5 minutes with.... Paul Murphy

Ahead of our show at Symphony Hall on 29 April 2017, we took 5 minutes to have a chat with Principal Conductor Paul Murphy.

Paul Murphy by Lee Armstrong.

What's your typical day like when the orchestra is performing?

It can actually vary a lot depending on whether I am conducting a matinee or an evening, or indeed both. If it’s a double show day, I will try to have a restful morning with a sizeable breakfast, check e-mails and get to theatre at least an hour and half before the first show. I am definitely not a last minute person and I much prefer to be in ‘work mode’ earlier than I need to be, rather than later – and at any rate - there are always logistical and musical issues with colleagues to sort out or discuss on a show day! Sometimes, as ballet conductors we have to rehearse with an alternate cast of Principal Dancers (as casting changes per show) between the afternoon and evening performances or occasionally we are called upon to give a pre-performance talk; if this is the case, I will have some cold food in my dressing room, otherwise will try to have a meal before the second show. It’s not ideal for digestion, especially as conducting is a very physical job but these days I find I simply need the energy! If I have an evening show only, I’ll work on scores and admin for forthcoming productions throughout the day. If a matinee only, especially on tour, I might try to catch a film in the evening, or more often than not these days, fall asleep in my hotel room! After an evening show however, it’s always nice to have a glass or 2 of wine with friends.

What's the craziest/most unexpected thing that's ever happened to you while on the job?

Early on in my career, I was conducting a concert with an amateur orchestra, when an elderly lady arrived late for the performance. Imagine my surprise when she came right up to the podium on the stage during the overture to ask me where her seat was – fortunately I was rescued by the usher!

Is there a difference between conducting when there are dancers on stage as opposed to just musicians?

People may not realise that ballet conducting involves a lot of multi-tasking! We accompany the dancers in the same way we would accompany a soloist in a concerto or a singer, except we are required to watch rather than listen. At the same time, the orchestra who can see nothing that’s happening onstage are reliant on the conductor to do exactly the same job as conducting in a concert hall. So...we have to do both and attempt to keep both groups happy!

"...imagine my surprise when [a lady] came up to the stage during an overture to ask me where her seat was!"

Paul Murphy

Is there a particular piece in this performance you’re looking forward to conducting/hearing? Why?

Yes. I am particularly looking forward to conducting the extracts from Glazunov’s The Seasons. I think that Glazunov is one of the most under-rated composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His works are almost entirely eclipsed by his more famous contemporaries Tchaikovsky and Rimsky Korsakov, which is a great pity. His music, as you will hear in this ballet score is ravishingly beautiful with skilful and colourful orchestration a particular feature. I hope to be able to conduct the complete work one day, either in concert or in the theatre

What do you enjoy most about playing at a venue like Symphony Hall?

Symphony Hall is truly one of the world’s great concert halls and it’s really a great privilege to savour the opulence of the space and the wonderful acoustic. It’s also a great opportunity for the Royal Ballet Sinfonia - normally partially buried in various pits around the country - to demonstrate to the Birmingham public what a fine and versatile ensemble they truly are. We’re always excited to perform in this wonderful space.

Is there any piece of music (or composer) that you’ve never tackled, that you would love to?

Wagner’s Parsifal is a work of towering genius and one which I would love to tackle. There are almost 4 and half hours of music which pose a tremendous challenge for the conductor in terms of stamina, pace and drama whilst continually encouraging beauty of tone from the singers and orchestra. I once had the privilege of hearing the great Bernard Haitink conduct Parsifal at the Royal Opera House, an experience I shall never forget.

If you could give one bit of advice to upcoming musicians and conductors – what would it be?

Be patient, be meticulously prepared, always be flexible and keep your ego in check! The British conductor Sir Colin Davis, sadly no longer with us, once told me that conducting, in his opinion, was about 1 percent making music and 99 percent dealing with people and I really have seen and thought of this many times throughout my career thus far – I think young conductors need to learn about life as well as studying their Mahler and Beethoven symphonies. Orchestras are pretty amazing without a conductor and we will only encourage them to play better if we trust their technical and musical prowess and treat individuals with respect. If you are lucky, you will learn a lot from them and they won’t annihilate you!