Gary Brain Remembered

It has not been a good week. On Friday Yodit, my beloved fiancée, partner of the past seven years and mother of our five-year-old Alex, lost her battle with stomach cancer, fought with astonishing courage and determination. I will miss her terribly, and I’ll return here to write about her. But the week began pretty badly, too: on Tuesday morning Claude Boisson, partner of the conductor Gary Brain for some 25 years, rang me to tell me that Gary had died the previous day.

Gary Brain Remembered

Conductor Gary Brain

Gary was a near-neighbour of mine in the second half of the ten years I lived and worked in Paris (1987–97). We were close friends. I became his repertoire advisor, directing him towards the music of (for example) Antonín Rejcha (Anton/Antoine Reicha), whose symphonies Gary edited; I went to Sweden to hear him conduct one of them, and it was always our intention that he would record them for Toccata Classics. And we had many more projects under discussion, though they were eventually sidelined by Gary’s poor physical condition. All we managed to do together was a CD of Mysliveček symphonies for strings – one of six CDs Gary recorded for Toccata Classics in Kazakhstan, although he was let down by poor orchestral playing and an inadequate producer and the others couldn’t be released.

Long before Toccata Classics was thought of, I was responsible for taking the music of the Polish-Swiss composer Czesław Marek to Gary – quite literally: I humped the scores round to his flat in a postal sack on my back and dumped them in the middle of his floor. Claude put his organisational shoulder behind the project and it soon ended up with a home at Koch Schwann – a seven-CD series of everything Marek wrote, three of them being orchestral CDs with Gary conducting the Philharmonia; the first of them won a Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik. Koch Schwann went down the tubes long ago; fortunately, the series has been re-issued on Guild.

I heralded the release of the first CD in 1996 with an interview with Gary in Fanfare, and reproduce it here more or less as it appeared then, so that he can introduce himself in his own words.

Making His Marek

The conductor Gary Brain talks to Martin Anderson

There’s not much notice paid to the music of Czesław Marek in my shorter dictionaries. Even that good-natured and normally authoritative Bible, Nicolas Slominsky’s Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, dismisses him in a mere nine lines. Yet Marek, born in Poland in 1891 and dying in the summer of 1985 in his adopted Zurich, where he was venerated as a piano teacher but little more, turns out to have been the composer of a series of wonderfully rich and powerful orchestral scores – and at least one of them, the Sinfonia of 1927–28 (just released on Koch Schwann, along with Marek’s Four Meditations and his Suite for Orchestra), is a masterpiece, marrying an extraordinary command of long-limbed structure with a wealth of detail inspired by folk dance, rather as if Szymanowski had recomposed Suk’s Asrael Symphony. Having attended the London recording sessions for its first recording (which was also its first performance in modern times), with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the conductor Gary Brain, I can safely report that it is among this century’s most impressive works for orchestra.

Marek obviously knew he had produced a work of high quality: he entered the Sinfonia in the competition run in 1928 by the Columbia Graphophone Company for a completion of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony or a work written ‘in the spirit of Schubert’ (this second category was added after complaints about the first). Unsurprisingly, the jury, which included Nielsen, Tovey, and Glazunov, awarded it a special prize. (Much more surprisingly, the winning work was Kurt Atterberg’s unexceptional Sixth Symphony, though at least four other competing pieces ought to have beaten it hands down: the Marek Sinfonia, Ludvig Irgens Jensen’s Passacaglia, Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, and Franz Schmidt’s Third.)

Gary Brain is conducting three of seven discs of Marek – his complete works – on Koch Schwann (there are also two of piano music, one of songs, and another of chamber music), a project supported by the Marek Foundation of Switzerland. His enthusiasm for Marek’s music is immediate and obviously deeply felt. ‘When I look at a score, usually the stuff either leaps out at me or nothing happens. With Marek it struck me straightaway, especially the Sinfonia – that’s the piece that got me at the beginning: it has rich textures, big, broad, muscular lines, enormous climaxes; it’s deep, it’s thoughtful. The opening is fascinating: a duo with two bass-clarinets and cor anglais over octaves in the double-basses. From the first page I thought: “I’ve never seen anything like this before”. People have told me that you can hear a bit of Franz Schmidt in it or a bit of Pfitzner, Mahler, whatever, but at the end of the day Marek is his own man alright. Especially in the Sinfonia – there’s no doubt about that whatsoever.

