Around the Universe In Forty Minutes

The ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra and Wayne Marshall’s thriving ‘Planet-Hopping’

Wayne Marshall conducts at the Radiokulturhaus, Austria Radio | Photo: Matthias Wurz

The first thing to remember is, we are there to entertain,” said British conductor, Wayne Marshall. Dressed in casual all-black, he took a seat in the Green Room of the Grosser Sendesaal at the Radiokulturhaus of the Austria Radio in Vienna’s 4 District that serves as the home of the Austria’s only Radio Orchestra.

The afternoon rehearsal on Jan. 12 with the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna (RSO Wien) had just ended a few minutes earlier, and the 49-year-old musician paused, reached for his Coke and glanced thoughtfully across the small room. Then he smiled.

And we are there to make music!”

It was Tuesday and the musical preparations for the concert on Friday, Jan. 15, progressed quickly. The final rehearsals would take place at the Golden Hall at the Musikverein, a prestigious venue that sparked vivid memories, as we learned later.

As for the repertoire, it complements Marshall’s idea of entertaining the audience: Gustav Holst’s monumental orchestral suite The Planets (1918) as the center piece along with Bohuslav Martin’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1943), together with the British piano-duo Jennifer Micaleff and Glen Inanga; and as an Austrian premiere the so-called Bright Cecilia Variations on a theme by Henry Purcell (2002), a collaborative work composed by some of the household names of contemporary British music, like Collin Matthews or Judith Weir. It comprises a set of five variations in diverse compositional styles to jazz, framed by the introduction of the original Purcell theme of Ode to St. Cecilia, concluding with a grand finale of the full orchestral forces.

It’s an unusual mix, but unified by the quality that Marshall calls “music that communicates to people.” This often means jazz, and his programs frequently include works by George Gershwin.

“I have always had a very strong interest in Jazz,“ Marshall said in an interview in December 2002. He first heard his music when he was about eight – the Concerto in F.  “I immediately thought, this is music, that I was going to play – simply because of the language of George Gershwin.”

Contemporary music is another matter.

“I have to be honest, I am not a great fan of very ultra-contemporary music, because that for me does not communicate,“ Marshall said. The Bright Cecilia Variations – commissioned by the BBC in 2002 for  the 10th anniversary of its own popular BBC Music Magazine – is an exception. This he describes as “a great piece! But there are a lot of compositions that I would not…,” Marshall paused for a moment, but with a waving gesture of his hand and a cautious smile seemingly at loss, he abruptly ended, “let’s leave it at that.“

Wayne Marshall is one of the RSO Wien’s regular guest conductors, and one of the orchestra’s favorite, who seem to respond quickly to his open and direct way of rehearsing. With Holst’s Planets, the RSO Wien and Wayne Marshall entered their fifth collaboration, in an intepretation that was fast, direct – hard at times in a battlefield of sounds in the opening movement. World War I was sweeping Europe when Holst composed the seven-part Planets suite, real once again in the RSO Wien’s overwhelming rich sound.

It all seems very far removed from the so-called legendary English recordings of, let’s say, Adrian Boult (1889 – 1983), who not only conducted the world premiere of the work in 1918, but recorded it for the last time in 1979 at the age of 90. In Marshall’s contemporary interpretation, not much is left of the mysterious, ambiguous, esoteric sound of mythological ancient-Roman figures, on which the planet names of our solar system are based upon. Rather, he offers colorful character studies of the ancient-Roman gods: A reading that took the Viennese audience by storm bringing a wave of enthusiastic applause and standing ovations.

And as Wayne Marshall took his bow at the Musikverein that night, he not only had transformed the RSO Wien with a distinct ‘British’ sound, but also – more significantly – had succeeded in allowing for a superb and well-balanced interplay of instrumental solo-passages with the unified orchestral ensemble.

Meanwhile, back at the plain wooden interview table, we turned back to Marshall’s  debut in Vienna with the RSO Wien back in October of 2000: a stunning concert performance of Bernstein’s Musical Wonderful Town (1957) at the Konzerthaus, as well as his appearance at the Bregenz Festival of summers 2003 and 2004, where he led the Vienna Symphony in West Side Story as the main opera production on the festival’s legendary floating stage.

