4 October 2019

Prokofiev Symphony No.1 in D major 'Classical', Op.25
Dvořák Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104, B.191
Sibelius Symphony No.5 in E-flat major, Op.82
Friday 4 October 2019, 7:30pm 
St James's Church, 197 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9LL

Michael Seal, conductor
Richard Harwood, cello

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Tickets: £18, £15, £12 (concessions £3 off)

Ahead of our concert on Friday, 4 October, which includes Sibelius’s ear-worm-inducing Fifth Symphony, in this Q&A, conductor Michael Seal describes some of the highlights and challenges of the piece – and what he will be thinking about as he takes to the podium:

For someone who hasn’t heard Sibelius’s Symphony No.5 before, what might they experience?

A real journey! Each movement has such trajectory and shape, plus this symphony has one of the greatest – and most unexpected – endings in all classical music.

What is the most exciting moment of the work for you?

The last few minutes: it’s just a joy to stand in front of an orchestra playing that music – simply amazing.

What is the biggest challenge of the work for you as a conductor?

The biggest challenge is one that you encounter in other symphonies by Sibelius (No.1 and especially No.7): the whole of the second half of the first movement is one very long accelerando. As the conductor you must constantly consider the following questions over a 5 or 6 minute period: Is this tempo correct? Where must I be in 20, 30, 40 bars’ time? How much do I push and when must I not ‘overcook’ it? In this case, if you do overcook it, the last più presto becomes extremely difficult for the strings, and the timpani part becomes virtually unplayable.

How has your interpretation of the work changed since you first conducted it?

Firstly, a quiet word from the timpanist of the CBSO enlightened me as to what speed was possible at the end of the first movement and what was not. One would be stupid as a conductor to ignore such advice! Secondly, I have become much freer in tempo in the ‘slow’ movement than I was when I first learnt it. I have come to think of it as much more of a story than I ever did before.

When you were playing in the CBSO, what was the most revelatory thing any conductor said about the work?

Nothing specific to this work but much more about the approach to playing Sibelius. I was lucky enough to have played virtually every note Sibelius wrote with either Paavo Berglund or Sakari Oramo, two Finnish violinist–conductors. Both encouraged us to play in low positions, play the music cleanly and honestly, and with rigorous rhythm. Neither ever over-romanticised Sibelius’s music, and both paced the music to perfection. This was a real education for any budding conductor.

Are there any good stories associated with it, either for you personally, or for Sibelius writing it?

The famous tune in the horns in the last movement is inspired by Sibelius seeing 16 swans flying over the lake by house in the country outside Helsinki – it has been known as ‘the Swan theme’ ever since. I have discovered over the years that it is a theme that drives my wife mad as she then gets it in her head as an ear worm for days afterwards!

What does Corinthian Chamber Orchestra bring to the work?

With every concert I do with CCO, I can expect an energy onstage that is unique. With this particular piece, one must know when to keep that energy bottled up and then when to allow it to be released. If we go at it 200 miles an hour from the start, some of the poise and grace might be lost, so we must be controlled and disciplined. I know that when we do this, we can expect fireworks later at the appropriate points!