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From Inside the Orchestra: A Place Where Everyone Is Equal

One Tree Hill Sinfonia/Adrián Varela, Mahler’s Symphony No.1, St Bartholomew’s Church, Sydenham, London. 17 June 2018

Adrián Varela conducting, credits: JM Poland

A unique concert took place in south-east London on Sunday 17th June 2018. A leading violinist of Royal Festival Hall-based Philharmonia, Adrián Varela, conducted his own orchestra, One Tree Hill Sinfonia, in an imposing St Bartholomew’s Church in Sydenham. It was another one in the succession of charity concerts that One Tree Hill Sinfonia does, each time donating the profits it makes to a new charity. This time all proceedings went to ‘Justice for Grenfell’ organization that defends the rights of Grenfell Tower victims’ family members. About 100 people gathered in a beautiful church, spending a warm summer Sunday evening in the discovery of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony. This work might be the most accessible of all Mahler symphonies, and is a youthful masterpiece that condenses energy, multiple musical ideas, humour and quick mood changes in the course of its four movements. The musicians that took part in this concert were coming from all parts of London and various walks of professional music life. Adam Wynter, the Philharmonia double bass player, was leading in the double bass section, while Rees Webster, a student of Guildhall School of Music and Drama, was playing the principal oboe part, and Ben Aldran, currently studying in Stockholm, was the principal clarinettist of the evening. Many other professionals, students of music and amateur players were united on that evening, as this interaction of different understandings and levels of musical expertise is One Tree Hill Sinfonia’s main purpose and function.

Trumpets during the concert on Sunday 17th June 2018

Moreover, the democratic approach to music, which is the main idea behind the holistic approach of Varela, was spreading to audiences, as well. It was Mahler brought to people’s homes, Mahler on their doorsteps, Mahler around them, as some members were allowed to sit in the orchestra in different locations and observe musicans at play from various angles. There is no right or wrong, no higher or lower levels of music making for Adrián Varela who believes in life-long learning and multiple points of entry into appreciation of music. Here everyone quickly learned from their neighbours, and during the initial rehearsal those musicians present were given instructions by a conductor to lead those who were not present in the real concert, while audiences were allowed to have a little bit of curiosity and no prior expertise or knowledge. Varela expressed the same gentleness and positive attitude during every minute of his rehearsal and concert. He always praised musicians for the work done, made some suggestions on how dynamics or rhythmic structures could be changed, worked separately with several instrumental sections in order to make them find the inside harmony of playing together, and always aimed at making the sound he envisioned in his mind. For him Mahler’s First Symphony was the representation of human life as a whole (indeed that’s how the composer thought of his symphonies), and he looked at its four movements as different passages in a person’s life, always trying to bring out the specifics of each one: the silent, languid, uncertain beginning of the first movement, the ironic parodies of klezmer melodies in the second, ‘Frère Jacques’ song transformed into a funeral march in the third, the gradual birth of monumentality and imposing tutti passages in the final one. It is the overarching concept of the symphony as the encompassing story of human fight and triumph that Varela wanted to share with his musicians and audiences. And indeed, this created a true atmosphere of fraternity during the concert on Sunday, as there were no unaccessible musicians disappearing backstage afterwards, everyone was equal and could enjoy a post-concert chat with one another, sharing impressions of the music just heard.

Woodwind section and the audiences of One Tree Hill Sinfonia, 17 June 2018

Some members of the audience were allowed to sit within the orchestra during the One Tree Hill Sinfonia performance. Some concert halls (namely, the Royal Festival Hall in London) do have choir seats where one can observe the conductor and musicans from a closer distance, but actually sitting within the orchestra is a privilege that could be achieved only in virtual reality projects (like the one made by Philharmonia, the base orchestra of Varela in his guise as a violinist). Some people were positioned right behind the string section, while the majority were sat behind the woodwind instruments and by the side of either trumpets or trombones. It created a physical feeling of the orchestral sounds really happening in front of your eyes. The symphony became not a given, not something that will happen regardless of whether you pay attention to music or drift away in your own dreams, but a process dependent on each moment and each human effort to take place.

