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View from the viola front desk

Paul Silverthorne has led the viola section of the London Symphony Orchestra for 25 years, working with the finest conductors and musicians in the world. So what does he really think of them, and what has he learnt about the art of conducting?

Paul Silverthorne. Photo: Kevin Leighton

Viola player Paul Silverthorne retires from the London Symphony Orchestra this year, after nearly 25 years – he played his last concert with the group on Monday, 5 October, and returns for a performance at St Luke’s on 13 November. I interviewed him recently about his new appointment at China’s Soochow University for an article in the Strings supplement of Classical Music, which has just come out. But over lunch he also shared many insights into orchestral playing and conducting, gathered over many years from a uniquely privileged vantage point in one of the world’s best orchestras, and with complete frankness. Here he shares his views on his favourite conductors over the years, and analyses what it is that made them great.

The art of conducting

‘Only the very best conductors have a completely unimpeded flow through from the thought to the gesture. With Boulez there was no impediment, so when he made a gesture you didn’t think, “Should I play?” In a good orchestra half the time you ignore gestures because they’re not in the right place or they’re not helpful. You make those decisions all the time. You don’t question the very best conductors, though. They make the gesture and you play. Their whole personality is in their body and that controls you, but it’s also expressed in their eyes and hands. I’m sure you can’t teach conducting, any more than you can composition.

‘Conducting is about being truthful, about being an absolute representation of the thought that has set off the movement’

‘Conducting is about being truthful, about being an absolute representation of the thought that has set off the movement. In a great conductor, this has become so natural that the unconscious comes straight through. As a player, you can react to that with the same kind of movement. If you get a jab that doesn’t relate to anything, you tend to ignore it and give yourself a moment to play. That’s why orchestras play behind the beat, so they have time to react to the beat, preparing themselves to play properly.

‘It’s hard to analyse how great conductors make a difference. It’s much easier to explain what the bad ones are doing that doesn’t help. Bad conductors conduct everything they don’t need to conduct but don’t give the things they do need to. They have self-conscious gestures they use to look good, or they’re not quite convinced of their own ideas.

‘The problem for conductors is that until they’re famous they don’t get a good instrument to practise on. It takes a different technique to conduct a bad orchestra. You’ll get a young conductor coming in and they’ve probably worked with orchestras that aren’t as good as the LSO and they don’t know how much they can trust the orchestra just to do it.’

Letting the orchestra play

‘People complain about Boulez’s Mahler for being unemotional, but you can’t say that. Mahler laid it all out in his writing. If Boulez had started putting his own emotions into it would have been too much. I’ve seen the other end of the spectrum with conductors who make Mahler their own personal journey and it can become an ego fest. You can feel that they’re pouring all sorts of ersatz emotion into it rather than living Mahler’s emotional journey. Mahler has done all the work for you.

‘Some conductors are not happy just to make the conditions for the orchestra to play: they have to be the performance. Colin Davis grew out of that, and Haitink isn’t interested in it any more. Mariss Jansons is the real thing, and Donald Runnicles is a genuine musician and conductor, who doesn’t have as big a profile as he deserves. Some conductors are meticulous and want to adjust every phrase. It’s fascinating, but not so common these days. I didn’t like Solti personally, but he was fantastic at detailing and controlling the orchestra from the baton. I came to him rather late so he’d lost some skills but a few things I did with him showed me how he got where he was, dealing with tiny details of phrasing and articulation.’

The energy of Colin Davis

Colin Davis. Photo: Alberto Venzago

‘Colin Davis tended to allow you space to work out the details yourself. If it didn’t work he’d step in, but he’d trust the players. He was more concerned with the architecture and the journey. When you did a Sibelius symphony with him you knew from the very beginning how far over the horizon the other side was. You knew he could feel it, just by being with him. Even towards the end what he gave was the right energy, not a frenetic energy, but one that would get you to the end in one breath. He was extraordinary.

‘To do anything simple you have to have enormous technique and then not use it’

‘I first played under Davis when I was a student at the Royal Academy, when he was about 40. None of us had ever played like that in our lives, just through his presence. He had a fantastic technique in those days, which he didn’t bother to use most of the time because he didn’t need it. He just used a few gestures. It’s the same with pianists who come to Mozart later in life – Clifford Curzon, for example – who use all that technique to give them the perfect control for apparently simple music. To do anything simple you have to have enormous technique and then not use it.’

Valery Gergiev – intensity and grip

Valery Gergiev. Photo: LSO Live/Alberto Venzago

‘Gergiev demands a lot in terms of emotional commitment on stage but because he doesn’t rehearse much you’re living on your wits. Sometimes I think he would rather not rehearse at all. It feels terrifying. You don’t know what he’s going to do. Maybe you don’t even know the music and he doesn’t make any concessions if it’s not very well known. But he has an extraordinary intensity and sheer grip. He has total control over an orchestra if he wants.

