Arts: They call him `the Ayatollah'

As its new music director, Mark Elder is planning to make some `hard decisions' to revive the Halle Orchestra.
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In a way I'm surprised to find myself doing this. The suggestion that I should become conductor of the Halle was mooted about 10 years ago but since I wasn't invited to work with the orchestra at all during Kent Nagano's time, it's strange how it should have turned out the way it has. It's just what I need and it's come at just the right time."

The announcement yesterday that Mark Elder will succeed Nagano as Music Director of the Halle Orchestra from autumn 2000, has come at just the right time for the Halle, too. It was reported recently that Kent Nagano's contract with the Halle would not be renewed, partly because the orchestra's morale was said to have dropped during his six-year tenure. Mr Nagano reputedly earns pounds 7,000 a concert, while the musicians have been asked to accept a pay-freeze.

"It's a lot of money, especially if you're bankrupt," says Mark Elder quietly. There was no further comment from a man determined to be discreet, to play fair, and not to pass judgment on what has gone before. Earnest, tough and boyishly enthusiastic, he tells me: "I play well in a team." With David Pountney and Peter Jonas in the "Powerhouse" triumvirate behind English National Opera's unforgettable, if controversial, productions in the 1980s, Elder's success has been attributed to his loyalty as well as to his conducting talent.

Since leaving ENO in 1993, after 14 years, he's been roving the opera and orchestral world, seeking a permanent relationship. It wasn't the music directorship of Covent Garden. Nor was it as successor to Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Orchestra, of which he was guest conductor for three years and where "they learnt to tolerate me", nor Rochester Philharmonic in the United States, where he was Music Director for five years. "I've always wanted a British symphony orchestra and I've been particularly drawn to the Halle for its great tradition and its distinction as a musical body and cultural institution serving a very wide area. Our work hasn't started yet so we've everything to build together."

Mark Elder is, as David Pountney once put it, "interested in the fabric of the factory". "We have to find a way to smarten up the organisation's style," says Elder. "It's important to put the Halle back at the top of Manchester's cultural pyramid. I hate using the word `sexy' because it's so unfair to sex, but it's the conviction of the whole institution and the way they market their passion that proclaims what they believe in and why they're there. But how does one attract an audience that feels the Halle may be for their aunty, but isn't for them?"

Elder answers his own question. "One of the things that we provide - a bit like the circus - is live entertainment. We can't cheat at all. We have to perform with none of the trickery or brilliant screen effects of cinema or television. You've got to ignite that spark for the audience every time, and it doesn't come from flicking a switch."

What about the reputation for ruthlessness that drove the Coliseum orchestra to refer to him as "the Ayatollah"? "When I started at ENO it took some time and the right colleagues to get it together. And there'll be hard decisions in Manchester, too." The Halle's financial problems have been well-documented, though a deficit of pounds 1.35m in the last financial year (1997-8) is encouragingly expected to have been reduced this year by over half, to around pounds 600,000. An appeal for pounds 3m over four years currently stands at around pounds 1.2m.

The reduction in the number of players from 98 to 80 that the Halle board sanctioned as a cost-cutting exercise, after downsizing the administration and selling off some valuable instruments, was surely a desperate measure. "Filling those gaps is right at the top of my list of priorities, and the board knows that. I'll be begging and insisting because I'm a bit impatient. Those missing string players affect the repertoire. Whether what I regard as the right amount of money for the future is forthcoming will only become apparent over these next months or years."

Elder, who was 52 last week, will conduct 24 Halle concerts each season, bringing him to the orchestra for at least 12 weeks every year. He'd also like to build up a small pool of regular guest conductors which will mean watching a few others in action with the Halle. His own contract is for three years, though if all goes well he's looking at a decade. But his diary has been pretty well filled into the new century and engagements such as conducting Domingo at the Met prevent him from being in Manchester as much as he'd have liked during his first season.

He conducts the Halle Orchestra and Choir in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Saturday in Oldham but his next Halle concert won't be until early January when he launches a new era and the new millennium with Tippett's The Mask of Time. "It's hard and demanding but it's definitely a piece for a great opening or a beginning, a celebration of the human spirit in all forms."

In between those Halle concerts, ironically, Elder will be conducting Manchester's other orchestra, the high-profile BBC Philharmonic, in Strauss's Symphonia domestica, which will also be televised live from the Proms.

Elder made his first appearance with the Halle in 1981, conducting performances of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast in the Free Trade Hall. He returned last December after an absence of many years to give the Manchester premiere of the Elgar/Payne Third Symphony, coupled with music from Wagner's Parsifal (the opera that recently saw him back in the pit at the Coliseum). "This might be the time to reassert the Halle's relationship with the centre of great English music, after a period when that's definitely not been the case. It would be wonderful to present all of Elgar's works instead of just the handful that are always played."

The announcement of Elder's post coincides with the arrival of a new Halle Chief Executive, John Summers, on whose appointment Elder's agreement was sought. "I wouldn't have wanted to come in without knowing that I'd be happy working with the new Chief Executive. Though we're strangers at the moment, I do know what he's achieved with the Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle. The buck needs to stop with one person who has ultimate responsibility, and I would rather that person were not a performer. Those of us who do perform need something to kick against." Elder hasn't touched his bassoon since university, though he still "thinks the fingering", and Summers put away his cello some years ago. Both he and Elder are now calling the tune on a much bigger platform.