Monday 22 January 2018

Why Classical should be the Music for the masses

Conductor David Brophy takes aim at the snobs and explains to Aine O'Connor why Wagner has a lot to answer for

Conductor David Brophy in The National Concert Hall.
Conductor David Brophy in The National Concert Hall.

Aine O'Connor

David Brophy holds Wagner responsible. "Music was a great thing in Dublin in the 18th Century," he says. "It was free and easy, you could clap whenever you wanted to, you could get up and leave, it was much more relaxed than it is today. Then Wagner got his hands on the whole thing. He imposed all these rubrics and ways of behaving and all that rubbish."

After seven years as principal conductor of the RTE Concert Orchestra, this is a man well-placed to explain why there are preconceptions around classical music. There are snobs in every field, but he believes the most exclusive factor is people excluding themselves because they feel they won't know how to behave. For this, Brophy holds Wagner responsible.

His own love of all music is broad and life-long and he never felt any snobbishness from "the classical bods" when he'd pitch up at the NCH in his jeans as a teenager.

He's from Santry in Dublin, "which is, of course,a hotbed of conducting talent in Europe as we all know,", he says.

He was in the choir as a student in St Aidan's CBS in Whitehall and would conduct if he got the chance, though he still can't put words on why it appealed to him.

After a degree in the College of Music he was pianist with the RTE Symphony Orchestra for six years, all the while earning his conducting stripes, highlights of which included leading the RTECO at the opening of the Special Olympics in 2003. Brophy got his first three-year contract as conductor of the RTECO in 2007 and this was followed by two more two-year contracts, all of which he has greatly enjoyed. It's been a hugely successful stint with many highlights and variations. He's worked all over the world and with many different types of artist and music.

An admirer of the scholar and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he quotes Taleb's suggestion that "you should write your resignation letter on the first day, and once you get your head around it you're free from the worry of the future. The f word is fear and we're surrounded by it." He adds: "If I'd stayed with the concert orchestra, I would have no idea what it would be like if I left."

There's an interesting overlap between the thoughts of Taleb, a Lebanese-American mathematician, and David's Dublin grandfather. "My granddad used to drink with Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh in Dave's Pub, he was an amazing man and full of knowledge and great spokes. He had a great spoke, 'melodious is the closed mouth' and he maintained your health and your happiness were all that counted."

Ten years ago Brophy thinks he would have been more nervous about leaving a relatively steady job, but even though he and his wife Mairead have since had two children, now aged nine and six, and have "a mortgage and all that", he embraces the change. But as one of his many admirers remarked to me: "With his talent and energy and connections that's no great risk." He laughs when he hears this, he laughs often.

"My dad worked in the ESB and his version of a job was you started and then you went the old fashioned way and retired and that was it. So by that standard I've never had a job."

But the 41-year-old has always been busy. During his time with the RTECO he also worked extensively with the Ulster Orchestra, he teaches in the DIT conservatory of music and drama, something he enjoys as much as conducting.

Perhaps he knows why there are so few female conductors? "I would say it has to be something that women are not attracted to. You find an awful lot more female conductors with choirs but there is something with men and women and music."

There are gender divides according to instrument -- for example the majority of brass sections will be male, the majority of harpists will be women, and Brophy also believes there are personality factors. He's fairly sure that presented with an instrumentless string section he could pick out the oboe players from the flautists.

His wife is a flautist and they have occasionally played together. "There's never been a problem, but then part of the reason I married her is she's pretty sound. It's more uncomfortable for the players around her because they can't give out shite about me."

About the boss? "If the conductor thinks they're the boss that's possibly the rock you perish on. The orchestra expect you to be the boss but also be cognisant that they're musicians too. It's more of a two-way process than people might think."

Working with a new orchestra is a delicate balance he says. "They've made their mind up before you start, how you walk through, what you're wearing. The players test you and they want to see what you're made of. I think it was the English conductor, Gardner, who said 'if you're very young the orchestra will look after you and indulge you; if you're doddery they'll look after you too. If you're in the middle you have to behave yourself'."

For many of Brophy's generation, now in their forties, the idea of retiring at 65 is not going to be an option. "Particularly in my job, there's the archetypal work 'til you drop, doddery old guy. It's a labour of love but also because you have so many things to get right when you're a conductor you generally tend not to get them right until you're 70 or 80," again he laughs.

So, although he says it wouldn't upset him like it would other conductors if he never got to conduct again, he will keep at it, including with RTE. "I love golf and my eldest has started to play so I want to play more with him. But basically I'll keep doing what I've been doing all along. Oh and I'd love to own a hedge fund, I have this thing about a hedge fund."

Irish Independent

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