‘The funny part about it is that he seems to compose in sections. You get these great, massive blocks of sound, and then he always puts in a rubato, a ritenuto, a ritardando and brings it back down to nothing and restarts again. He does this in every single piece of his that I know.’ Doesn’t this approach have a kind of stop-start effect on the structure? ‘No, it’s his way of making it work. It doesn’t get in the way. At first I thought it did – I got sick of doing these rallentandos all the time – and obviously they’re very hard to conduct, especially if you’re in an enormous block of triple forte and then suddenly you get a rallentando and you’re starting off pianissimo in a different direction. But that’s his way of creating interest, of harnessing and releasing tension and energy. It’s not always easy to bring off. When you’re conducting an orchestra like the Philharmonia, you’re very lucky in that they’re so responsive. I wouldn’t have wanted to do such a piece with an orchestra with less skill, because the Sinfonia is an enormous piece, technically difficult for any orchestra to cope with. Also its forces dictate an orchestra of that size. It requires a hundred-plus – four trombones, tuba, five trumpets, six horns, two harps, five clarinets (including two bass clarinets and an E flat piccolo), a big percussion section, and the strings to compensate for what is coming from the back: we used eighteen first violins in this recording. The bass drum part, for example, is marked fff possibile at one point by Marek. The bass drum is here what the hammer blows [in the Sixth Symphony] were to Mahler, with very much the same sort of effect: they are big, dramatic moments. I was extremely glad that I recorded the end of the Sinfonia first. It repeats the duo between the two bass clarinets and the long, mournful cor anglais solo, and I knew full well, having studied the Sinfonia for some three-and-a-half months before we recorded it, that if I didn’t do it first, by the time they’d blown themselves through a three-hour session they’d have nothing left at the end to get that extremely sad, tailing-off-to-zero effect that I wanted. It’s a miracle, in fact, that we made it: we finished with a minute and thirty seconds to spare! And with no rehearsal outside the sessions. Those are very difficult conditions to do the world premiere of a symphony on CD. It does preserve something of the freshness of the thing, but I wouldn’t have minded a performance! But Marek’s music flows. He knows what he’s doing, he’s a craftsman. The thing that impresses me most about him is that he knows where to use the scissors: there isn’t a spare note in anything he writes, despite the richness of the texture and the immensity of the construction. He knows when he has said enough and he doesn’t want to say any more – and that’s a joy for a conductor. And for the musicians who play it too.

‘The Philharmonia were a bit sceptical to begin with. They’d never heard of me before, of course. We recorded the Sinfonia, Meditations and Suite at Watford Town Hall [just north of London], which has a long recording history, but we had problems with trucks and planes and things, problems we were having to stop for now and again. But we got through it very well, and I was very pleased with the conviction with which they played it. We’ve now just had the sessions for the second CD, with parts prepared by a German publisher which were of decidedly inferior quality, and we spent more than half the first session correcting wrong notes. This can really throw an orchestra. And an orchestra of the standing of the Philharmonia wouldn’t be used to parts as bad as those were. As a result I lost half my recording time. And this was the first time any of this music had been performed, let alone recorded – it had never been played before. But the Philharmonia were patient, they were decent, and they got on with the job. And we have ended up with a very fine result.’

