AN EVENING WITH GAVIN SUTHERLAND
16th March 2021
On Tuesday, 16th March, LBC Members were joined by several supporters of the English National Ballet for a ‘solo performance’ from the award winning Maestro Gavin Sutherland. Speaking to us from his home in Barnes, Gavin laid on a “one-man show”, with a hugely entertaining and revealing look back at his life to date.
After Susan, the LBC Chair, made the introductions, Gavin began the evening, frequently breaking off from his anecdotes to accompany himself on the piano. His introduction to music came when he started playing the piano unbidden at the age of three and he learned to read music before he could read actual words. He became “the entertainment” for his family and friends, he told us, before he commenced playing at school, aged five. His first time performing was when he played the glockenspiel in the school’s Nativity play, after which he began to learn scores on the day of the concert in question. “My first gig was in front of my parents!”
Gavin then told us that his first amateur operatic show was Bless the Bride when he was 11, which contained his all time favourite song, This Is My Lovely Day. He always loved melodic music, so ballet was a natural extension of that. He would instruct his singers, “Sopranos, it’s a E flat.”
“Oh, isn’t he lovely,” would be the reply.
“But it’s wrong!” Gavin would say.
“Don’t you talk to me like that young man, I know your mother,” came the sharp reply.
Gavin would sit in an orchestra and watch how conductors worked. The bug would never leave him, he said, but he was in the wrong part of the country for what he wanted to do (Chester-le-Street, County Durham). But, at the age of 12, he got a call from a choreographer, asking if he would play for a dance class in the mining village of Birtley. And so he played at the Marion Lewis School of Dance for six years until he went to university. And around 1987/8, he went to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle to see the English National Ballet (ENB) in Swan Lake. “I’ve always said Graham Bond is to blame for my subsequent career.”
Gavin went to Huddersfield University, where he said he was “terrified”. In his second year, his conducting teacher retired, and was replaced by John Longstaff, who was an associate with the Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT). He attended his first education workshop and was impressed by everything they were doing – Swan Lake, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet.
And so Gavin went to the NBT which was dancing Christopher Gable’s production of Don Quixote. Gavin’s audition, did he but know it, was to sight read Act 1. There was a new music director, John Pryce Jones, and eventually it was time for Gavin time to conduct. His first performance was Romeo and Juliet at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal: “I remember nothing except I had the best time.” Gavin became the Associate Conductor at Northern Ballet at the age of 23. “It was the stuff of fairy tales for a lad from a mining village who loved music.” He’s done seven productions of R&J since then.
Gavin kept being in right place at right time. He started to attend recording sessions and started to contribute arrangements. His first CD came out in in 1997, British Light Music Discoveries, which led to him working with the Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) Sinfonia. “I did a healthy number of shows, CDs and concerts.”
Gavin told us about Cyrano, David Bintley’s ballet. He wanted to recut it from the original score and started again with a score by Carl Davis. On one particular night in the production’s first week, he went to Birmingham, but it was snowing so heavily, the theatre was going to cancel the show. However, David Bintley said no, they should go ahead, as dancers were there. There were very few musicians but a surfeit of conductors and Gavin was set to score read, while Paul Murphy was in the pit. David Bintley said to the audience that, as they had made the effort to get there, they should move to the most expensive seats. The performance began and Gavin filled in the various parts as members of the orchestra began to appear – he would fill in for the horns and then a horn would arrive. His last part playing was second trombone, and there was a full orchestra at end of Act II – so he conducted Act III.
At this point in the talk there was a problem with the equipment, and so we heard some of Mahler’s Song of the Earth until we got Gavin back.
Gavin recalled Derek Deane’s 1999 production of Alice in Wonderland in Manchester with the ENB: one night, during the croquet match in Act 2, the ball was hit so hard that it went into the pit and smashed an oboe player on the thigh.
Derek’s Swan Lake was also adapted for a proscenium arch in Southampton 2000. During the evening show, Derek came to Gavin’s dressing room and said, “It’s dying. Play it fast.” Instead, Gavin played it as rehearsed, but afterwards, no one would meet his eye. Subsequently he realised he’d been fired for first time in his life - and hopefully, the last. He was sent to see a “proper” ballet conductor perform it. Subsequently Gavin played for Derek again, in the exact same way he had done previously, and Derek said, “Much better Maestro.” That was Derek!
Gavin toured with the NBT’s Dracula in New Zealand and started a relationship with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and subsequently the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra, or the “Aussie Pops”. He did that until 2011.
Then, in 2006, a call came from the principal conductor at ENB. Could he do a few Nutcrackers at the Coliseum? He was at the bottom of the list, but no one else was available... This was a very different orchestra, led by Matthew Scrivener, and the first thing he said when Gavin ascended the podium was “welcome”, which no one had said before. Gavin became the Music Director in 2008, and has been ever since, along with his role as Principal Conductor.
Gavin has travelled all over the world - and also around this country, bringing ballet to everyone. He told us how important it is to look after dancers – there has to be trust on both sides because, then, it unlocks a magic door and elicits sparks and thrills. His scores are covered in graffiti relating to each dancer, as everyone needs their own tempo. For example, when Alina Cojocaru performed the fouettes in Swan Lake, she liked to come in “like a bat out of hell.” Gavin had to keep 73 musicians and one very important dancer in synchronisation.
Gavin told us about the “45 minute rule”. It happened a few times at the ENB. He would get a message from an aspiring conductor saying, “I’d like to try ballet”. The acid test is The Nutcracker, which is two tone poems and he still finds the piece enchanting every time he conduct it. So he would say, ok, I’ll put you down for four shows. After 45 minutes on their first day of rehearsal, the person would ask to have a word. “When do we get the orchestra?” “Two or three days before the première and I do the rehearsal.” Immediately they would remember a meeting to go to and never come back. Later they would say, “I don’t think ballet’s for me.”
