On the day of the BBCNOW’s 90th anniversary, Lesley Hatfield offers some thoughts on leading and life in the orchestra
I have been privileged to be Leader of BBC National Orchestra of Wales since 2004, and the orchestra has been a central focus of my musical life alongside chamber music and teaching. There have been so many amazing musical experiences, ranging from high profile performances such as those at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms, to a concert in a converted wool warehouse in Welsh-speaking Patagonia (the region’s first ever encounter with an international symphony orchestra) and concerts for children with special educational needs – all equally moving.
Leading the orchestra
I find it difficult to put into words what my job entails, as it encompasses so many things alongside the fundamental requirements of musicianship and violin playing. In concert or rehearsal, I need to act as a musical focus for the group in collaboration with the conductor. Given that we work with so many different guest conductors, how that relationship works, and how active I need to be will vary with every project.
Preparation is key – not only making sure I am well on top of everything myself in advance of each project, but also checking through all the printed material to make sure the markings (bowings etc) are fit for purpose, collaborating with our librarian and my string principal colleagues in order to ensure that as far as possible all the parts match up – this can save a lot of time in rehearsal.
In rehearsal, I’m continually asking myself questions, and seeking clarification from the conductor where necessary:
- What sort of sound should we be making and can we be more unified and blended?
- Is our approach to articulation unified, and are we understanding style in the same way?
- What is the best way for the strings to achieve these things with the bow - might it work better with a different bowing? And how might that affect the way the wind and brass play?
- Intonation- what do we need to rehearse as a group?
- Are we all feeling the phrasing and harmony in the same way?
- Who should we be listening to?
Leading a large orchestra, I need to be constantly aware of involving those sitting further back. Many conductors have a habit of only addressing the front and are inaudible to my colleagues on desk five. The string sections are efficient at passing back information, (sometimes before I have written anything in my own part) and because we all know one another well, we are able to play and respond with flexibility. I often have to make a decision as to where to lead actively and where to sit back into the section sound.
If a passage isn’t working I need to figure out whether to say something, ask the conductor to do something differently or maybe just to play better myself. Sometimes simply adjusting my own listening radar to encompass, say, the back of the 1st violins and the basses on the other side, or a key wind or percussion instrument, miraculously makes the necessary difference.
Offstage, there is constant day to day administration, liaising with management to try to get everything to run as smoothly as possible for everyone.
In addition to the outreach work undertaken by the orchestra, I have become increasingly passionate about teaching, and in particular, how best to help the next generation of orchestral musicians learn the craft of orchestral playing and survive what is a very demanding (and often undervalued) career choice.
String tuition tends to focus very much on solo playing (for wind instruments, this is less the case, I think), and of course, we all need to have this grounding. Yet most students will spend much of their career playing in ensembles and orchestras, and this requires a much wider skill set, a much more flexible approach to technique and musicianship.
I am involved in running a placement scheme, which provides students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama the opportunity to work with BBCNOW. Students receive coaching from principals, alongside feedback and support from assigned mentors from within each section. I find that orchestral excerpt material, in addition to serving as an introduction to the breadth of the repertoire, can serve as excellent ‘studies’ to learn specific techniques, giving added value to skills practised in, for example, Kreutzer and Dont.
They bring a realisation of how much variety and flexibility (particularly in terms of sound, style and bow use) is required and how precise every aspect of one’s playing needs to be in order to become a dependable section player. Above all, mutual trust and an ability to adjust instantaneously to one’s colleagues and to the twists and turns of a conductor’s whim are vital.
When I joined this orchestra, my children were small, so a schedule that did not take me away from home too much suited me well. The orchestra is busy, often covering two or three different programmes in a week, but has relatively little touring compared to many London orchestras, and travelling time for me to get to the orchestra’s base at BBC Hoddinott Hall from home is only about 20 minutes, leaving more time for family, for practice and for tending my garden.
Cardiff is a beautifully situated city, next to a stunning coastline, and close to the Brecon Beacon mountains. Despite being quite compact, it also has all the advantages of being a capital city – a thriving opera house, theatres and university, and good transport connections to the rest of the UK.
We cover a very wide range of repertoire – large scale symphonic works using the whole orchestra, chamber orchestra sized Baroque music with period instrument specialists, operatic repertoire in BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, contemporary music, film and TV soundtracks, educational concerts, chamber music. I am very fortunate to have fabulous colleagues to work with, and it has been thrilling to be part of the orchestra’s journey from strength to strength. I think what we do – performing great live music at a world class level to a very varied audience both live and on the radio – is more and more important as the value (and funding) of the arts at all levels is undermined. What price can you put on food for the mind and soul?
BBC National Orchestra of Wales celebrates its 90th birthday on 12 April, on air, online and live in concert. Watch the live stream of the birthday concert on the BBCNOW website and tune in to BBC Radio 3 on Friday 13 April for a live Afternoon Concert at 2pm BST