There’s nothing that guarantees good music a hearing, of course, though it is baffling that something of this quality could have been sitting on a shelf somewhere in Switzerland for decades. Does Brain have an explanation? ‘First, I gather that Marek was a fairly wealthy man. Unlike some penniless composers, he didn’t need to go out banging on doors and saying “Please play my piece”. [In fact, Marek made that point himself: ‘Ich bin nie hausieren gegangen’.] From what little I know of him, I imagine him to have been a very proud man – the music is certainly extremely proud – and I doubt that he pushed it very hard. Just why it’s been sitting in a cupboard for so long I don’t know, though I have been told that towards the end of his life he was distraught that Switzerland ignored him as a Swiss composer – although it is certain he was one of the major ones. And it takes inquisitive people to go and find these things.

‘That’s the way I am building my career, largely. I rely on informed people thrusting music like this at me and saying it might be worth doing. I have looked at many scores, some of which have gone on the floor as rubbish, some of which have been masterpieces. Sometimes you can tell straightaway. With Marek you could. And with my second CD, music by Harold Truscott, you could tell right away the music was worth doing’: Harold Truscott, an English composer who died in October ’92 – all of them first performances (Marco Polo 8.223674). Brain’s enthusiasm for the music of Harold Truscott, an English composer who died in October ’92 is as patent as for Marek’s. ‘There’s a Symphony, a strikingly powerful work with a high rhythmic charge – and it’s completely unknown. The Suite in G for orchestra contains some very lovely music indeed. And then there’s the Elegy for strings, which in my view is a masterpiece – it’s very deeply moving. The Elegy was composed in 1943 and, like the Marek Sinfonia, it sat unknown in a cupboard for half a century. Quite why Truscott wrote it, and then kept it hidden, we may never know; it would certainly have changed his life if it had been played in his lifetime. He did have a reputation as a writer with an extraordinary wide range of sympathies – not just in music – but hardly anybody knew that he composed a lot of highly original music himself. It’s very sad he didn’t live to experience the acclaim that this disc has brought him.’

The Truscott Symphony and Marek Sinfonia are gutsy, big-boned pieces – is this where Brain hopes to specialise, as a kind of orchestral lion-tamer? ‘No, not necessarily. At the moment I am working on the Symphonies of Antonín Rejcha [1770–1836], and he’s not big and sturdy, but he’s still well worth doing. He’s a Romantic Classicist who again has been forgotten. So much so that I am more or less certain that most of Rejcha’s Symphonies haven’t ever been played, even in his lifetime. If they were, it was maybe a movement of this and a movement of that. The scores require an enormous amount of editorial work, but when I have finished we’ll record the complete cycle – watch this space.

‘Then there’s Boris Blacher, with whom I had composition lessons in Berlin in the late ’60s. So I was delighted that during the most recent recording sessions for the Marek, Koch Classics suggested that we should record some Blacher. There are some very good works that really scream out to be done. There’s a piece for string quartet and orchestra that I’d love to do; I don’t think it’s ever been recorded. Everybody plays the Paganini Variations and Concertante Musik and things like that, but there are a lot of other pieces that really should be done. Blacher was very kind to me at a time in my life when I needed some kindness. He’s the kind of man I’ve never forgotten, and I would deem it a privilege to conduct his music.’

Kiri Te Kanawa apart, New Zealand is not known for its musical exports and yet here, without any fuss, was a young New Zealander studying in one of the world’s major musical centers with one of its major composers. How did Brain come to be there in the first place? He starts at the beginning. ‘I was born in New Zealand; my background is English-Scottish-French. Both my parents were musical and I showed an early aptitude for music. I learned the piano when I was four, trumpet and horn from about ten, and started playing the timpani when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I went through various youth orchestras and then got a scholarship to study at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin when I was in my late teens. I took some conducting classes in Berlin and my conducting professor’ – Brain names him on condition that I don’t identify him in print [2015 interjection: it was Lorin Maazel] – ‘was so difficult a person that he more or less scared me off it: I felt safer behind my timpani. I was taking general musical subjects: composition with Blacher and, privately, timpani with Werner Thärichen, a fine musician and an important composer in his own right. Then I went to the University of Indiana to continue studying for my music degree before going to the BBC Training Orchestra in Bristol, in the days when we were lucky enough to have people of the standing of Sir Adrian Boult conducting us quite regularly. We gave concerts, made little tours, broadcast weekly; it was there that I learned virtually everything an orchestral percussionist needs. (It was very nice to bump into old colleagues in the Philharmonia during the Marek sessions.) At the time John Carewe was conducting the BBC Welsh orchestra in Cardiff, and so they regularly sent me across the Solent, where we broadcast a lot of new music – superb training for a twenty-year-old! I went to the Ulster Orchestra for a while (Janos Fürst, the conductor, was the concert-master then), after which I went to Covent Garden during the time of Solti and Colin Davis. But then the timpanist of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra fell ill, and I was bluntly reminded that the terms of my bursary for Germany quite some time before had been that if they needed my services at any time I could be recalled. Still, I was more than happy to go back anyway.’

