BWW Exclusive Interview: Growing up with Elgar: Sir Neville Shares His Wisdom

Speaking across time zones by phone from his home outside London, the founder, conductor, and Life President of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields ( held forth on British music, American orchestras and his own influences and inspirations.

EM: Do you plan to come to our coast?

NM: I rather miss the west coast of America. I have a feeling that so many good musicians gravitate towards the west coast for other reasons, perhaps, than music to begin with, but it does build up to a congregation of a lot of talent. I've always been intrigued to work with musicians that have the same aspirations, perhaps, that I do, which is to work in ideal conditions and to do the job you love best.

EM: Among your many kudos, you've been described as "admired, cherished, and in demand." Does it get any better? Is there anything you haven't yet done that you wish to do?

NM: (Laughs) there are a lot of places I haven't been to yet. This year I've been to China and Japan, that sort of routine thing. But I've never really been to Russia or exposed myself to Russian orchestras. I miss that experience. American orchestras I know pretty well now. I know their temperament and the way they like to work, but I don't know quite enough about the other extremes, Eastern Europe. I'm still fiddling around with that at the moment, going to virtually unknown orchestras in Eastern Europe. They're rather good. And they work very satisfactorily. I rather enjoy the attitude they have to the music. America, it's a very luxurious world, and the music I think reflects the opulence of your lifestyle.

EM: That's an interesting point. I've never heard it put that way before. I imagine you must feel a special affinity for your compatriot Elgar, especially his Enigma Variations.

NM: Well, I certainly do. I grew up with it. My teacher was a great friend of Elgar, and I felt I was on a fairly hot line to the composer. But you know, that sort of music is the way we grew up, it's part of our background and atmosphere here. What I enjoy most is the fluency with which American musicians have attuned to this. I remember that my teacher, Pierre Monteux, a Frenchman who lived in America most of his life, gave one of the most fluent and interesting performances of Elgar I ever heard.

EM: And since you grew up with Elgar you can impart a unique and marvelous wisdom about this composer to American musicians.

NM: There is a sort of correspondence between Americans' attitude towards our music, which I enjoy and look forward to, because undoubtedly there is a style of playing of Elgar, which we grew up with, but Americans can assimilate so quickly and so easily. They're so gifted.

EM: I'm sure American musicians will be delighted to hear you say that. As a former American musician, I agree wholeheartedly.

NM: My memories of American orchestral playing is such on a high level. You can almost ask them to do anything and they assimilate it very quickly. So I have no fear. I love those sort of orchestras that know the reality of what the music profession is nowadays.

EM: Very kind of you to praise them so highly. From what I've read, you have been doing opera here and there. Do you have plans to do more?

NM: I recall in quite a lot of opera that I never really enjoyed working in the theatre. I like to be the boss. When you're recording, you put the singers where you want them, you ask them to use their imagination and that's it. But when you're in the theatre, the stage direction takes priority in some strange way, and the music gets a little pushed to the side.

EM: You mentioned studying with Pierre Monteux, but before that you were a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra?

NM: Absolutely, yes I was.

EM: What years were those, and do you credit Monteux as your major mentor and inspiration in becoming a conductor?

NM: Strangely enough, much more when I was playing in the London Symphony Orchestra and he was conducting. When I went to his school, which must have been about 1967 or '68, working under him, one was always full of admiration for the minimum sort of physical activity that he generated, but the extraordinary concentration with his ears and eyes. He controlled the orchestra really just by his occasional comments and observations about individual performances, rather than anything he did with his hands. He hated what he called, "choreographic conductors". He always said these demonstrative conductors were more entertaining to the audience than helpful to the orchestra. So he was my strongest influence in keeping everything you do physically in a very small frame, and really using your eyes and ears much more with the orchestra than your physique.

EM: I've noticed that quality in the videos I've seen of him conducting.

NM: He was tremendous, and we all wanted to play well for him. That was the great thing, that he didn't bully you in any way, he'd tell you what you had to do, helped you do what you discussed during the rehearsals, and for me that always made performances much more exciting than someone shouting at you during rehearsals or bullying you during performances. He was a great influence for me.

EM: I totally agree, and you put it beautifully. I think you've just distilled the most important aspect of what makes a great conductor.

NM: I think so. His ambition was to help the players to play well, and I think that's the most you're going to ask for. I played some of Toscanini's last concerts in London, and it was very much the same attitude. Physically he was long past throwing himself around, his voice didn't work terribly well, his ears had diminished a little. But his actual physical presence was certainly extraordinary. Every player in the orchestra wanted to play their very best just to help the performance. They were a great influence, these people of that generation.

EM: That was a generation unlike any other in conducting. Did you play the Korngold Violin Concerto when you were a violinist? It's not often performed.

NM: Oh, yes, I did. Indeed (laughs). But I grew up with Jascha Heifetz's performance of it in my ears. When I worked in Los Angeles I got to know Heifetz pretty well. In the back of my mind is still the sort of sound that he made with that piece of music. And for me it's the west coast of America encapsulated completely musically. I suppose it's strongly exotic for people that live in Europe to hear this sort of music played with that sort of talent.

EM: I too have the sound of Heifetz in my mind whenever I hear that piece, almost any piece, for that matter.

NM: Don't we all (laughs). The moment I played quartets with Heifetz was the moment I decided to give up playing the violin (laughs). I thought I'd achieved probably the highest point in my violin-playing career, and so I was happy to put it under the bed and concentrate on other aspects of music making.

EM: I doubt that was totally true, but I understand where you're coming from. Growing up, my father was my first violin teacher. He used to play Heifetz recordings for me.

NM: Oh, your dad was a violinist. So was mine. But mine was very amateur, I mean he loved it, he didn't really play the instrument very well, but that was the way I grew up.

EM: Sir Neville, this has been a delight. Thank you so much.

NM: Thank you.

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From This Author Erica Miner

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