Conductor John Warner is a busy man. And yet despite his hectic international schedule, he is keen to discuss the programme he’s chosen for Oxford Sinfonia’s September 23 concert, which centres around ‘hidden stories’ – all the music having a secret, unknown or mysterious element to it. BOOK HERE
‘the great strength in music is that it can tell a story that you can’t always put into words’
Because while we can look forward to Mendelssohn’s Overture and Scherzo from a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ravel’s Pavane, Chausson’s Poème for violin (featuring soloist Roma Tic) and orchestra, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Schumann’s Symphony No 4, their link is their unknown narratives.
“Yes, I rather like that,” John smiles. “And our audiences are always really excited to see what we will come up with next, so we just let the magic happen.”
Take Mendelssohn’s evocative Hebrides Overture which is based on the composer’s 1829 excursion to Fingal’s Cave on the tiny Scottish island of Staffa. “What happened there we don’t know but it was a beguiling journey,” John explains.
‘I don’t want to be seen as someone who tells other people what to do rather than someone who fields ideas’
Chausson’s Poème follows a similar vein: “Many think it’s based on a Romantic poem but no really knows what the narrative is about, although it seems to be telling a story. But that’s the great strength in music because it can tell a story that you can’t always put into words.”
Ravel’s Pavane (For A Dead Princess) is another mystery, hence it’s inclusion in the concert’s line-up. “We do not know who she was but when you listen to it, you can’t help but be moved by its sentiment,” John explains.
Schumann’s 4th Symphony has been added because of its story within a story. “Schumann was just as obsessed with books and literature as he was with writing music, which he did when he was manic, so he wrote this in a few weeks, but then rewrote it 10 years later. We wanted to play the original though because it’s more spontaneous and exciting,” John adds
It’s easy to see how John is in such demand, his inventiveness extending further than you’d expect from a conductor.
for me conducting is about mediating those expectations and finding a middle ground. It’s about creating something together
As well as his concert with Oxford Sinfonia at Oxford’s St Mary’s this month, he’s the Music Director for Oxford Opera, Artistic Director of Orchestra for the Earth and taking part in an Armenian Music Festival before flying off to Beijing.
“Yes, it’s all go at the moment, so it’s very much a case of hitting the ground running, but I’m used to that, such is the life of a conductor,” he tells me from his London home.
So how does he cope with the pressure? “What I hope to be is a catalyst – someone in the middle to direct and focus the energy in front of me into something unified. All musicians, and how they interpret music, are different, so for me conducting is about mediating those expectations and finding a middle ground. It’s about creating something together.
“Besides,” he adds. “I don’t want to be seen as someone who tells other people what to do rather than someone who fields ideas, so I like collaborating with people who want the same thing to happen, who have the same vision, so it’s always a conversation.
“My job is to take that conversation into account and think about what I can bring to the table. So being a conductor is never lonely – it’s not about being solo and it’s always great to be surrounded by ideas.”
And how does he feel about working with an amateur orchestra like Oxford Sinfonia? “They say never work with your friends, but I know them so well that I think it’s the best you can hope for really.
“And Oxford Sinfonia give me quite a free rein. I’ve worked with them before and they are great. The atmosphere in their concerts is always electric. So yes, I’m really looking forward to their upcoming concert and I hope lots of people come along to enjoy the repertoire we have chosen together.”
John Warner conducts Mendelssohn and Schumannn with Oxford Sinfonia on Saturday September 23. BOOK HERE
John Warner is also conducting Oxford Opera’s La Traviata Verdi on 29-30 September at Olivier Hall, St Edward’s School, Oxford BOOK HERE