When English National Opera presents Bernstein's On the Town to the critics on Thursday, one person who will not be present is the ENO's chairman Martin Smith - and some critics will applaud that fact. For this larger-than-life former banker, who does everything at gale force, provokes strong feelings. He may be loved by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for his unswerving support, and he may have presided over a brilliant architectural revamp at the Coliseum, to which he contributed £1m from his own pocket. But he is also the man who sacked ENO's artistic boss Nicholas Payne during the run-up to that revamp: the internal strife that ensued shook the company to its core. Though Smith can't be blamed for the iffy shows that followed the reopening, he is still regarded by some as the cause of ENO's ills.
Smith is going to miss Thursday's premiere in order to be present at a concert of Mozart and Beethoven given by students of the Royal Academy of Music plus players from the OAE. And he won't be sitting in the stalls: he'll be on the podium.
Middle-aged gent gets the conducting bug? It's not such an unusual phenomenon. The most celebrated example is Gilbert Kaplan, a musically untrained US publisher who was once invited to watch a rehearsal of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, and found himself reborn. "The work was like a bolt of lightning going through me," he explained after he'd proceeded to turn himself, by an act of will plus years of study, into one of the world's leading exponents of that work. He conducts nothing else: a one-trick pony, with a very brilliant trick.
The broadcaster Humphrey Burton may have done some tentative conducting at university, but he waited until he was 70, and celebrating his reprieve from cancer, before making his carefully prepared debut with 500 singers in a well-received performance of Verdi's Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall. "They say all power corrupts, but the power of the baton does not: I was inflamed by it," he says, adding that he now regrets not having chosen conducting as a career. He's planning to conduct another concert for his 75th birthday.
But while Burton has spent his whole life working with musicians, Martin Smith has spent his life toiling in the City: can his démarche be anything more than the folie de grandeur of a man with the money and power to make it happen? He won't discuss ENO politics - he doesn't want to reopen old wounds - but he's happy to explain how this conducting lark came about.
Since we were at school together - not close pals, but fellow choristers and loafers on the rugby field - it is indeed of interest to me; his current public position may make it of more general interest, too. And as he tells his tale, St Albans School proves significant. This was an academic forcing-house - Stephen Hawking was one of the bright lights in the science department, where music was for pansies - but under the charismatic and Tippett-like Peter Burton, it was taught with rigour. Smith's first great musical experience was singing Palestrina's "Hodie Christus natus est" as the most junior chorister at St Albans cathedral under Burton's direction: "It was the most wonderful thing I'd ever heard in my life. Peter Burton was a martinet, and though one wasn't aware of it at the time, it was all sinking into one's subconscious. I owe him a lot." Smith once recorded "O for the Wings of a Dove" as the cathedral's prize treble, "but needless to say, it didn't dislodge a celebrated recording by the then-equivalent of Aled Jones."
As a young banker, Smith often went to the opera, but it wasn't his governing passion: his entry into the musical world came about by accident, when a friend asked if his firm would like to help a new ensemble called the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to find its feet. It was desperate for £30,000 to fund a concert performance of Mozart's Idomeneo with Simon Rattle. Smith went off and talked to a friend, then came back with a £30,000 cheque, thus setting a pattern that he maintained for the next 15 years.
But the real story begins with what he calls "one of those ridiculous round-the-breakfast-table conversations, where we were all debating what we would do if there was just one thing that meant more to us than anything else in life. I said I'd conduct the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, then didn't give it a moment's more thought. But my wife, Elise, did, and for my 50th birthday she set up an event." Cleverly, Smith was duped into wearing white tie and tails for a dinner at his old college in Oxford, but found himself steered towards the Sheldonian, where the OAE plus 400 of his friends were waiting, and where he was told that Rattle suddenly couldn't make the date. "I was given a baton and propelled to the front, where the score was waiting open for me. So I turned to the leader and said, 'What do I do?' And she said, 'It's one in the bar, and probably a little slower than you think it is.' So off we went. Well, frankly, I wasn't conducting it at all. Their playing bore no relationship to my beat." But afterwards he began to ruminate. "And I thought, gosh, if one could really do this properly, what a wonderful thing."
Gilbert Kaplan, whom he'd come to know as a fellow member of the South Bank board, got tired of hearing Smith's Walter Mitty fantasies and told him to go for it: "I decided it had to be on my 60th birthday, and it had to be the OAE, as the one grown-up orchestra who might be willing to do something with me. And it had to be a benefit concert." He would boldly hire the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and he would do the Messiah, "as I'd sung it both as a treble and as a bass, and it was in my bloodstream." He'd have to train, so for 16 months the harpsichordist and conductor Nicholas Kraemer became his tutor. Smith speaks wincingly of their first lesson, and of his inability to do the simplest things: "It was like deciding to become a climber, and starting with Everest, and for a long time I was just not equipped." Gradually, he got a feel for what he should be doing, practised conducting groups of students, and did a dry run for an invited audience.
Meanwhile, he was cranking up his money-making machine, "so that when the big day came, I knew before I got up on the podium that it would at least be a financial success, whatever it was like artistically." The OAE netted £75,000, and he experienced what he calls his "epiphany": "I was more scared than I'd ever been in my life. Somebody asked me afterwards what I thought I'd done, and I said, 'I know I'm not Simon Rattle, but maybe I was the lightning conductor.' All that energy had been created, and I was the person standing there, helping to release it."
That was two years ago. This week he will conduct a benefit performance with students of the Royal Academy, of which he and his wife are honorary fellows, and for which they are funding an early-instrument collection. He has been training with another tutor, the composer-conductor Peter Ash, and he has also done a dry run of this week's programme in Bulgaria, with a local orchestra that specialises in trial outings for fledgling conductors. The dry run went well enough for Smith to be invited back: "So I sniff the beginnings of some career development." And the Bulgarians presumably sniff some much-needed cash.
"I may be the only banker in London or anywhere else who has conducted Beethoven's Seventh," says Smith, "but I'm painfully aware of how much I don't know and can't do - we're dealing here with a 62-year-old brain."
So how good is he? Maggie Faultless, who has twice led the OAE under his baton, thinks it will never be possible to evaluate him as a conductor, "because it's impossible to forget who he is, and what else he does. But his qualities of leadership have really come out, and that's important in any conductor." Nicholas Kraemer echoes that, but thinks Smith should develop a more incisive ear. Peter Ash says his "ability to use gesture to affect sound" has greatly improved, and pays tribute to his risk-taking determination. And as Faultless generously observes: "Many of us indulge our obsessions in later life, whether it's hiring a Formula One car, or learning to horse-ride like me. I don't think we should criticise anybody for following their dreams."
Smith, who first ran the marathon at 49, confesses that he does dream at night about conducting: "Most bankers are running out of steam by their late forties, but a lot of conductors only come into their own in their sixties. Wouldn't it be wonderful to end your banking career at the usual point, and then start a humble but enjoyable conducting career? One or two self-financed concerts a year, and always with a philanthropic purpose." How does he feel about inviting critics? He pauses, then comes out with a characteristically bold reply: "I'd have no problem with that - they have a right to be there if they want." Sounds like a challenge to me.
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