Gavin told the audience about Akram Khan’s Giselle. It had been planned and defined and then the composer and Akram had a difference of opinion and the initial composer didn’t want to take part. Akram had a crisis. But then Vincenzo Lamagna came on board. The only problem was that he neither write the music down nor orchestrate it. Gavin offered to do that. With four weeks to go before the opening, he worked flat out, rehearsing by day and then going home to work on the orchestration at night. But they ended up with a score that exploded. This was a testament to Tamara Rojo, who has totally reinvigorated the company. Gavin said her era is one of most extraordinary he has ever been involved in. The company is always producing significant new works but the meat of the classical repertoire is all still there.
A year ago, of course, Gavin was involved in planning Akram’s new piece Creature, again with a score by Vincenzo Lamagna. All was progressing smoothly. Then there was a thundering stop and lockdown, one week before orchestra came in and two weeks before the premiere. He didn’t know what was going to happen then as it was all so new. But Vincenzo was delighted as it gave him time to hone the piece with orchestrator James Keane over the year, so much so that it is practically a new but totally different score.
Of course, over the lockdown period, many people had to come up with new ways to be creative. Gavin saw an orchestra in Rotterdam, all playing extracts from their piece at home. This gave him an idea and he sent everyone Swan Lake, thinking that maybe 12/13 players would join in. In the end there were 38/39 musicians, with all the instruments represented in Tchaikovsky’s score.
The most touching tribute had come from an ER doctor writing in the New York Times who had said that the whole covid crisis was difficult, so intense, and occasionally it was nice to have a restful moment. It was a major moment, sharing that with the orchestra.
One thing Gavin really looks forward to in great ballets is the “great exhale”. He gives his upbeat with the baton and, as the orchestra plays the first bar, you can hear the audience exhale with a satisfied “Ah.”
How does Gavin prepare for a show? “I don’t go “into the zone”, half an hour’s silence with an incense burner; I pull on my tails and head for the stage.” Gavin checks on all the principals, including Alina, who would be practising the same step so many times to make sure she was happy with it. Alina, whose departure was announced at the end of last year, has an extraordinary mind, he said. “We’ll miss her. Hope she comes back.”
Tamara, if dancing, will look up and wink. She’s rehearsed and ready and knows everything will be fine.
Gavin told us that, when he goes down to the pit and stands at the door, he is five years old again. Inside he feels a little butterfly, which lasts right up until the baton comes down. Gavin has to be on the front foot, keep an eye on everyone from back-row corps to principals, in choreography and in acting, whilst maintaining the highest standards of music. He is now in his 30th professional year as ballet musician, he says, and has not been ‘found out’ yet.
What of the future? Creature has been rehearsed, recast and reformulated, ready for the première at Sadler’s Wells in September. The company has rehearsed and run the full piece with orchestra (playing live, piped in from an adjoining studio). Perhaps there will be a film down the line.
However, the future of the use of an orchestra for dance is a concern. Traditional ballet music always needed one but the potential to use a full ensemble is less evident in new scores. “That’s a worry”, Gavin said. He knows the orchestra is a large body to involve and music doesn’t have to be orchestral. But, for him, going to Sadler’s Wells and seeing so many pieces danced to recorded scores is a concern.
There will be a new Raymonda at the Coliseum in January with the gorgeous romantic Glazunov score. Tamara and Gavin have worked together closely on editing the music, with the story re-set in the Crimean War. (One thing they couldn’t include was Cry Me A River.) Raymonda, the strong main character, draws a parallel Florence Nightingale and Tamara wanted to do the piece because of the score, as well as the story. So the company is going into the autumn season with two new full length ballets, which can’t be bad
At this point, Gavin began to take questions.
How much detail does he have to know about the choreography?
He can’t dance but it’s a good idea to be informed. Technique now is so advanced and develops to great extremes, you have to know how they will react to music, and react to them accordingly.
His favourite piece to conduct acoustically?
The Dream of Gerontius by Elgar at the Sydney Opera House.
Ballet-wise? All of them. He has no favourite as that would be an insult to other great pieces.
How does he help the dancer if they finish early in the fouettés?
Trade secret - by making the music loud! It’s happened to him once in a dance competition in South Africa. The dancer fell off the fouettés, and jetéed off the stage. They were left with an empty stage and played very, very loudly. In the fouettés generally, you must get the tempo exactly right from the start, and Gavin allows himself two fouettés only to settle in.
His favourite ballet companies outside the ENB are the BRB and the NB, but only because of personal association. His favourite non-ballet orchestra is the BBC Concert Orchestra.
Favourite place to conduct dance is the Coliseum. “Wonderful.”
Hamer Hall in Melbourne is the best acoustically.
Has Gavin ever conducted at the Royal Opera House?
Yes but not with the Royal Ballet; it was during the Macmillan Festival. The ENB did Song of the Earth and he was one of a team.
Gavin told us about an open air performance of Romeo and Juliet in Istanbul, which took place a week after the death of Princess Diana (the ENB’s former Patron) and how he got so badly sunburnt after a trip on the Bosphorus that he conducted looking very much like the pink panther. And finally, in characteristically humorous vein, he told us about being interviewed by Columbian Classic FM when he was in Bogota. He was asked, when he was in the pit with the orchestra, how does he communicate? “My eyes are on the stage but my body language is for you” he said. Unfortunately, this was translated as, “My body is yours.” It took quite a while to live that one down.
Susan expressed great thanks, adding that Gavin had given the LBC had a riotous and entertaining one-man show.
Written by Virginia Blackburn; edited and approved by Gavin Sutherland