Interview: Hugh Brunt, OUO’s guest conductor

On 13th February OUO performs their termly concert in the Sheldonian Theatre. Continuing on from last term’s massive undertaking of Mahler’s 7th Symphony, OUO will perform Debussy’s Ronde de Printemps from Images, Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest, culminating in Stravinsky’s earth-shattering Rite of Spring.

Hugh Brunt, chief conductor of London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) and alumnus of New College, returns to conduct the orchestra having performed Brahms’s 4th Symphony and Strauss’s Don Juan in Michaelmas 2014. Speaking on returning to Oxford once more, Hugh reminisced: “Actually, the rehearsal we had in Merton Chapel reminded me of 10 years ago to the very term when I was conducting the Oxford New Orchestra – it was basically New College orchestra supplemented by really good players from other colleges – and we performed Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto with Oliver Coates, Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and then Beethoven 7 in the second half. It was just so freezing! I really felt for the poor woodwind and brass players. But I love the spirit of student-music making n Oxford. It’s very ambitious.”

Relative to Oxford, OUO’s rehearsal window is very short. Rehearsals begin in 1st week with the concert always falling before the end of 4th. Talking about the challenges that this type of intensity brings, Hugh said, “Actually it’s a little bit more thorough than working with professional groups. The lead time running up to the concert is that bit longer. Usually for this type of programme, a pro band would do it in a 2 or 3-day period. So its nice to work on things in that much more detail. As a young conductor, it’s a beautiful process. The challenges? Well with working on something like the Rite of Spring, it’s a work-out for everyone. Yeah, it’s a work for 100 soloists really. So the greatest challenge when working with any university orchestra is having the players there at all the rehearsals! There’s nowhere to hide in the Stravinsky and you need everything; it’s so detailed, it’s so layered – you just can’t do without the bass clarinet. Saying that, I remember what it was like in my day. When conducting the Philharmonia, I remember busting a gut to get all the players to the rehearsals. Students are so busy with not just their academic commitments but all the stuff outside of that.”

The programme OUO will perform – works by French and Russian composers – couldn’t be further from the Germanic one of Hugh’s last concert with OUO. When I asked how he envisaged the works in this concert complementing each other he replied: “Well it’s essentially built around the Rite of Spring the two composers that had a great influence on Stravinsky, Debussy and Tchaikovsky – and a relatively early work by Tchaikovsky, the Tempest, a symphonic fantasia. It doesn’t get performed that much. It’s normally an opener but we’re doing it second after Debussy’s Ronde de Printemps, the third piece from Images. I suppose the programme provides an interesting snapshot of what was happening in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. He [Stravinsky] admired Tchaikovsky so much; you can still hear a bit of that Tchaikovsky nuanced orchestration in the Rite of Spring – as well as Rimsky-Korsakov – but it’s exploded and stretched. And of course the diaphanous Debussian textures that are also apparent [in the Rite of Spring].” The concert will, of course, present two very different characterizations of Spring in the form of Debussy and Stravinsky. Commenting on the prospect of this juxtaposition, Hugh mentioned that “I guess initially in terms of titles I was drawn to the Debussy. It ties in so well with the corresponding piece by Stravinsky and we’re in the Spring term as well!”

Hugh’s work with LCO is primarily with music of the later-twentieth century, particularly that of more experimental composers. I asked whether he thought there was anything from the skill set required to approach and conduct this sort of music that can be translated into work with more canonical repertoire, to which he responded: Although the Rite of Spring is a hundred years old now it still feels so fresh despite being so complex and demanding. I enjoy exploring it almost as a piece of new music and try to analyse it in that way to get clarity from it. It’s a very different experience working on this in comparison to the Brahms/Strauss programme because of that different level of detail; that diamond-hard clarity that we’ll try to attain.”

Although never having conducted the Rite of Spring in concert before, Hugh mentioned that he studied the work whilst at Oxford. Hugh continued, “It’s a great piece as a young conductor to have the opportunity to do; especially working with this level of orchestra. There is an opportunity to really get it under my belt for when I hopefully do it again.”

The Rite of Spring is notorious for its hugely complex notation; a brief glance through the score is an intimidating thing to do! Similarly, it is a work that everyone knows, and also one on which everyone has a strong opinion. When I asked how, as a young conductor, he approaches well-known works like the Rite of Spring, Hugh responded: “I just try to get as much of the back story as possible through studying and analysing it. Listening to recordings can be useful as long as you’re not guided by one particular one; just to get a take on various interpretations. Because the piece throws up so many questions. So it’s great to go to Stravinsky’s recording to see, or get a little closer, what he had in mind.  But ultimately it’s treating it as a new piece of music.”

On the more practical side of preparing for a work like the Rite of Spring, Hugh continued: “A lot of personal baton technique preparation. Standing in front of the mirror looking like an idiot. It’s a good point though, there’s only so much you can do without the hundred-headed monster that is the orchestra for the Rite of Spring. You can get your part sorted out at home and know the score well but you can’t put this into practice until you have musicians in front of you!” OUO’s concert, under the control of Hugh, is sure to be an excellent event.