Interview: Dominic Parker & the BBCSSO 17/18 season

First published in The Herald on 22 March, 2017

Hanging on the wall of Dominic Parker’s office at City Halls in Glasgow are framed photographs of a concert hall from various interior and exterior angles. “Ah, right, a different hall,” says the new director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, looking as though he’s just been caught with pictures of an ex. The photos were a leaving present from his previous job at Sage Gateshead; in one of them, he and the Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell are harnessed onto the roof, which was no mean publicity stunt given the building’s architecture is all curves. Apparently Tickell managed to play a total of five notes before fear and the Tyneside weather set in.

When I ask Parker about his own musical background, he reaches for a well-thumbed volume of Beethoven piano sonatas lying on his desk. He’s had the book since he was 12; inside, the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata is marked with tiny post-it labels indicating passages he wants to work on. He’s recently started having lessons again. “I’m a piano player,” he says. “Though I definitely wouldn’t call myself a pianist. I think when you’re working with a load of musicians it helps if you’re some sort of struggling musician, whatever the outcome might be.”

Parker grew up near Durham and didn’t study music at university — because, he explains, “it was so engrained in my life that my dad said something like, ‘don’t study it because you’re doing it anyway. Do something useful like Russian.’” He half took the advice and read English at Oxford, which got him a job as a tour guide for the Wordsworth Trust in return for free coal and £40 a week.

“I do like a good building,” he says, and he’s known a few. After his time at Wordsworth Cottage and prior to his stint as Director of External Relations at Sage, he helped build the new Dora Stoutzker Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and before that was part of the team responsible for refurbishing the Royal Festival Hall in London. It’s intriguing, then, that he is so keen to get his new orchestra performing outside its home at City Halls.

“Thomas Dausgaard has an incredible curiosity,” he says of the BBCSSO’s new-ish Danish chief conductor. “He wants to change concert formats, change repertoire, change the way we listen to things. And absolutely, change venues. We haven’t done it enough here yet. Thomas and I have been investigating other spaces we might be able to use. Anything can be an outside broadcast for a radio orchestra. We’re trying to break the boundaries.”

Do boundaries need to be broken by an orchestra that has one of the country’s loveliest halls at its disposal? “I think they do,” he reasons. “Because we could reach a completely different kind of audience that way. The Sage is all about getting new people into the building. The BBCSSO can do that too. We should be getting all sorts of people into City Halls. But this orchestra is so damn good, and in order to get more people recognising that we need to find news ways of reaching more people. It’s as simple as that. The BBC has powerful platforms: radio, TV, online. But for me, coming from outside the BBC, the live experience is what drives me. By the way,” he adds, “these ideas are very nascent.”

Yesterday the BBCSSO announced its 2017-2018 concert programme, and, as Parker points out, the above-mentioned spacial scheming has yet to make its mark. It will be the second season under Dausgaard and the first under Parker, who only took up the director job on Halloween. Classical programmes tend to be planned years in advance, so the bulk of the lineup was set out by his predecessor Gavin Reid and by Dausgaard — “I’ve only helped to shape the edges,” says Parker.

Main feature of the new season is a series called Composer Roots in which Dausgaard investigates various kinds of plainchant, baroque and folk music that influenced major composers. “How can we as musicians and music-makers get closer to the mystery of what makes the composer’s pen move?” Dausgaard asks in his introduction to the season brochure. “We will be digging to discover possible roots of inspiration, hoping to make us perform and listen to milestones in our repertoire in new ways.”

So Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony shares an evening with snippets of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. Three consecutive concerts look at Bartok and Kodaly in the context of the traditional Hungarian culture they loved, with folk musicians from Hungary joining the orchestra. Nielsen and Sibelius get similar treatments in the company of Danish and Finnish folk music, and Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, Symphonic Dances and Third Piano Concerto are preceded by a performance of Russian Orthodox znamenny chant. “Think of the main theme of Rach 3,” says Parker, humming the concerto’s melancholy opening tune. “Can’t you hear it as plainchant when you start to listen in that way?” He’s right: you can.

This is not the first time an orchestra has explored the influences of traditional music on composers, but Composer Roots is a neat way to open up standard concert formatting and get big symphonic crowdpleasers on the same bill as folk and early music without the genre-hopping feeling tokenistic or random. In general the BBCSSO does well when it comes to mixing old with new, formal ‘classical’ with experimental and other denominations. It has the advantage of the excellent annual Tectonics festival — for which Parker has voiced enthusiasm — and of the BBC’s budget and remit for commissioning new work to fill Radio 3’s contemporary programmes. Forthcoming pieces in the Scottish Inspirations series that Dausgaard launched last year include BBC commissions for David Fennessy. William Sweeney and Anna Clyne. Other Saturday night contemporary concerts feature the music of Claude Vivier and James Tenney, both important 20th century North American composers whose music is rarely performed in the UK.

Even so, Parker acknowledges the danger of siloing new music into ‘specialist’ Saturday nights while the main Thursday evening series is reserved for ‘easier’ repertoire. He says he would like to see that distinction become more blurred in future. The season free of other common orchestral pitfalls, either: there is just one piece by a woman in the Thursday night series — a ten-minute opener by Canadian composer Cassandra Miller on 16 November — and precisely no female conductors anywhere in the programme, unless you count an afternoon concert in April 2018 in which the orchestra’s terrific leader Laura Samuel directs Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Britten’s Les Illuminations from the violin.

“It’s a problem for the whole of classical music,” Parker admits, but he seems open to addressing it. And before I go, he stresses the orchestra’s legacy for intelligent and challenging programming. “There’s something for everyone next season, but it’s never lollypops with us. We are looking to be distinctive and diverse all the time. Some things are driven by unashamed intellectual curiosity about music. There’s a lot to be said about the ethos of public service that comes with the BBC: inform, educate, entertain. What I’ve already found about the Glasgow audience is that they are really curious. It’s quite rare. There’s an appetite. People have told me how much they are loving the current Tippett cycle. I mean, I love the Tippett cycle! But it’s not every audience you can count on to share that kind of enthusiasm.”

The BBCSSO’s new seasons is available online at www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso