Bruckner for strong women

The Hallé orchestra is the first to have equal numbers of women and men. But as the conductor Mark Elder tells Lynne Walker, female players have to be more aggressive
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"You can be sure that one composer I won't be conducting is Bruckner, because I don't understand his symphonies; in fact, his music means nothing at all to me."

With scant regard for the Hallé's long and distinguished tradition of playing Bruckner, Mark Elder made his position unequivocally clear when he arrived in Manchester to take up the position of music director in autumn 2000. A lot has happened in the intervening five years, including a "Damascene conversion regarding Bruckner", as he acknowledges.

"Something curious has come over me and I've fallen in love with Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. When I was in New York, conducting Wagner's Tannhäuser, I stumbled across a recording of this symphony in a concert conducted by my old friend Reggie Goodall. I admired him beyond anybody else, and I feel the I have to carry his torch and impress upon my younger colleagues what a significant role he played in the musical life of this country.

"Hearing Reggie's interpretation, the music suddenly made sense to me for the first time. Then I listened to the first recording of a Bruckner symphony on original instruments conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, and I suddenly found a way into this music. I felt its pulse and its flow, found myself captivated, and discovered that the key was not Wagner but Schubert."

That might seem strange given Bruckner's heartfelt musical meditation on Wagner's death that concludes the second movement of the Seventh Symphony. "No, what I hear is the purity and the naivety that is so moving in Schubert, magnified on an enormous scale in Bruckner," explains Elder.

Just a fortnight after this startling experience, he was invited to conduct the Hallé playing a Bruckner symphony at St Paul's Cathedral for the City of London Festival. Even more incredibly, the festival specified the Seventh "because it has such a sense of spiritual longing and would sound fantastic in St Paul's spacious acoustic". Elder couldn't believe his luck.

"For some reason, this work is a favourite among musicians, more than the Eighth, which is the special one for Wagnerians. The brass love it because it allows them to be part of a huge sonorous tapestry and they can make a really big impact." Elder admits that string players find Bruckner tiring to play, but on this occasion, the Hallé strings will be playing up to full strength and beyond. The reduction in players that the Hallé board applied as a cost-cutting exercise when bankruptcy was staring the orchestra in the face only a few years ago has been got round neatly. The orchestra relies on a small pool of musicians who are engaged "on a sort of 'B' contract", Elder says. "They know us and we know them, as does our audience – they are part of our extended family."

The Hallé is the first orchestra to have an equal number of women and men in its ranks – a situation, Elder comments, that can involve him in a little extra persuasion. It's a case of urging the female string players to pull their bows almost aggressively right through each note. He quotes the Hallé leader in her observation that although women have a greater facility, an easy flexibility when they take up a stringed instrument, male players have to work harder, and in so doing develop an ingrained intensity. Boys have bravura, Elder suggests. And while the principal oboe is back at work having recently become a father, it's going to be harder for the principal flute and clarinet who have become pregnant – just before a foreign tour, adds Elder, a touch ruefully.

But he appears relaxed about the situation, which is remarkable considering how obsessed he is with achieving continuity among the players, especially the "magic eight": "The front four desks of the strings must sound like a perpetual Mendelssohn octet in its stream of gloriously unforced give and take, and I find it frustrating that it's not always easy to persuade the right players to apply for vacancies in the Hallé."

This is despite the glowing reviews the orchestra's concerts attract, the acclaim for its CDs on its own new recording label, the Royal Philharmonic Society award it has just won in the Best Ensemble category, and invitations to tour to the world's musical capitals.

Elder recognises that a lot of players are still attached to the notion that London means better. He doesn't quite quote Elgar, with whose music he demonstrates such an affinity – "I don't think you London Johnnies know what orchestral playing is until you hear the Manchester orchestra" – but you feel as though he genuinely believes it. Good principals can command greater fees in Europe and more attractive contracts, working perhaps only half the time, and anyway, for some musicians, leaving London, even for what Elder describes as "the country's second city", is just too daunting a prospect.

Elder feels the same frustration with a number of top conductors he knows personally who, when they've guested with the Hallé, can't wait to come back but are slow to accept engagements so far out of London in the first place.

It infuriates Elder but hasn't deterred him, although perhaps the fact that he was born "on Hadrian's Wall", has a border-country name, and boasts a Scottish grandfather helps him feel at home in the North-west. The 58-year-old conductor and his wife have bought an apartment at the top of a converted mill in Manchester's buzzing Southern Gateway, and Elder claims to feel "centred" and very happy to have a permanent base in the city. It's doubtful, though, that they'll be celebrating their silver wedding in one of the celebrity hotspots frequented by the city's other top team-players.

But there's little Elder won't do to make himself a part of the Hallé and the city's cultural life. He did a solo turn in the orchestra's tribute to Ivor Novello, giving an urbane rendition of "And her mother came too"; he made a dramatic entrance playing the pistols in Satie's surreal ballet Parade; he recites Shelley's poem "Song" ("Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!") on the orchestra's recording of Elgar's Second Symphony; and he talks to audiences at every opportunity.

His concert chat-ups aren't always strictly to the point, and he can seem a trifle pompous, but he can surely be forgiven for displaying just a little ego when Britain's longest-established professional symphony orchestra is enjoying such a renaissance, performing challenging and imaginative programmes, and playing to such a high standard. There are a couple of interesting tours lined up for the Hallé, with China on the horizon, and next year, Elder conducts his first Mahler symphony, the Third, since taking over the musical directorship. But perhaps what delights him most in the season ahead is that the Hallé is combining with the city's other symphony orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, to present all 15 of Shostakovich's symphonies in the composer's birth centenary year.

"When I was a schoolboy, I used to write music in the style of Shostakovich," Elder recalls, and he tells how he attended the British premiere of the Fourth Symphony in 1961 in London, purely to experience Kyril Kondrashin conducting. But it was the music – a work that had waited 25 years for its premiere – that sent Elder reeling into the winter night.

The forthcoming Hallé season is laced with "secrets and codes" – an enigmatic thread running through the programming. What is less of a secret is that between now and 2010 – when Elder's current contract is up – Hallé audiences can expect some thrilling performances, and, who knows, perhaps even some Bruckner.

Mark Elder conducts the Hallé playing Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, at St Paul's Cathedral, London EC4, on 5 July, as part of the City of London Festival (0845 120 7502;; and Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius', at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000), on 22 July, and as part of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212; proms), on 4 July