‘George Jackson raised the stature of the music to a rarely-encountered level, absolutely enthralling from first bar to last.’Robert Matthew-Walker, Classical Source
This month we hear from one of Firebird’s conductors, George Jackson, conductor of our next concert, Firebird in February on 10 Feb …
We look forward to the next concert ‘Firebird in February’ featuring music by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. What unites these works?
“What interests me is the common material that includes either the number three, or the use of three notes in a motivic sense. With Mozart’s overture to ‘the Magic Flute’, we find three flats in the key signature, as well as the three ‘holy’ chords that begin the overture. In the Beethoven Symphony No 5, which has the same three flats in the key signature, the symphony begins and then develops the famous motif that runs through the whole symphony: yes, it is technically four notes, but it’s those three upbeats that are the most important. And finally, we all know the opening three-upbeat theme from Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto. I love finding abstract connections between pieces and placing them together. It’s perhaps the closest conductors get to creating a three-course meal (there’s a reason the French call us the ‘chef d’orchestre’!)”
What makes Firebird the perfect vehicle for a performance of music like this?
“One of the unique qualities of London players is their ability to switch styles in a heartbeat. Firebird musicians are no different. I am always amazed at the orchestra’s ability to ‘time travel’ within a concert. Although the style differences in this programme are not too extreme, there is still a subtle change required. The challenge in this type of programme is approaching each piece looking forwards chronologically, rather than backwards and with hindsight. This makes the interpretation of the Beethoven Fifth more challenging, because I am convinced we still tend to approach this symphony backwards, through the glasses of mid-, or even late-, nineteenth century. So many composers receive this kind of ‘backwards with hindsight’ treatment, and I think it’s important to try and block it out. The beauty of playing Mozart in the same evening is that it provides the backdrop that our approach to Beethoven can develop from.”
How can you bring something fresh and exciting to such well-known and often performed works like these?
“There’s a youthful, fiery energy in this orchestra, living up to its name, and with much potential to make these performances fresh and exciting. Although these are well known and often performed works, we are a young orchestra with young players. For many of us, this is the first time performing these pieces, even though they are all so central to the repertoire. One of the regrets I think we musicians always have is that we can never ‘un-hear’ the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth, so the shock value is lost on modern audiences. I remember one conducting mentor once trying to convince me that the opening notes of the symphony (G-E flat, followed by F-D) are really in E flat major, rather than C minor, making the harmony after the fermatas the real shock! I don’t think it’s possible to prove this theory, but the point still stands: we have to try and re-present well-known pieces for the first time, and that process is more accessible to a younger group. I hope Firebird can go some way to recreating the feeling that the ink is still wet – which is what can make this performance so exciting?”
What do you expect to be the main areas you will need to focus on during the rehearsal of these works?
“Reading the dots! It’s a short rehearsal time, more like a microwave meal for one, rather than slow-cooked lamb for the Waltons. But the trick is to try and add in as much detail as possible at the right moment, and that is about timing. The Firebird Orchestra is a small-sized chamber orchestra, reflected by the number of string forces. I want to focus on finding a big string sound for the Tchaikovsky, despite the small numbers, which is possible – it just involves a shift in priorities. And then, once we find that sound, forgetting it just as quickly so we can bring a different quality to ‘The Magic Flute’ and the Beethoven Fifth. Although all this has to happen in minimal rehearsal time, it creates a working environment that is short and intense, and I think that can sometimes lead to the best results.”
And what else is in the pipeline for you in 2019?
“The current season is a 50/50 split between concerts and opera, which is something I always try to proportion equally. In the pit, I am making my company debut with Opera North, conducting The Magic Flute in March, Teatro Carlo Felice Genova with the Italian premiere of Sunset Boulevard in April, and Grange Park Opera with a new production of Hänsel und Gretel in June/July.
“On the concert platform, I am conducting four concerts with the LSO in the autumn, making a recording with Orchestre de Paris, conducting the Opéra Orchestre National in Montpellier for the first time, and conducting a programme of contemporary British music with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. I also continue this season as Daniel Harding’s assistant at Orchestre de Paris, which includes two Asian tours and a trip ‘home’ to the BBC Proms in the summer.”