‘People talk about Gergiev’s fluttery hands, but they don’t see the eyes and what the hands do in front of his body. Half the time his hands are out of view of the audience, based along a vertical line in the centre of his body, where the rhythmic energy is. He just does what he feels, and he could do it with his eyes closed. He’s in his world and we pick it up from what comes out.

‘In rehearsals he’s intensely practical: there’s no flim-flam or psychological stuff, it’s all about making the music work. With a Shostakovich symphony he’ll play through it once to make sure everyone knows it. Sometimes he’ll go through a slow movement double speed to save time. The concert is where he’ll do things. You’ve no idea what the tempo is going to be. He’s not interested in is a nice cultivated manicured performance. This might be frustrating for a recording, if he decides the second night is going to be a completely different tempo to the first night. He doesn’t care and I like that because there’s so much formulaic music making and everyone is trying to emulate CDs and to be perfect.’

Working with soloists

‘The wonderful thing about sitting in the LSO is that everyone comes to play with us. I love the variety. The best players come along, listen to the orchestra, and throw the phrases back and forth, and they have a different performance that night to the one they had with a different orchestra the week before. It doesn’t have to be like the CD every time. The best players make something better than a CD.

‘For example, Nikolaj Znaider really communicates with the orchestra. When you do the Brahms Concerto with him it’s chamber music. If there’s a nice phrase in the viola he turns around and smiles and takes it off you, and then comes to talk to you about it afterwards. There are others who just stand there waiting to come in and to deliver their performance like a FedEx package – it’s going to be exactly how they put it in the box, and it’s going to be exactly the same in Cologne and Boston the week after.

‘Unless you are a very good and free conductor you can’t react quickly enough when you’re following the soloist without putting your opinion in the way’

‘Some conductors are terrible at accompanying and some are wonderful. Colin Davis was probably the best in the world. Pappano treats soloists with kid gloves and lays everything out for them. Others don’t want anyone else’s view. It’s partly a technical thing. Unless you are a very good and free conductor you can’t react quickly enough when you’re following the soloist without putting your opinion in the way. Colin Davis recorded the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Sarah Chang and the LSO when she was very young, and he just stood there with the score, watching her bow and her fingers and had the orchestra on the tip of his baton. It was staggering the way he just passed the music through him without getting in the way.’

‘There are things you can only learn by catching a feeling from another player. When I left the Medici Quartet, I played with the London Sinfonietta, with Nona Liddell, and I used to marvel at her bow arm. It was totally relaxed and yet she made a massive sound. There was no point asking her how she did it. The only way I could pick anything up was by sitting next to her, imagining what her arm felt like and trying to make my arm feel like that.

‘You can learn from the bow arms of all the great players’

‘I’ve done the same thing with soloists throughout my time in the LSO. In my position I can see everything, particularly bow arms, which are so individual and make such a difference to someone’s voice. Rostropovich was amazing – he’d always have yards left at the end of his bow to open out the sound. Even with a diminuendo there was no loss of power. It’s a particularly Russian thing: Yuri Bashmet does it, too. You can learn from the bow arms of all the great players. Some are super-relaxed, some have white knuckles.’

How to lead a section

‘Turning around and saying things as section leader has to be done with a light touch and as little as necessary. If you do say something, it has to be very simple and clear. I’ve got really good players in the section so I’m not going to be say anything patronising. You have to trust them. You have to give them clear leadership without going over the top, and a strong rhythmic leadership, otherwise they can’t come in together. It doesn’t have to be a big lead but it has to be very clear what you’re going to do, with no hesitation. When you’ve got a good section you can send back clues about what you’re going to do with the phrasing, in how you’re moving, with simple body language. It’s the same as with conductors – if your movements are contrived or self-conscious it doesn’t send the right message. It’s got to come naturally from your playing and then it will work.

‘In a big orchestra you can’t hear everything. There are big problems, particularly if the seating is such that the viola section goes back a long way. I’m at the front, so I’m in touch with the conductor and leader and playing bang on the beat. If the bassoons play a little bit late and we’re doubling the bassoons, then half the section wants to play with the bassoons, but I’m there with the conductor and first violins. The back of the section says they have to play with the bassoon and I say I have to play with the conductor. Often it comes right in the end because when it comes to the concert the bassoons can hear better.’

Advice to aspiring orchestral players

‘Listen. Know the part. Don’t get your head stuck in the music. Listen.’

Photo of Silverthorne: Kevin Leighton

Photo of Davis: Alberto Venzago

Photo of Gergiev: LSO Live/Alberto Venzago

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