Interview with Ben Glassberg

For the seventh interview in Encore's Rising Stars series, we chatted to Ben Glassberg. Starting his musical career as a percussionist, Ben has since migrated to the front of the stage where he is quickly becoming one of the UK's top young conductors.

What’s your earliest musical memory?

The first thing I went to see was a Philharmonia children’s concert presented by Kevin Hathway, the principal percussionist at the time. They started the concert with Ravel’s Bolero and had the musicians walking through the auditorium as each section played, which was really effective. Kevin’s trick is to play the entire snare drum part with only one hand. Seeing him play a lot when I was younger is probably one of the reasons I wanted to go into playing percussion. He’s a real character.

When did you start conducting?

I started doing a Saturday class at Junior Academy when I was about 13. That was when it started to become interesting and I thought, Actually, I really quite enjoy this. I’ve been having lessons with Peter Stark for six years now, so it has been a fairly long-term goal.

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British conductor Peter Stark

Does being a percussionist help as a conductor?

Definitely. I conducted some Birtwistle back in November and the rhythms were so complex. As a conductor, you have to be acutely aware of what every instrument is doing so that you can help them out if they have any problems. Having the experience of working with complex rhythms and being able to (hopefully) maintain a steady pulse is really useful.

You don’t limit yourself to orchestral conducting, do you.

Absolutely not! I enjoy being able to do as much as possible. I remember one night back in November where I literally ran from conducting Birtwistle to a panto rehearsal. I'd be so happy if I could do that for the rest of my life! I’ve been able to MD quite a few shows in Cambridge and elsewhere as well. I’m doing a show in London at the moment, which opened last week at the Soho Theatre. Don’t tell my Director of Studies…

What’s the show?

It’s called ‘Dracula (Mr Swallow - The Musical)’. We did it up in Edinburgh for a month at The Pleasance and we’ve now transferred to the Soho Theatre for a London run.

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The London Youth Symphony Orchestra is your brainchild. How did that come about?

I set it up when I was seventeen. My school, Mill Hill in North London, were really helpful and gave me a rehearsal and concert venue, some players, and even the school choir for a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria. It started very small at a fairly low level, and has just gotten bigger and better. We’re starting to take it in a slightly different direction, as lots of our members from the start are now graduating from music college. We want to keep improving and also take on some more musically challenging projects, such as Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. There’s also potentially a tour to Abu Dhabi this Christmas, which I’m currently chatting to someone about, and that would be quite fun!

Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 arranged for large orchestra, performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

In your opinion, what makes a good conductor?

It depends a lot on the individual. For some people, being a nice guy works, and having a tough line works for others. The key, I belive, is respecting the players and the music above all else. If you do that, you just have to be yourself and find the way that works for you. I like to try and make rehearsals as fun as possible, but you also have to make them focused and people need to feel challenged. It’s a really hard balance to strike.

Is it possible to hear the difference between good and bad conductors?

I think so. I was sitting on the panel for the CUMS conducting competition recently and each of the fifteen people that took part got a totally different sound. The atmosphere in the room was utterly different from person to person. Even the way they walked to the podium and started the piece had an effect. It was amazing; I had no idea that it would be so evident.

People new to classical music may think that the conductor is up there telling the players when to play. That’s not the case, right?

Exactly. Most of the time, professional orchestras don’t need the beat at all.

So, what is your role as conductor?

The main role of the conductor in a rehearsal is to make sure the players all feel that they are very much involved and not just cogs in a machine. Every person needs to feel engaged and committed to a project, and that they have artistic ownership over it.

The conductor’s role in a concert is to shape an overall performance, help move everything along and to engender a culture of collaboration. It’s definitely not to direct the orchestra, which is why I think calling conductors 'directors' (as in Germany, for example) is really problematic. A conductor should be - if you’re using management speak - a collaborative leader; someone who is responsible for creating a pathway and guiding everyone along it to reach the goal. I think that’s what a good conductor should be.

My favourite conductors are the ones that don't even seem present during a performance, where it’s all about the music. That’s what it should be about. The conductor should be the least important person in the room, always.

And who is your favourite conductor out there at the moment?

Hmm, tricky question. There are quite a few that I really like, but in terms of British conductors, I think Mark Elder is just above and beyond amazing. For him, the music is everything. Just watching him rehearse and perform is extraordinary.

