Arts & Books: The reluctant maestro

He's got the looks. He's got the youth. He's got the talent. The only thing Mark Wigglesworth lacks is the instinct for self-promotion. Edward Seckerson meets one conductor who won't let his publicity stand between him and the music
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The Independent Culture
Mark Wigglesworth is a publicist's dream. And then they wake up. He is young but looks younger: 32 going on 19 (always a good start - youth is so alluring in a profession long dominated by the venerable). He is small but perfectly formed; he has a cheeky smile (no charm like boyish charm...); he has presence. But absolutely no interest in image. No matter, let's look at the career. It's already a big one. High-powered agent, the world's finest orchestras on his calling card. The trouble is he'd much rather talk about the BBC National Orchestra of Wales than the Berlin Philharmonic. So what about his beginnings? Now there's a dramatic story. He won the coveted Kyril Kondrashin conducting competition in 1989, just three weeks after leaving the Royal Academy of Music. Overnight recognition. The trouble is he insists upon talking about the miserable couple of years which followed: how he simply wasn't ready, how he learnt the hard way. He finds it salutary. So cancel the publicist. No, wait, there's a new six-part TV series coming from the BBC Everything to Play for: Mark Wigglesworth Conducts... yet another of those compulsive fly-on-the-wall documentaries: dynamic young maestro at work, in rehearsal, in performance, wandering the snowbound streets of St. Petersburg in search of the truth about Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony...

Now that he does want to talk about. But the symphony, not the TV series. Because the symphony consumes him and the TV series... and this is where the publicist wakes up... does not. "What can I say? It's about me, and that makes me very uncomfortable. You see, I don't think people should be interested in me. I want them to be interested in how I feel a musical phrase should go, in the rightness or otherwise of a tempo and what that means for the performance... The more people know about you as a person, as a personality, the more you will come between them and the music. I believe you are much freer as a musician if the public doesn't have a perception of you that is coloured by what they've currently been reading about you..."

Which is inevitable, of course. It's happening right now... "Which is why I'm wary of the whole business of promotion and image-making. And why - forgive me - I find interviews difficult. I don't even read reviews..." (old-fashioned look from the interviewer) "...No, really, I don't. Not because I don't have an interest in what the critics have to say, but because knowing that the public have a perception of me that may be coloured by those reviews - whether they're good or bad - inhibits me."

So let's look at Mark Wigglesworth, the conductor. Could it be that he is equally self-effacing? The technique certainly doesn't draw attention to itself. It's clear, it's emphatic, no quirks, no tricks, no platform acrobatics. Undemonstrative. Wigglesworth is plainly mindful of those maestros whose physicality is entirely self-serving. Meaning that it does not translate into sound. Meaning that it is directed at the audience. Wigglesworth insists that he is unconscious of the audience. He seems genuinely taken aback when I suggest that an audience hears in relation to what it sees, that seeing what a conductor does can intensify, pull focus on, what it hears. So a visual cue to the clarinets in relation to the strings might just alert an audience (if only subliminally) to a harmony or a colour; or direct their ears to the primary voices and help clarify the aural information visually. You see what you hear. And vice versa.

Wigglesworth is sceptical. Watch him in action. The beat is unflagging, the gestures sparing. The cues are few. A good professional orchestra doesn't need them, he says. Players should be relating to each other, not to the conductor. "My purpose is to encourage an orchestra to listen - to themselves, to each other. Their ears are so much more important than their eyes in that respect." But when they can't hear? "That's what the rehearsals are for. In rehearsals you discover where you are needed. You get it sorted. I never like to show negative gestures in a performance. I hate that gesture which says, `Too loud, too loud!' It shouldn't be necessary. Of course, there is that last degree of juice which it just isn't natural to give in rehearsal. I'd say the encouragement for that is all in the eyes..."

We'll get a closer look at them through the BBC cameras (as and when the Corporation finally sets a transmission date). In the first of those six programmes that he doesn't want to talk about, we'll see Wigglesworth at work on Rachmaninov's Second Symphony - a long and challenging piece which is all about patience. Patience to let Rachmaninov dictate the pace, patience to defer, to yield, to "the long line". That, he says, is his priority. "The performances I am most proud of are those which go from the first note to the last with no break in continuity or intensity. In fact, you know, the thing I most like about performances, as opposed to rehearsals, is knowing that you are not going to have to stop!" He is much amused by all this talk of patience. He reckons he's the most impatient person he knows.