The rise of a jazz musician to the top concert stages of classical music is a remarkable achievement. For Marshall, it began directing the orchestra from the piano in works of Gershwin and others. Becoming an eminent British conductor was not initially part of the career plan. Less known in Austria, however, is the fact that Marshall had also trained as an organist; and currently is trying to find a balance among his diverse musical activities, between solo work and conducting.

To an outsider, his success seems to have a lot to do with his phenomenal keyboard skills: a musician, one might say, who can perform Gershwin on an organ as delicately and lightly as on the piano creating the most of natural jazzy sounds, is unheard of. The explanation for his success, however, has its roots perhaps most basically in hard work and persistence, best observed in how Wayne Marshall works with an orchestra.

The RSO rehearsal started promptly on Monday, Jan. 11 at 9 am in the Grosser Sendesaal – for the orchestra, it was the first working day after the Christmas holidays, and one sensed a slight fatigue. Then Wayne Marshall entered, cheerful but fully focused.

He caught the orchestra’s attention instantly with his immense creative and physical energy – and fast tempi: just like a cold breeze of fresh air in a cozy, laid-back Viennese Kaffeehaus. As a player you could not help but follow Marshall – his uncompromising and demanding gestures enforced it.

In complex rhythmic sections, on the other hand, he often stopped conducting altogether as to force the players to listen to each other much closer; but Marshall kept control effectively by communicating to the musicians with his expressive eyes, and so the rhythmical precision improved in no time.

Musical precision is Marshall’s emphasis, and the short third movement – Mercury, the Winged Messenger – has ample of corners that needed rehearsing. Its ‘airy’ character, at the same  time playful and dance-like character took most rehearsing at that point. The ancient Roman gods’ messenger is at times also close to jazzy rhythms.

“Ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, tah—tah— shorten the notes here to support the crisp sound,” Marshall exclaimed to the wind instruments, while shifting his attention immediately to the strings. No conducting at this point, just some verbal counting indications and his eyes. But Marshall’s body as a whole went with the musical flow, enforcing sudden dynamic changes, particularly fast and often merciless crescendi and sudden drop back to pianissimo. And so, addressing the violins, he explained that “when the forte comes in at that point, it is really impressive! Let’s do it once more!” And the orchestra – the second time around – follows en-suite… well, almost!

For Wayne Marshall, performing in Vienna seemed almost sentimental, like a brief but passionate love affair. But underneath the surface, however, there were different perspectives. Born in Oldham in 1961, he began at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester (UK) before studying organ with Nicholas Danby and piano with Angus Morrison at the Royal College of Music in London. From there, Marshall found his way to Vienna to the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst – today a university – then, a different musical world altogether.

“It was kind of a post graduate year for me, or rather six months,” we return to Vienna, “it was good fun,” Marshall smiled inexpressively. But in a cautious tone he added, “I was very surprised to find that people on the course of my age hadn’t had the same experience as I had as a performer.” When studying organ, Marshall elaborated later, “you would expect the students to have played in Sunday services, as I had done back home. But this was not necessarily the case here in Vienna at that time – at least, this was my observation.” He studied with Peter Planyavsky (b. 1947), former organist and Director of Music at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Planyavsky served as a model of an all-round musician, introducing him to organ improvisation. Those familiar with Marshall’s first solo CD – Organ Improvisations (Delos, 1999) – will remember the clear, crisp organ sound, when he improvised on Gershwin’s ‘I got Rhythm’, or the lascivious, sensual tone for ‘I loves you, Porgy’: It feels orchestral, but with more depth and clarity of sound.

Vienna also brought him in contact with Leonard Bernstein who came to the Musikverein to perform Mahler’s 4th Symphony in February 1984. Marshall was allowed to witness the rehearsals, the only time he had the chance to see the maestro work.

And since returning to Vienna as a performer, he has noticed over time the opening up of the provincially-minded Vienna, and with a twinkle in his eye, he said:

“Now, it’s much more cosmopolitan; it’s European, it’s very modern.”

Marshall’s eyes gazed once more across the conductor’s Green Room. It was the first time he was conducting these pieces, and he too seemed to be overwhelmed by their power.

“It’s all amazing repertoire, fantastic!” he admitted – a journey around the universe, coming again to rest. Certainly, Wayne Marshall will be off to new musical ventures soon. His Viennese audiences, however, will be following his star.

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