If enthusiasm is any measure of happiness, Brain must have been content indeed, for he threw himself into New Zealand’s musical life with evident passion. As well as taking up the principal’s position in the NZSO, he founded the chamber group Music Players 70 – ‘a group of highly idealistic young guys. We played music by George Crumb, Takemitsu, Takahashi, Stockhausen, anyone you can imagine. It was great learning experience. We decided to base the group around the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, which we put into rehearsal for a year before we first performed it in public – from memory!’ He interrupts the conversation to play me the LP recording he made in 1971, an electric performance, fizzing with energy and breathtakingly fast tempi that complement some extraordinarily assured playing – unquestionably the best performance I have heard.

‘We also put on our own festival series where we premiered every bit of new music we could lay our hands on, commissioning new works, changing the constitution of the group to suit the programme, things like Schubert lieder mixed in with Haubenstock-Ramati and Berio, and touring internationally – a marvellous group to work with, and very good learning ground. And the NZSO played a lot of new music, too: because it was a radio orchestra (it isn’t now), it could afford to do so. We also had a new conductor every month, so I got through a fair whack of repertoire. And I did something like five percussion concertos, including the Milhaud, the Panufnik, the Thärichen, and the orchestral version of the Bartók Sonata with Walter Susskind (whom I managed to convince to give me some conducting lessons). These are invaluable experiences which I now fall back on all the time. And about this time I was honored with an OBE [Order of the British Empire] for my “services to music” – I organised the Jeunesse Musicale for the entire South Pacific.

‘And all the time it was sitting at the back of my mind that I wanted to conduct. I did several trips through Asia giving solo percussion concerts, and after one concert in the Philippines I was asked if I could conduct the next night, a programme including the Schubert “Great C major”, with an excellent orchestra, the Metro Manila Symphony Orchestra (it’s amazing that such a poverty-stricken land can produce such good musicians). In the event, they asked me back. After that I started rehearsing from full scores instead of just looking at the timpani part, seeing what everyone else was doing, looking at what was going on. When you sit at the timpani, in the centre of the orchestra, with all the sound around you, it’s a great way to learn the repertoire, with different conductors often doing the same pieces so you could judge how the interpretations went, follow the structures that were forming right in front of you, the changing harmonies, and so on. You could see how the conductor shaped his interpretation as a whole – and it saves you having to count hundreds of bars of score!’

Several prominent conductors have moved forward to the podium from the percussion section at the back of the band – Neeme Järvi and Simon Rattle are only the best-known of them. In Brain’s case the decision was more or less taken for him. His manner as he explains what happened is fairly casually now, though he must have gone through hell at the time. ‘It was 6 August 1989. At the time I was principal percussionist and timpanist in the NZSO. My children were doing exams, and since I was vegetating in the orchestra, academically at least, I had decided that I should study as well. I wanted to find an entirely fresh field, not to do anything with the degree, just for fun. So I had been doing a degree in psychology for a number of years by correspondence, to-ing and fro-ing to the University of Indiana, doing exams by post, and then they told me I’d have to be on campus for the final exam. As we were boarding the aircraft in Auckland, a chap got on with a very large metal suitcase. He happened to stop right beside me and opened it up, so I saw what was in it: cameras, film, developing fluid, that sort of thing; he was obviously a professional photographer. As he closed it, the purser of the aircraft came up and said: “Sir, you can’t possibly stow that in here; we’ll put it in the hold”. But you know what it’s like when you’re boarding a jumbo jet: hundreds of people coming and going. So while no-one was looking he stuffed the case in the locker above me, on the opposite side. It was so heavy that it took him both his arms and all his strength to get it up there.

