We were delighted to welcome Martyn Brabbins as our new Music Director late last year. Taking up the role from the end of October 2016, he will conduct his first opera with us as Music Director in the 2017/18 Season. Martyn’s history with ENO stretches from performances of Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute in 1994 through to Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in 2012. Annie Lydford caught up with him to find out a little more about his musical past, the things he’s looking forward to, and what helps him to relax.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background? What made you want to become a conductor, and how did you get to where you are today?
I’m one of five children from a basically non-musical family, although my father had a very nice singing voice and used to sing for his beer during the war – he inspired me very much. When I was eight or nine we moved to a town where my friends were all members of a brass band, so I joined too and started the euphonium. I was also lucky to have a great music teacher at the comprehensive school I joined at 11. I got involved in all kinds of school music-making, which included singing the roles of Frederic (The Pirates of Penzance), Poo Bah (The Mikado) and Captain Corcoran (H.M.S. Pinafore). In my brass band I was always interested in the conductor (whether they were making things better or not!) and I also used to conduct along to records in my bedroom– Beethoven, Schubert… Verdi’s Requiem was my favourite.
When I came up to university, my first trombone teacher here was bass-trombone in the ENO Orchestra – Les Lake. He has been a huge inspiration to me over the years, not just as a trombone player but because of his amazing musical commitment and passion, which he shared with me. After postgraduate study in composition and a few years of freelancing I was lucky enough to win the British Council scholarship to study conducting in Leningrad, and then won the Leeds Conducting Competition when I returned.
You’ve had a busy and varied career. Which repertoire have you particularly enjoyed conducting and why?
Amongst conductors there’s a famous answer to the question ‘which Brahms Symphony is your favourite?’ which is always ‘the one I’m conducting at the moment’. I have a wide repertoire, and I’m not very good at choosing favourites, but I try to commit wholeheartedly to whatever I’m working on at that moment.
You’re a well-known champion of new music. Could you talk a little bit about a few of the composers that you’ve worked with?
I think it’s a huge privilege in my working life to be able to work with living composers. Dead composers are great too of course, but they can’t help in quite the same way… I did wish I could have got on the phone last week to ask Michael Tippett last week what he meant in his First Symphony!
Harrison Birtwistle has to be top of my list. He’s written some wonderful operas – I’ve been lucky enough to conduct several of them – and we hope he’ll write some more. There’s something epic about what he writes, particularly when it’s connected to the stage. Judith Weir and James MacMillan have also been very close composer-friends, and both have written quite a number of operas. Working with composers is slightly paradoxical. They’re very precise with what they write, but then you try to replicate exactly what they write and they often say ‘no that’s too fast’, or ‘too slow’, or ‘I want to hear more of that’. When you have the composer in the room it’s always a very creative endeavour, which is what I really love about it. You’re not just doing what you think a composer wants, you’re there with the composer making it work together and that’s what’s so special about it.
You’re a visiting professor at the Royal College of Music. Could you share some of your thoughts on music education?
There should be more music for young people. Music is the language that everybody all over the world understands, and it should be central, not an add-on to, education. I was very lucky in my upbringing with local brass bands and the music we had at school, but not everyone’s that fortunate these days. Why do we educate people I wonder? Is it so that they can achieve employment in a certain industry or profession? Or do we educate the whole person to be a rounded individual? If you take the latter approach then music has to be central.
The Royal College of Music is a wonderful institution with incredibly gifted students from all over the world, and it’s just so inspiring to work with young people. They always give such energy and come with wide-open eyes and ears – it’s a joy for me to engage with them.
You’ve worked with us before, most recently on The Pilgrim’s Progress in 2012. Could you tell me a bit about your previous work with ENO, and what you enjoyed most about working with the Company?
I remember being awe-struck when I came on to conduct my first Magic Flute here in 1994 because of the sheer magnitude of the theatre, and because of the wonderful Nick Hytner production which was so magical. There’s something about British musicians’ commitment to their work – it’s totally 100%. You get this wonderful good humour but everyone’s striving for the most excellent results, and that’s always been my experience at ENO. The work of all the different backstage teams has always been totally integrated in the whole project – all these different elements coming together to create this wonderful art work. It’s why conducting is the best job in the world.
Could you pick out a few moments that you’d count as particular highlights in your career?
Each time I’ve conducted a prom at the Royal Albert Hall has been a highlight. I find the Royal Albert Hall particularly inspiring partly because when I was growing up I used to listen to the National Brass Band Championships there every October. To actually walk out there and conduct was just extraordinary.
With your busy performance schedule do you have time for any hobbies or interests outside music?
I ride my bike, I walk the dog, and I also have a slightly secret hobby – I make tapestries. I used to do kits but I now make my own. I find it very therapeutic and relaxing when I’m away from home such a lot – I take my little bag of wool and canvas and off I go! People keep saying to me that I should have an exhibition because I have loads and loads of them. Some are connected to, or inspired by, operas I’m working on, such as a Death in Venice one and a Wozzeck one. Art therapy is a huge thing for some people and I find it really relaxing. My mother taught me to knit when I was young; my daughter’s at the Royal School of Needlework and my wife’s a wonderful craftsman too. I used to keep quite quiet about it, but the conductor Colin Davis was a big knitter, so when he ‘came out’ I felt I could start to tell the odd person too!
Finally, what are you looking forward to most about being Music Director of ENO?
Oh, conducting great music with great musicians and colleagues of course.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Inside ENO, ENO’s quarterly magazine for Friends and Patrons.