All that Michael Seal ever wanted was to be a violinist…so what’s he doing conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra? Here he tells us about his transformation into the very authority he once opposed, and why understanding orchestral string playing from the inside was the best way to start
Poacher turned gamekeeper: definition
‘someone whose occupation or behaviour is the opposite of what it previously was’- Collins
If I had a fiver for every time I heard the phrase ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, I would be rich by now! It is usually said, with a slightly derogatory tone, by orchestral musicians, sometimes even by managers and agents. But surely there is a massive flaw in this sentiment – surely a gamekeeper who has experience of poaching knows how to do his job better than his less experienced counterpart?
Let me start at the very beginning. All I ever wanted to be was an orchestral violinist. I dabbled a little in the ‘dark arts’ of the baton whilst at music college, but my main goal in life was to play in a professional orchestra. I was lucky enough to achieve this, joining the Second Violins of the CBSO on 7 September 1992, truly one of the happiest days of my life.
Throughout my early career, I was engrossed in learning the repertoire, learning how to cope with all of those notes, and learning to manage the workload of an orchestral string player. But looking back, I realise that, even then, I was watching the conductor all the time. I was asking myself questions such as, ‘Why is he beating it that way?’, ‘Why did he say that?’ and ‘Why are they so good when last week’s conductor was so bad?’
Then in 1997, I was asked if I would like to conduct one of Birmingham’s amateur orchestras in a concert. I thought long and hard and accepted the challenge – I mean, really, how hard could it be? It turned out to very hard indeed. But during this concert it dawned on me that I was having a whale of a time. I was not in the least bit nervous (something which plagued any violin solo appearances I had ever made) and afterwards I just wanted to do it again.
Exhilaration…and blind fear
The next time I did was in front of the CBSO, during a day set aside to see if any of the players could conduct. That day I conducted my colleagues for one hour, through Nielsen’s Symphony No.2, with a mixture of elation, exhilaration and blind fear! But they must have seen something as I was asked to do more, little by little, until I was appointed assistant conductor in 2005.
This begs the question: what had they seen? Surely it was as hard for them to be conducted by me as it was for me to conduct them? Conducting your own colleagues is the hardest job of them all and, I suspect, being rehearsed by one of your own is not everyone’s idea of musical nirvana.
I would like to think that they saw someone who was keen to learn, always prepared, eager to improve but overall, a conductor who trusted them. All too often orchestras are given the distinct impression that they are not being trusted to do their jobs well or reproduce what has been rehearsed. My approach from the start has been to fix whatever needed to be fixed, mould and shape the music with the orchestra, but also to trust their abilities and their own musicianship.
Trust is the key
For me, trust is the key to a great orchestra. Firstly, that the orchestra trusts you – you know your score, you know what you want and you know how to get it. Secondly that you trust the orchestra – you trust they will do as you ask, without repeatedly rehearsing for no reason other than to check it is still OK. But most importantly, they trust each other to do their own specific roles, as required, and all of this while knowing that you can trust someone while not necessarily liking them!
When an orchestra finds out that I was ‘one of them’ for 22 years, it often is accompanied by a more relaxed attitude from them, becoming more trusting of the things I say or suggestions I might make. When I heard players say I was ‘a safe pair of hands’, I used to obsess too long over on the word ‘safe’ (meaning, in my mind, ‘boring’!) and not take it as the compliment it was meant to be. An orchestra can express itself far more, musically, when it feels that it can do so from a safe footing, thus giving them more chances to express themselves and let the music take flight.
Now I no longer play the violin, I am loving my new ‘poacher-turned-gamekeeper’ life, enjoying the challenges it brings every day. But I never forget my “poaching’ days and I draw on those experiences every time I stand on the podium.
Michael Seal conducts the CBSO on 2 December at 7.30pm (also live on Radio 3) and 3 December at 2.15pm. The programme includes Rimsky-Korsakov – Capriccio Espagnol; Scriabin – Piano Concerto (with Yevgeny Sudbin, piano); and Beethoven – Symphony No.3. Book here.