Conductor plays all the right notes to bring orchestra plenty of success

Bryan Western conducts The Harrogate Symphony Orchestra and below, with Graham Chalmers.
Bryan Western conducts The Harrogate Symphony Orchestra and below, with Graham Chalmers.

Face to face: The Harrogate Advertiser’s Graham Chalmers talks with Harrogate Symphony Orchestra’s musical director and conductor Bryan Western

It takes a lot to run an orchestra.

NADV 1303083AM1 Bryan Western. Graham Chalmers with Bryan Western.  Picture; Adrian Murray. (1303083AM1)

NADV 1303083AM1 Bryan Western. Graham Chalmers with Bryan Western. Picture; Adrian Murray. (1303083AM1)

Musical skills alone are not enough. The orchestra must not only perform well on stage, it has to succeed as an organisation.

When the outfit in question is an amateur one it only adds to the task in hand.

The most remarkable thing about Harrogate Symphony Orchestra’s musical director and conductor Bryan Western isn’t simply that he’s carried out this role for nearly 30 years, it’s that at this moment the HSO is probably the most successful it’s ever been.

What’s more, despite the ups and downs involved, the youthful-looking 58-year facing me is still smiling.

“What I love is that things are always changing. People are coming and going. Programmes are changing. Audiences are changing. Five years ago if you’d said we were going to get a full house at the Royal Hall, I would have laughed.”

Answering my questions while dipping in and out of a pot of Earl Grey in the upstairs café at Farrahs on Montpellier Hill, it’s clear the former head of music at King James’s School in Knaresboroughas lost none of his passion for the job after all these years.

With a concert in Leeds planned for November, this father-of-two is keen to spread the HSO’s reputation even further afield and build a “wider audience” (code for younger in the classical world).

His latest wheez is a ‘Le Tour’ concert to be held next year in Harrogate as the town prepares to welcome Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and co as part of the Tour de France.

“I think the idea came up during rehearsals from our horn player Andy Williams. It’s going to be a great night. Le Tour concert will be about France and speed and bikes.

“I’m still working on the programme but it will include John Adam’s A Short Ride in a Fast Machine and, possibly, that bicycle song by Queen, if we can work out a good way of doing it!”

To anyone who had been to a concert by the HSO, part of the pleasure is watching this former head of music at Knaresborough’s King James’s School when he’s conducting.

Committed but down to earth, he takes informality to a whole new level, putting almost as much energy into the introductions as when he’s wielding the baton.

“Some people ask me if we need all that talking at a concert, they say a concert is for listening to music. No it isn’t. Audiences come for the whole atmosphere. Our rapport with the crowd is crucial.”

Although Harrogate is blessed with a vibrant classical music scene; there’s the Harrogate Philharmonic Orchestra, some string quartets and a whole host of top quality choirs I should mention, not forgeting a highly regarded venue in Wesley Chapel, the HSO is unusual even for this most unique of places.

Only a larger than life character could handle a larger than life orchestra and the HSO is certainly big for the size of the town it’s based in.

But it hasn’t always that way. It was a far humbler outfit when Western originally took charge in 1985.

To Western, the transformation of what was then Harrogate Chamber Orchestra into the HSO was not really a matter of ambition, more natural progression.

“I like working with different types of people and different groups of people. We had 30 players in 1985 but as we got more successful, we moved to bigger venues. Then more players flooded in who then wanted to try bigger works...

“The HSO has quite a good reputation now – a reputation for not being stuffy.”

These days there can be as many as 90 musicians on stage at a time at an HSO concert or, rather, on stage and on the floor of the Royal Hall, the orchestra’s spiritual home.

Perhaps the scale of his enthusiasm could never have been contained in a chamber orchestra?

“My role is to bring out the best in people. We have great fun in rehearsals and a lot of laughs but I push them hard.

“They know that how I do it in the build-up may not be exactly what I ask from them on the night.

“Because the players have the enthusiasm to achieve higher quality, the standard keeps on rising to the point where I have to try harder, too.

“They really play their socks off.

The current success of the HSO; most of their shows attract audiences of 700, can be partly attributed to their bubbly supremo’s lively approach.

But it’s more than that. Western is that rare figure in the world of classical music.

On a personal level, his two favourite composers are Tchaikovosky and Sibelius but he sees no clash between a love of the past and an embracing of the modern.

Recent innovations have included the use of social media platforms such as Facebook, the launch of a regular newsletter and the You Choose project where audience members were invited to decide what went in the concert programme.

With a children’s matinee in June and world premieres of new pieces coming up in two of its shows (this Saturday, March 23 and its Winter Concert on November 16), there’s no denying that this is one amateur orchestra that’s firing on all cylinders.

Some may worry that the recent recruitment of TV and film actor Hugo Speer’s in an unofficial role as the HSO’s patron is a bit of idle gimmickry, but the ex-Full Monty star is certainly being given some real work to do as the narrator of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at their Summer Concert in June.

Western’s mild flouting of some of the normal conventions is more than an increasingly successful attempt to win over a broader audience.

Like this writer, he believes classical music is exciting music and shouldn’t be held back by tradition.

No one should worry about him going too far, however.

He may inject occasional modern works into the programme but don’t expect the HSO to launch a series of ‘rug concerts’ with all the seats taken out as Pierre Boulez once did as conductor of the New York Philarmonic.

“Programming is probably the most crucial element of the whole thing. I’d like to do Shostakovich again but it depends on the audience. If we do things we like and the audience isn’t interested it’s pointless.”

The one thing above all else which explains the longevity and success of this charmisatic character’s tenure at the HSO, is his love of music.

It was his great passion as a boy, he married a fellow music obsessive (and a teacher) and he taught both his now grown-up children to play instruments when teaching at King James’s School in Knaresborough.

“When I started off as a music teacher at what was then Granby High School I 
had the school choir grow to 190 in number at one point. 
We were asked to perform with the Halle Orchestra three times. It’s hard to believe now but I was very quiet as a youngster myself at school. I only found self-confidence in my early 20s when I realized I was good at music.”

If music has changed his life, Bryan Western has dedicated himself to the HSO in return.

“The orchestra is my life. I would be lost without it. At a concert I have total confidence in the players. I know whatever I do, they will follow me.”

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