A Word With Michael Graham

With EUMS’s Spring concert season fast approaching, Sinfonia are working hard to ensure that the concert is a success. At the helm is their new conductor Michael Graham. I thought I would catch up with him.

So Michael, Sinfonia have been rehearsing for their upcoming Spring Concert for a few weeks now. How is it going?
Riding on the high of our Winter concert of Nielsen and Sibelius, Sinfonia’s new programme is progressing nicely. The music not as intensive as it was last semester and certainly the message that I’m getting from the ensemble is that it is fun to play. That is the most important thing! For an orchestra, approaching new pieces is always a challenge, especially if there is unfamiliarity with the work (or even the composer!). I always try and put a little bit of something interesting and unusual into a programme – to keep both the orchestra and the audience interested.

The pieces being performed this evening are all quite well known and have been recorded by many conductors and orchestras – do you listen to these recordings and do they influence your interpretation?
I try to listen to as many recordings as possible of each work, and I may like what I hear, but the main challenge of conducting is to conceive your own interpretation. You may think you know a piece of work of by heart (take Nimrod or the Pomp and Circumstance Marches for instance), yet you do not really appreciate, nor truly understand a work until you start studying a score. Different things pop out at you and you discover secret corners of the work that are sometimes masked in a recording. Recordings do influence decisions yes, but primarily I try to form my own ideas.

What is it you are looking forward to most this EUMS Spring Concert Series?
Sinfonia’s concert aside, I’m probably looking forward to EUMS Symphony Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”. Tchaikovsky is one of my favourite composers and his final symphony is one of the biggest emotional journeys that orchestra, conductor and listener can take. The unbridled gaiety that we typically relate to Tchaikovsky is confined to the third movement while the fourth movement finale is a slow, emotive descent into the basses. It’s very difficult for performers to conserve enough stamina and passion to feel involved with this movement, especially after the energy demanded by the previous.

Last winter’s Sinfonia concert was received very well. Did you enjoy conducting your first performance?
Interesting question – it was my first experience of being in the driving seat for a whole concert. In the past I have co-conducted (and sub-conducted) under the guidance of a more experienced musician: Nigel Osbourne of EU Composers’ Orchestra or my conducting teacher, Chris Swaffer. It is a fascinating experience working in rehearsals and then the performance. Something different comes over people when they perform, something that if harnessed can help project the good qualities of the music.

You are a busy conductor these days. How does conducting Sinfonia compare to your other engagements?
Sinfonia is the biggest orchestra in my regular commitments. It is also the only one that I suppose plays “mainstream” repertoire. I’m currently Assistant Conductor of EU Composers’ Orchestra. We play compositions by student composers studying here at the University, record new works and generally embracing contemporary music in all its forms. I like being involved with this orchestra as it is working with fellow musicians, also enthusiastic about the unusual. As a musician, Composers’ Orchestra has been very important to my development. As a conductor, it presents new challenges addressing rehearsal, orchestration, music philosophy and even conducting technique itself. The other group I work with is the Edinburgh Branch of the Society of Recorder Players. They are an adult amateur group who play a wide variety of music. Rehearsals are generally more relaxed and I share the task of conducting with ensemble members and another music student.

Did you start with an ambition to be a conductor, or did you start as a musician and then move into conducting?
I suppose conducting has always been an element of my studies. I went to a lot of concerts during my teenage years and I soon learnt about the role and requirements of the conductor. Of course to conduct, you need musical training and proficiency and I was soon taking lessons in signing, clarinet, piano and organ. I’m still a relative newcomer to music, starting when I was thirteen (I’m 21 now – not even 10 years reading music!). However conducting is actually only part of a musician’s training, even if some of us seek careers in the discipline. Every musician should give it a go!

Did you come from a musical family?
No. I was the first in my family to even take learning a musical instrument seriously. However, my parents can hardly be called philistines: My mum trained as an actress at the RSAMD and has performed widely on stage, television, film and radio. My dad studied fine art and sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art. I suppose music might have been a logical move coming from such a creative family.

In rehearsals you seem confident and at ease. Do you get nervous before a performance?
It depends. If I’m playing a solo recital on piano or clarinet, I will get nervous. You are very exposed. With conducting, you are facing a group of people that you have been closely working with over some time and are not alone on stage. I’m not saying I wasn’t nervous before Sinfonia’s Winter Concert, but psychologically it does help when you are alone off-stage, waiting for your entry that all that is waiting for you is a whole load of friendly faces.

Sinfonia has a legacy of providing talented young musicians within the University of Edinburgh an opportunity to perform concertos with a full orchestra. How important do you feel it is that Sinfonia continues this legacy into the future?
Very important. It can help boost a music student’s experience. Even if that performer isn’t a music student it provides stimulus and a unique opportunity to indulge in their hobby.

Daniel Kraemer is the soloist for this spring’s performance of Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1. What are the most important things to focus on when working with a soloist?
Apart from the obvious “get it right”, I think that the most important dimension to a concert is the blend in personality between the soloist and orchestra. This is where the true emotional dynamic is to the live performance. Personalities that complement each other can sometimes make or break the performance. It’s best to think of the concerto as a conversation between two people. Sometimes these people agree, sometimes they don’t…

Demand for orchestral conductors in and around Edinburgh seems to be high at the moment. Where do you hope conducting will take you in the coming years?
At the moment, I am aiming for further study, hopefully in conducting. Important attributes of a conductor are experience and personality. For the foreseeable future, getting as much experience within music as possible is my short term goal. Beyond that – who can say…?

Saturday mornings are not everyone’s cup of tea… Have you managed to get used to the early rise, or do you take morning rehearsals in your stride?
All of Sinfonia know I need a coffee before an “Allegro”…

Sinfonia’s Spring concert is on Saturday 24th March in the Reid Concert Hall. For more details go to the concert page here.

For more information about our conductors click here.