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Mark Elder at the BBC Proms

Another thing people might be wondering is how you practise as a conductor.

It depends on how long you have, I suppose. Ideally, you have as strong and defensible an interpretation as possible. While it's important to be flexible, you need to be able to justify any decision you make so that if a player stands up and disputes your interpretation, you have an answer. When I was doing Beethoven 5, a player asked "Why are we doing it at this speed? It sounds crap."

You have to have thought it through and give a logical answer. That all starts with playing things on a piano, going through the score in your head, going through it on paper and working out the overall structure. Also, I think everything should be historically grounded. There’s no point doing a Beethoven symphony if you don’t consider how it would have been originally performed. We can’t necessarily approach his metronome markings with a massive contemporary symphony orchestra on modern instruments, but we need to have it in mind.

In terms of the physical side, you need to practise in front of mirrors, either in silence or with a recording. Lots of teachers are really strict about not listening to recordings, but I don’t have a problem with it. What's important is that that your physicality is totally clear and unambiguous at all times, because 99% of the time there's a problem, it's the conductor’s fault.

Everybody does it differently. Somebody once told me a story about Andrew Davis. While he was conducting, someone walked up to the podium and looked at his score. It was totally unmarked and they asked,

Sir Andrew, why haven’t you marked it up?

He said,

I can bloody read music, I don’t need to!

Is there a single piece that you’d like to conduct one day?

I want to do Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. It’s my favourite piece of music and my desert island disc, but I’ll wait until I’m a lot older before I do it.

Even if the opportunity came up tomorrow?

I’d say no. Mark Elder still hasn’t done it yet – he’s doing it next year maybe, and he’s nearly 70! Riccardo Chailly is the same, he’s only just done it for the first time. There’s a reason these people wait to do it. I played it under Roger Norrington as a timpanist, and he only started doing it when he was 40 or 50. I feel like I understand the piece to a certain extent now, but it will be a long time before I fully appreciate it.

First, I want to do all the Beethoven symphonies, and I’m getting there - I’ve got 3 left to do. Once I’ve done that then maybe I’ll feel ready to tackle the Missa Solemnis.

Sir Colin Davis conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir at the BBC Proms in 2011

What’s it like playing under someone like Sir Roger Norrington?

It’s so interesting when you play under pros - you pick things up without even realising. There’s so much to learn, even from younger conductors like Andrew Morley. It doesn’t matter how experienced they are.

Do you find yourself using their mannerisms?

Hopefully not. Your physical and gestural style should definitely be a personal thing, but it is useful to sometimes think That gesture works for them, I wonder if I can find a version that works for me?

What’s your most memorable moment on the podium?

I’m one of those people who believe that every single moment that they’re conducting a group is literally the best thing ever.

Anyone who has seen pictures of you conducting can believe that. You look so happy!

I’m pleased it comes across! It is such a privilege to get to work with musicians in this context.

Some highlights have included Ravel's Piano Concerto in Bordeaux last Summer. I was looking up at this big golden statue with a stained glass window behind it as Patrick Milne was playing the piano solo at the opening of the second movement. As he reached the section’s climax, this light just started to shine through the stained glass window into the cathedral and over the orchestra. It was stunning.

Another one was in Ghent last summer with CUMS Symphony Orchestra where we did an outdoor concert. Before we’d started, there were about 40 people hanging around in the square. After the first piece, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, I turned around and the entire square was filled with about 2,000 people cheering. The whole of the front row was football fans, so when we played Elgar’s Enigma Variations I thought, This will switch them off. Not at all! They loved it, blasting their klaxons at us. That was extraordinary.

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Ben and the CUMS Symphony Orchestra on stage during the Ghent Festival, 2014

What will you be doing in 10 years’ time?

Hopefully doing the same thing but making some money from it! That’s the dream, being paid for doing what you enjoy.

Do you have a particular orchestra that you’d like to end up working with?

Not really, but it would be great to work with a British orchestra so that I might be in a position to influence how music functions in the UK. If Simon Rattle comes back to London in 2018, which is what the rumours are suggesting, he will be in a position to genuinely impact how the arts are treated in the UK. He’s such a significant international figure and could, I hope, persuade a government to significantly invest in the arts.

Lastly, what’s your wand made of?

I think wood. And dragon feathers, obviously.