‘That was the last I thought about it. We dined and wined and slept a bit, and then, as we were beginning our descent into Honolulu, I was just getting out of my seat when we hit some turbulence – and the whole of this blasted locker disintegrated. Out came the case, straight towards my head. I instinctively put my right hand up to deflect it. All I heard was ‘snap!’ as it pulled everything back, before coming to rest on my foot. After that everything gets a bit vague. The crew scampered for cover, and I was eventually given a couple of Disprin and a glass of water! By the time I got to mainland America, my wrist had become pretty black and when I got myself to a hotel they insisted that I went to a hospital. But once it became known that I was a professional musician the surgeon wouldn’t touch me. They called in a specialist surgeon in San Francisco who said that, indeed, the hand was very badly broken. Then they operated, putting pins and plates in my wrist and plastering it. All this time I was hobbling around with a broken foot and, back in New Zealand (there was no question of going on to sit my exams since I couldn’t write), they diagnosed septicaemia in my hand and a broken toe – the pain in my wrist was so acute that I simply hadn’t noticed the damage to my foot. They took the pins out of my wrist and began a very complex series of operations to rebuild it, using parts of me to avoid rejection, replacing ligaments, rebuilding the metacarpals. All rather dramatic!’

Did Brain know at this time that his career as an instrumentalist was over? ‘No, although it was ironical that I was sitting a degree in clinical psychology when they began to unleash the psychiatrists onto me. These guys were so cunning that I didn’t know at first what they getting at. They’d delicately ask me if I’d ever thought about what I’d do if I couldn’t play again. I used to tell them that of course I would, there was no question about it. It never occurred to me that it could be that serious. But they kept chipping away in the year or so that I was having all this surgery, and finally one of these psychiatrists came straight out with it that it didn’t look as if I was ever going to be able to play again; the surgeon confirmed it the same day. I then had months of agonizing therapy to get the use of my wrist back and plastic surgery to hide all the railway lines on it!’

So how does an ex-percussionist in New Zealand with a broken hand come to be living in France and conducting across Europe? ‘I’ve always been lucky in being in the right place at the right time. French agents had blown up the Greenpeace boat “Rainbow Warrior” in New Zealand waters, which, hardly surprisingly, had soured relations between the two countries. France had therefore instituted a kind of friendship fund to improve its image in New Zealand. They appointed an ambassador, Gabriel de Bellescize, who by chance also was the head of the artistic division of the French foreign ministry. When he read about my demise as a professional player, he invited me to the embassy for a meeting and told me it might be possible for France to retrain me as a conductor. He put his words into action very quickly, and within a year I was sitting in Paris on a scholarship from the French foreign ministry. It wasn’t easy to go back to school in my forties, sitting in the graduate conductors’ class with students who were half my age. But I was lucky: the French officials who were dealing with me realised that I had a fair amount of playing experience and that there wasn’t much point in me hanging around in a conductors’ class when it was repertoire that was being taught. So I was delighted to find myself at the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris to train with Armin Jordan and at the Ensemble Intercontemporain of Pierre Boulez. One day the phone went and I was told that Boulez had just appointed a young chief conductor, a Californian called David Robertson. Robertson was very kind to me, and we got on very well. I helped him prepare some concerts, Mahler Six for the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London, rehearsing the choir for the Honegger Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, preparing Don Pasquale in Rouen, that sort of thing. By way of thanks, he “gave” me one of his concerts, my first in France, the Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle in Nantes with the Chorus of the Paris Opéra-Comique, and I later conducted it in Paris.

