Issue 14: Contrasts in the 1930s

An essential element in every conductor’s education is learning to understand music in its historical context. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 (1936) and Berg’s Lulu (premiered incomplete in 1937) were premiered within a few months of each other, but could not be further away from each other in terms of character, style and aesthetic. I am delighted to present three interviews from three incredibly brilliant and eminent conductors: Barbara Hannigan, Sir Andrew Davis and Leo McFall. What a treat.

Berg’s Lulu is considered by many to be the composer’s masterwork, and both the suite and the full opera are discussed in this issue. Barbara Hannigan, Canadian conductor/soprano, spoke to me in July about her experience singing and conducting the Lulu Suite (at the same time). I doubt I will ever come across another conductor that could discuss that subject with me. In this first interview, Barbara explains in great detail how she familiarises herself with the Lulu Suite score, rehearses with an orchestra, and balances the two disciplines of singing and conducting in the same piece. It was a fascinating and completely unique conversation.

Knowing that Lulu was one of Sir Andrew Davis’s favourite operas, I made contact with him to see if he would like to join Barbara in the discussion. As I’m sure you can gather, the answer was ‘yes’, and as Sir Andrew was a conductor I had been hoping to talk to for a number of years, I was delighted. He has conducted the work a number of times, with two productions staged at Glyndebourne Opera House (1996) and Lyric Opera Chicago (2008). He knows Lulu inside out and back to front in a way he knows very few other pieces in his repertoire, so if this opera is a piece you’ve ever wrestled with, there is no better man to spark your enthusiasm.

Finally, Leo McFall kindly agreed to complete the trio with his brilliant suggestion to discuss Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3. The more I studied the score and compared recordings in preparation for our conversation, the more I couldn’t understand how this symphony wasn’t a regular in the symphonic repertoire. Leo thinks this is an unjust oversight and I completely agree. This symphony, written by the Russian at his Villa Senar in Switzerland, and premiered in America, is a masterclass in orchestration and has distinct flavours of both Russia and America.

So as ever, huge, huge thanks to Barbara, Sir Andrew and Leo for taking the time out of their schedules to speak with me. I do hope you enjoy reading their wisdom as much as I enjoyed speaking with them.

Happy Reading!

Dr. Hannah Baxter (Editor)