Varela and One Tree Hill Sinfonia before the concert on Sunday 17th June 2018

During the concert, being positioned inside the orchestra, one felt poignantly how the coordination, the harmonies of sounds were created during each second, and how musicians were aware of each other and of the conductor. One could also trace how Mahler’s rhythmic patterns and ideas of dialogues between instruments (with one melody travelling through different instrumental sections, for instance, in the third movement with the famous French melody) come to life through attention and efforts of each musician. Thus, this concert, apart from being a panneau of human life, was in a way an excursion inside the body of the orchestra, with connections between hands and bodies of the musicians and their instruments becoming physically important, and sounds suddenly being born not just in the atmospere of the beautiful church, but here, near one’s seat, from that horn on the right, from clarinets and oboes in front, from that trumpet on the left, from a suddenly overpowering trombone or tuba behind, or from that bass in the distance. It was a unique, eye-opening experience indeed, with one’s curiosity about functions and intricacies of playing each instrument aroused during this experience of inside listening. That led to further post-concert questions to bassoonists and oboe and clarinet players about their work, and somehow Mahler’s sounds became in one’s mind part and parcel of these musicians everyday life.

Final applause after the concert. The 'inside' position allows new angles for photos

Varela was always extremely concentrated and purposeful in his conducting, bringing each instrument or section to the fore at certain moments of the symphony with the movements of his hands and the head, and eye indications to musicians. He was careful to create a balanced sound that developed in time, and he paid specific attention to creating a new atmosphere in each movement, while always keeping the progression of the whole work in mind. Varela’s extensive teaching expeience transpired in his conducting. He was always smiling and supporting his musicians on their way through the symphony, and always allowed them additional freedom in creating their parts as the musical journey through Mahlerian uneven and rapidly changing musicscapes continued. The passages played by Varela and his One Tree Hill Sinfonia were so vivid and well-articulated that they remained in my listener’s memory several days after the concert, resurging during the most unpredictable moments, as though Mahler’s First Symphony had nestled itself in my head during this concert. Overall, it was a really special experience that could serve as a flagship project for other musicians and audiences in London and other cities of the world. It showed how effectively the democratic approch to musicians, listeners and the whole concert project could effectively bring classical music down from the pedestal of something unattainable to something one could and should enjoy making and appreciating together.

Interview with Adrián Varela before the rehearsal of One Tree Hill Sinfonia, 15 June 2018

Adrián Varela, credits: JM Poland.

Yulia Savikovskaya: When did the conducting career started for you? Or were you always leading a parallel existence of a violin player and a conductor?

Adrián Varela: I encountered conducting for the first time when I was 15 years old. I was in Interlocken in USA in a music camp and I met Lorin Maazel there. And he and another teacher had a conducting class which I attended, so that was my first contact with the profession. And then I did a bit more in Argentina in parallel with violin, and then I stopped for quite a long time during my London years, and I came back to conducting about 5-10 years ago – I started again.

YS: What exactly from your experience in Philharmonia as a violinist you bring to the field of conducting? Are they combined in your musical memory and your skills?

AV: Absolutely. Yes. Thanks to this experience, I have a much better idea of how the pieces of music are built, put together. I know the abilities of individual players and instruments and sections, and I know the colours... The experience of playing professionally in an orchestra like that gives me a lesson every day how the music sounds and what the individual’s role is in it. So when I come to conduct, I already know all these things, I know what the expectations are – from musicians, and what to expect from the works, the pieces themselves, how they are supposed to sound, what the difficult moments are, what the balance problems are, etcetera.

YS: In which way is the atmosphere of Philharmonia different from the one you have in One Tree Hill Sinfonia? The musicians probably meet less often?

AV: Yes, the musicians meet just on the day of the concert, very rarely we do one rehearsal before – we’ve only done that twice in four years, and they have different backgrounds and different abilities. Some are professionals, some are students from various London music schools who have technical level, but they don’t have the experience. So they are very happy to come and learn the roles of the first flute or the first oboe of the classical repertoire with us. And others are amateur players and local players who gain a lot by sitting side by side with professional players. It really helps that I know how everything should work. I also conduct youth orchestras and train orchestras, so I make use of this experience to rehearse effectively, to help those people who need it to learn and to play their parts, to get their ensemble skills which are vital as we have so little rehearsal time.