Not where career management is concerned. His first professional engagement came a full year after the Kondrashin competition - which, of course, he didn't expect to win ("That's probably why I did!") - and was, in his words, "a disaster". The rehearsals bore no resemblance to the concert. He lacked authority. "It was a shock dealing with professional musicians much older and more experienced than I was. For the first time, I began questioning whether I should be doing it at all. I came close to calling it a day." Instead, he learnt to hurry slowly, to say "no" more often, to choose pieces that were both "in his temperament" and sufficiently challenging to keep the players concentrated. The Deryck Cooke "performing version" of Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony, Messiaen's Turangalila, Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos 10 and 14.

How does a young conductor arrive in front of the Berlin Philharmonic, or the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw, or the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time? What do you say or not say, do or not do? There's no answer to that, says Wigglesworth. "You can only be you. I think orchestras make their decisions instantaneously as to whether they are going to have a good time or not. There's no accounting for chemistry." Is youth - or the appearance of youth - a problem? "Only if you're not good enough. Of course, you get better as you get older, but only with experience. So it's very important to find somewhere where you can grow... a haven of sorts..."

Wigglesworth found his in Wales with the BBC National Orchestra. "This was the first orchestra who made me feel they were prepared to collaborate with me, build something with me. They have helped me enormously in creating an environment that is relaxed enough for one to make mistakes. And you have to. As long as your mistakes are honest ones. The cardinal sin is being dishonest and trying to cover up inexperience by pretending that you know all the answers. Orchestras will always see through that. Of course, you have to be careful not to say `sorry' too much, because then the players lose confidence in you. But you need to be able to stop and say, `This isn't working, it's too slow - back to the top.' There's no shame in that. We conductors are forever asking players to make it better - so why not us, too?"

Wigglesworth has been Music Director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for just over a year now. And their first big journey together is an ambitious one: a complete cycle of the Shostakovich Symphonies for the enterprising Swedish record label BIS. First off is the Symphony No 7 ("Leningrad") - one of music's bitterest protests, the cry for help which went unheard. The siege of Leningrad. But which siege? Hitler's or Stalin's? According to Shostakovich's controversial memoirs, Testimony, Leningrad succumbed to tyranny long before the Third Reich marched in. Tyranny has many faces. But only one tune. As witness the much-maligned first movement where this good-humoured, toe-tapping "humlet" undergoes traumatic mutation. It's the most invasive and protracted and utterly mindless crescendo in all music. But Shostakovich wanted mindless - that was the whole point. The old guard in Russia still think it's his worst piece.

So Wigglesworth went in search of answers and came back with more questions. When asked if the piece was as much about Stalin as Hitler, the 80-year- old oboist who played in the first performance replied: "Of course not." She remembers how hungry they all were, though. Of the second movement, "Memories", Wigglesworth enquired of Victor Liebermann (then leader of the Leningrad Philharmonic, now first-chair of the Royal Concertgebouw) and the legendary conductor and teacher Ilya Musin exactly what kind of "memories" these were. "Happy memories," said Musin. "Sad," said Liebermann. Both were close confidants of Shostakovich.

But such ambiguity is the key to Shostakovich's enduring fascination. It's taken until now for the realisation to dawn that the coda of the popular Fifth Symphony is no more, no less, than a big white lie. A hollow victory. Wigglesworth considers that he's somehow failed the symphony if an audience erupts in cheers at the close of a performance. A moment or two of shocked silence would be so much more gratifying. He claims he's managed it on a couple of occasions. But he's still digesting the implications.

Right now there are the other symphonies to digest. Several are new to him. It's a long process, learning the notes, breaking the codes - so far as one can. Wigglesworth studies with score in hand and CD in player - not one performance, he hastens to add, but as many as he can lay hands on. He thinks it's downright arrogant to insist that you never listen to other conductors' recordings. For better or worse, he learns something from each of them. Even so... "What is it about CDs that people are content to accept them as a substitute for the real thing? You wouldn't dream of appreciating a painting by Vermeer or Van Gogh by looking at a reproduction - even a high-quality reproduction - in a book..." That's a good quote. It's not going to sell many CDs. But, no matter. Bring back the publicist.

Mark Wigglesworth's new BBC NOW recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No 7 is on the BIS label (BIS CD 873)