Adrian Brown in profile

Tiltas Editor Maria Lenn meets Adrian Brown to hear about a concert mounted in partnership with Vilnius–European Capital of Culture 2009.

British conductor Adrian Brown will be conducting the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra (LSSO) in Vilnius on 1 May. The concert is the fifth of the cycle, ‘Winners of the H. von Karajan International Competition Conduct’ and Adrian is the only British conductor who has ever been a finalist in the Karajan competition, a distinction he achieved in 1975.

Following his success in the competition, Adrian subsequently conducted the Berlin and St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestras, the Camerata Salzburg, the Toho Academy, the Birmingham and BBC Symphony Orchestras and the London Sinfonieta. He has also won prizes for his work with youth orchestras.

He was tracked down by the LSSO through the internet and the invitation to conduct in Vilnius came through to the Secretary of the Southgate Symphony Orchestra, one of the several orchestras with which Adrian currently works. Although at first a little suspicious, having been the recipient of e-mails offering work in Eastern Europe which inevitably meant that he was being required to pay for the privilege of conducting, Adrian decided to inquire further. As a result, within the morning and after an exchange of some interesting e-mails, he found himself engaged to conduct the concert in May.

The timing of the concert is also very apposite as 2008 was the centenary of the birth of Herbert van Karajan and two further coincidences cement the Karajan link. As part of the programme, the LSSO will be performing the famous Max Bruch violin concerto with the young and talented performer Aleksandr Rozhdestvensky (a graduate of the Moscow and Paris Conservatoires and the London Royal Music College) playing either Stradivari and Guarneri violins. It was Aleksandr’s father, the maestro conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, who was actually on the jury of the Karajan competition in 1975 and was one of Adrian’s advocates. Additionally, the founder and principal conductor of the LSSO, Gintaras Rinkevi?ius was also a successful applicant and participant in the Herbert Von Karajan conductor’s competition in 1985.

Whilst researching for the trip Adrian noticed that in 2008 the LSSO had performed a lot of British music, particularly Elgar. This delighted him, as he was a pupil of Sir Adrian Boult, who knew Elgar and had since developed a speciality and passion for this work. Over the years he has also been acquainted with the composers Vaughan Williams, Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. His other great passion is for the music of the French composer Hector Berlioz. Adrian has been on the committee of the Berlioz Society and is a friend of the Berlioz expert David Cairns who, as a gift for helping him out with his choirs, presented Adrian with a letter written by Berlioz in 1855.

Along with Max Bruch, Berlioz’s first big success, the Symphonie fantastique, will be performed at the concert in Vilnius. It lasts 55 minutes and is described by Adrian as ‘a work of great imagination, of orchestral colour and skill…so I’m going with a work that I not only passionately love and believe in but I think they’re going to love it too.’ Richard Strauss’ symphony poem ‘Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche’ completes the programme.

British orchestras normally rehearse for three hours with a 20-minute break in-between and Adrian was, therefore, expecting a three-hour morning and afternoon session. Instead he found that, in contrast to the conventional British set up, the LSSO will be rehearsing for fours hours each day, a regime similar to that used by the St Petersburg Philharmonic sixteen years ago when Adrian rehearsed with it. This allows for time to look around Vilnius and perhaps other parts of Lithuania for the rest of the day.

The LSSO’s very efficient website gives details of the orchestra’s extensive outreach programme, including children’s concerts and opera performances, such as La Bohème and The Magic Flute. Adrian was also able to order a copy of the orchestra’s very own CD of Mahler’s Symphony No 5 through the website, a recording which he describes as a very impressive performance.

In the UK, Adrian is involved with several orchestras and visits them once a week, ‘I go round with a black bag of scores like a doctor goes round with his stethoscopes.’ As well as working with the Southgate Symphony, another new orchestra is the Huntington Philharmonic with whom he will also be performing the Symphonie fantastique soon after his return from Vilnius on 8 May.

Apart from taking many orchestras to Europe, Adrian has done a lot of work with youth orchestras in the UK and, in particular, has described his involvement with Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra in South London as his life’s work. One of Stoneleigh’s Horn players, Sarah Willis, is now the first female horn player in the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Adrian has also worked with the National Youth Orchestra and helped prepare it to work with maestros such as Sir Colin Davis and Sir Roger Norrington, both very good friends. Sir Colin is now in his eighties and still ‘an amazing inspiration’. 

Musical youth work has changed in the UK over the years. Regardless of the personality of a conductor, an orchestra tends to be autocratic, a style which is not always easy for today’s generation. Another problem relates to the very essence of music making, with young musicians lauded for being able to compose freely but who do not necessarily have the best skills in music-reading. On the other hand, youth orchestras are very much stimulated by the classics which require an ability to read music and the same applies even more to singing. Part of the problem is that there is now such an eclectic array of music from 1960s pop to international music that an average school music lesson does not provide enough time to encompass the classics in any great depth.

People will refer to the Beatles’ inability to write music but forget that they had George Martin, an oboist from the Guildhall School of Music with extensive training in classical music skills, to put it all down on paper for them. Another example is Henry Mancini who assisted in writing the music to the songs of Irving Berlin.

Adrian notes that the one certainty about youth orchestras is their phenomenal ability to bring young people together. One outstanding memory for him is going to Glasgow in 1976 for the Glasgow Schools Orchestra to perform Beethoven 5, which saw children from all over the city rehearsing together for a fortnight on the Clyde. ‘They knew nothing at first about Beethoven 5 and they didn’t know what it meant to be Beethoven – the struggle, deafness, the rhythm of fate on the door, the great crescendo into the last bit that’s beautifully described in Forster’s book Howard’s End, where Beethoven shakes his fist and says, “I’m going to win no matter what”.’ However good any orchestra that Adrian conducts in his life, he knows that nothing will replace that moment, thirty-two years ago, when the Glasgow Schools played the crescendo and blew the roof off in a mind-stopping and life-changing moment. This is what music and a youth orchestra can do although, says Adrian, rarely has this insight been grasped by governments and politicians.

Following his visit to Lithuania, Adrian would like to further British-Lithuanian links and make connections with youth orchestras and with some of the bigger ensembles in the country. Although he doesn’t yet know any Lithuanian, he will at the very least be able to communicate with the gestures and the music, for the dots on the page are an international language.

Don’t forget to book your tickets for 1 May to listen to Adrian and the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra blowing the roof off in Vilnius.