YS: What one should pay attention to at your rehearsal? Would you try to establish this balance between less professional and more professional musicians? Do you pay attention to these interactions or simply try to build up the whole sound of the symphony from all of them?

AV: I think I would focus more on how the symphony will build up as a whole, because the objective is to perform a symphony at a professional level in two days’ time, after only two rehearsals (the second one will be on Sunday). So today is stage one. Today is less interpretation, and more just learning how the piece is put together, how people need to relate to each other, and working out the changes of pace. And then from this people will understand their role in a larger context, and will have a day to learn their passages, to work out what is important, what is less important.

YS: This concert is also a social project. You are donating money to Grenfell Tower cause?

AV: Yes, after paying the costs – as we have to hire the church that we play in, we have some additional costs of hiring parts, but after these are paid, every single penny will go to ‘Justice for Grenfell’, which is the organization which fights the legal battle in the name of the families of the victims of Grenfell. So everything we get – online donations and payments on the door –will go to that cause.

YS: Who, in your opinion, would be the audiences of this concert? Would it be local residents attracted to this concert? Where have you advertized it?

AV: We advertized locally. I imagine it would be primarily local audience. We play slightly outside our normal region which is just a couple of miles up the road [St Bartholomew’s Church, Sydenham, instead of usual Honor Oak location], so we expect our normal audience to come here, and also we expect local people to come, too. We’ve already had some online ticket sales – I don’t know where these people come from.

YS: I recently attended the concert of Philharmonia playing Mahler 1 in London. So is there any connection between you playing it with your orchestra in London and on tour recently, and you conducting it here?

AV: No at all. We planned it six months ago, so it is just a coincidence.

YS: So what is there in Mahler 1 for you then?

AV: Mahler 1 is the most sensational first symphony any composer has ever written. Beethoven does not have the first symphony like this, and neither Mozart or Brahms. It is an epic work about difficulty, about encountering problems, about being in hell on earth, and fighting, and coming out as a winner. So, it is a piece about hope, about struggle, and about triumph. So this is why I wanted to do this piece.

YS: Is there a way audiences could prepare to listening to this piece?

AV: Yes, it would be good to listen to it – any version you could find, on YouTube or elsewhere, and also to read a little bit about it, just to know its structure. There are four movements, and they are like four scenes in a main hero’s life, you could call it an autobiography.

Adrián Varela in rehearsal, credits: JM Poland.

YS: I found it interesting about you that you are in many respects a Renaissance man. You conduct, play a violin, you compose and teach, and you also wrote a Master thesis on rock and rhythm. How do you find time for this? This involvement in different spheres of approaching music – is this your opposition to the trend characteristic for modern society where everyone is a specialist in one field? Or are these multiple involvements just coming naturally?

AV: They come naturally. I have tried at different times in my life to do just one thing, because at some points I thought it was ridiculous trying to do all other things and that I should really concentrate on one of them. Many people have indeed told me that I should concentrate on one thing, but I am miserable when I can only do one thing. And actually, the quality of the one thing that I choose to do does not improve, actually, the opposite, it drops.

YS: I would presume that your main occupation was always you as a violin player, right?

AV: Not necessarily. It is also as a composer, a conductor – different guises. And the reason for this – it is probably not working for everybody, but for me – we were talking about this earlier, when you asked how my violin playing in Philharmonia influences my conducting. Yes, absolutely, it does influence it, and so does my composing. I compose better when I know what people are able to do, and in how many rehearsals they are able to do it. I take it into account when I compose. I know what instruments and players can do it, how organizations like orchestras are structured and what the rehearsal situation will be. So I prepare for that as a composer from a performer’s point of view. And so, for me it is completely natural, and it is not a reaction against anything. And this is one of those things, you know, when you read someone’s obituary, it’s – ‘he was a performer, a singer, and a composer, and a teacher’ – and everybody says that’s amazing, look at how many things he has achieved, everyone admires that. But when you are alive (laughs), you get the opposite reaction – you are asked if you can really do all these things. Everyone is slightly suspicious, but that does not bother me at all, it is other people’s problem, not my own. I know what I am doing, and I know how different guises of music profession relate to each other, and it is the web of connections between them that makes my art stronger.