‘But the career proper started off in eastern Europe, which I was very glad to do. The attitude towards music is vastly different there – and more pleasurable. It was good to conduct in a coal-mining town in Poland where there is terrible poverty and to see the concert hall with all seats taken and everyone standing round the edges – coal-miners and their families, just longing to hear a concert of classical music. It was good to conduct in Wrocław where Berlioz used to be chief conductor, when it was Breslau, the capital of Upper Silesia. And I conducted elsewhere in Poland, in Romania, gaining experience, learning how to overcome language difficulties and communicate with orchestras. Now I’m conducting in France, the UK, Sweden, Germany, Finland, the Czech Republic, Italy…. Life feels good at the moment!

‘I think it’s important for a conductor to do two things. A) work out how he’s going to construct his career. In my case, it’s been a deliberate choice of looking for good unplayed repertoire. There’s a need for it. You do music a service, you do yourself a service, and your record company is pleased. And B) when you do these pieces, you have to work out how you’re going to conduct them. I spend hours and hours at the table looking at the piece to get an architectural construction in my head long before I front up to the orchestra. A conductor must have a complete plan of how the whole thing is going to be constructed long before the first beat ever goes down in front of the band. With almost everything I have done, the music has never been recorded before; indeed, in most cases it’s never been played before. Therefore this plan of architectural construction is paramount, because if I don’t know how it’s going to sound, how can I expect the musicians to follow what I am doing.’

Was the choice of a new career with the baton an obvious one? Brain shrugs. ‘It was what I had always intended to do anyway, even as a kid. And conducting is something that can’t be taught. It’s something that’s in your soul, in your being, in your life experience. Those are things you have to transmit to the musicians from whom you are trying to extract the greatest possible passion and refinement. And it helps having been sitting there for twenty-odd years myself: the one thing I always said to myself when I began conducting was that if I could do half as well as half the jerks I had had to sit and suffer under, I’ll do OK. And musicians have an instinctive feel for some who’s been one of them once. Having said that, you can never really go back to the orchestra you’ve been a member of, because you’ll never be accepted as a conductor. But since I have shifted to the other side of the world, it’s a great advantage having been in an orchestra for twenty years and knowing what not to do. That’s the important thing: knowing boundaries that you don’t cross. And above all have respect for the people you are trying to get results from, in a way that is polite but firm. That’s particularly important in first performances of music that is new to an orchestra: most of them don’t like doing it very much. But it was great to see the faces of the musicians in the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland when they started to play the first few bars of Harold Truscott’s Elegy, because its awesome beauty hit them like a rock – you could actually see some of them starting to smile as they played it: they were enjoying themselves! Same thing when we were recorded the Four Meditations of Marek in Watford Town Hall: these lovely lines, beautiful long lines of sound, and you could see the musicians were enjoying playing it. A lot of orchestras can’t wait to put down their instruments when they are playing unfamiliar music. And the Marek Sinfonia was anything but easy to play.

‘But it’s funny how things fall into place. I sort of kept it a secret in Berlin that I wanted to conduct because I was young and from a country whose national identity was just beginning to emerge, as was my own identity. Blacher secretly arranged for me to have some private conducting lessons with people like Joseph Keilberth, Eugen Jochum, Rafael Kubelík. These are immensely powerful influences now, later in my life, although then I felt much safer behind a set of timps: in my late teens I didn’t believe that I had the musical knowledge or the ability to stand in front of the orchestra and conduct at that time. But what I got from those men then is standing behind me like a brick wall to fall back on. I also saw Otto Klemperer just before he died, and I recently discovered to my amazement that Marek knew Klemperer – and, of course, Klemperer was music director of the Philharmonia for some fifteen years and here we are conducting Marek with the same orchestra. Funny how it all connects.’