conduct the Ring Cycle, he seizes it. He commented that where he could say he ‘knew’ Rigoletto, having conducted it fifty times, he could never say he ‘knew’ Götterdämmerung: there was always more to be discovered.
In reference to the varied acoustics of different venues, he admitted there were issues with the Royal Albert Hall, but that it was great for Parsifal, due to the different levels and gallery. Some of us treasure memories of the performance of Parsifal under his baton in 2013 there.
We were regaled with several amusing anecdotes, two involving the pitch of A: 440Hz in UK, but 445Hz on the Continent, and apparently getting even sharper the further East one goes. There was consternation in the Paris Opera House when Sir Mark sought diplomatically to get them to re-tune to 440Hz: Quelle horreur, les Anglais…An English tenor engaged to sing Siegfried at the Bastille Opera House, at the first rehearsal said he had to return home as his top A had become B flat, just outside his comfort zone. Again, Sir Mark had to use some diplomatic persuasion with the orchestra!
Sir Mark clearly has a collaborative, democratic, approach to his work with orchestras, singers, directors, and always gains their full support and cooperation.
Sir Mark generously went over the allotted time with answering questions from the audience, including on the potentially tricky task of satisfying the various expectations of orchestra, singers, director, and who was ultimately in charge!
Our huge thanks to Sir Mark for a wholly engaging, fascinating and most memorable evening.