YS: But in practical terms, you probably get the schedule from Philharmonia first, and then you try to build your other activities around it?

AV: The Philharmonia is the base of my work, but at the same time there is a lot of flexibility with projects that I don’t need to do, or sometimes there are holes in the schedule. Philharmonia schedules its concerts may be 18 months in advance, it is fairly easy to play a year in advance. I don’t teach in any of London music schools, my teaching is in Poland as I am a conductor of Polish National Youth Orchestra.

YS: You were born in Uruguay, you studied in the US, UK and Argentina, you work in Poland, you have travelled around the world, but you are based in London. Is there something special about London musical scene that you did not see in other countries? And what is it that other countries that you worked and lived in have that London does not?

AV: London is unique, and that’s the reason why I am in London. It has an absolutely huge music and arts scene. There are five full-time symphony orchestras, two opera orchestras, dozens of chamber ochestras, string quartets, etc. There is also a huge life of galleries, of visual arts, a huge film industry – incidentally, Philharmonia records many film soundtracks – so, there is a wealth of activity and of human resources to do many, many different things. So something like One Tree Hill Symphonia could be possible in smaller cities, but it is definitely possible to make it happen in London to a very high standard thanks to the amount of high-quality people who live and work here. It is an incredibly vibrant environment to be in. I was once offered a job of a concertmaster of the National Orchestra of Uruguay, and I went there for a year and a half. And then I decided to come back. I could have been – and I was – a big fish in a small pond – but I preferred to be in a huge pond instead and to have a very rich cultural life.

Adrián Varela after the concert on Sunday 17 June 2018

YS: There are many people who could call themselves educated and even intellectual, but who live their lives without listening to classical music. What would you recommend to them – what is the way into it for them if they are no longer children or teenages? What to do if at some point in their life they have realized that they are prepared to listen, but don’t know how to enter this field? What to read about it, how to start understanding classical music and be moved by it? Would a concert like yours with One Tree Hill Sinfonia be a good way to start?

AV: Such concerts as we have are great, especially if you live in a local area. Our audiences tell me after every concert: «We can’t believe that we have such great music on our doorstep. We don’t have to make a journey – especially into central London, driving or going by public transport for 45 minutes, and then to have the expenses of paying for a concert out there…». So, they don’t have to lose all that money and half a day, they can just come out of their house, go 10-15 minutes from their house and they will have an amazing concert just at their doorstep. I think it is probably the first time Mahler’s First Symphony is played (laughs) in this part of London.

YS: So, in your view, every resident of London has to explore what local orchestras have to offer first, is it right? Not everybody is lucky to live near the place where you give concerts.

AV: Yes, if you see a sign that says ‘A performance tonight’, or ‘Tomorrow’, just go in, noone is going to bite your head off, and the worst thing that can happen is that you don’t love it and you can just go. So, you can just show up, and the players, the musicians would be delighted to have someone coming out of curiosity to listen. We don’t want to play to experts, you know, we want to play music that people hopefully enjoy.

YS: In your concert some members of the audiences are positioned inside the orchestra, which to me seems to be a really exciting and innovative thing. What to expect from such experience?

AV: It is something that we started quite recently, and it was a success. I think that for musicians being surrounded by other musicians on stage is a natural environment, but for people who don’t do this for a living it is a very unusual, almost like a secret place. It is unaccessible, it is like being inside the Apollo Space capsule. And as a performing musician, I would say that one of the most exciting things that you could possibly do is to be on stage surrounded by other musicians in the middle of an exciting piece of music. So we just wanted to give that chance to people who haven’t had that experience – to accountants, cleaners, everyone with normal jobs outside music world. Unfortunately, we can’t put everyone there, but we have a select number of seats in every concert. Before the concert starts, I explain the scheme to the audience, and I ask people to raise their hands to volunteer. And then we must choose among these volunteers, and we always ask them if they would be kind enough in the end of the concert to give a 30-second interview to share their experience with us.

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