Facing the Music

Conductor Nicholas Braithwaite rehearses Dvorak’s New World with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra in the Dunedin Town Hall. Photos: Supplied
Conductor Nicholas Braithwaite rehearses Dvorak’s New World with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra in the Dunedin Town Hall. Photos: Supplied
Braithwaite checks out the portrait of his grandfather Joseph Braithwaite, who was Mayor of Dunedin.
Braithwaite checks out the portrait of his grandfather Joseph Braithwaite, who was Mayor of Dunedin.
Braithwaite works with Nigel Kennedy and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in 1982.
Braithwaite works with Nigel Kennedy and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in 1982.

Dunedin Symphony Orchestra Conductor Emeritus Nicholas Braithwaite is shedding some light on the life and skills of a conductor in his autobiography. He tells Rebecca Fox about sheer terror and being awed in equal measures.

As a conductor the first time you pick up your ''instrument'' is the first time you stand up on stage and have to lead 70-odd musicians.

Those musicians have been playing their instruments for years, have studied and performed professionally.

''You know and they know you do not know what you are doing up there but nonetheless you have to lead,'' conductor Nicholas Braithwaite says.

''The first 20 years [as a conductor] are terrifying.''

He speaks from decades of experience, having conducted orchestras all over the world including Dunedin's own symphony orchestra.

Braithwaite (78) has a soft spot for Dunedin, having family connections to the city - his grandfather Joseph was the Mayor in 1905-6 and his father was born in the city but emigrated to England in 1916.

His first ''eerie'' experience of coming to Dunedin and visiting the places his father, also a conductor, spoke about are some of the life stories he imparts in his newly released autobiography So what does a conductor do? The people, the places, the music making.

''It was very strange. My father died in '71 and here I was, walking about the streets he talked so much about.

''Seeing the notice board in the crypt listing the names of all the men from Dunedin who had signed up during the first world war - five of them my father's brothers.

''It was like deja vu.''

One of the main reasons Braithwaite wanted to write the book was because people did not often talk about how they worked in music.

''Also to illuminate the process and realities of what I do and what is important in what I do.''

Added to that he had been ''lots of interesting places, working in a lot of really fascinating and interesting places and with important people''.

''There's a lot to be said for that.''

However, he acknowledges in the book's afterword that he did not have the talent to be one of the greats.

''My skills and technique in the language of music are not sufficient when compared with the infallible ear and memory of a man like Daniel Barenboim ... And I don't have the ruthlessness, or desire to achieve my aims by the alternative corridors of power route ... ''

Despite this, he says his career has been a wonderful and rewarding adventure - an extensive career in recording, opera and concerts in four continents and more than 15 countries.

''I consider myself to be a really lucky man. It has been an immensely rewarding experience - in spite of the 20 years or so of sheer terror when I was a baby conductor standing in front of top-line professionals.''

His career began with the trombone but he always had the vague thought that he might become a conductor one day.

At the end of his second year of study at Royal Academy of Music he applied and was selected for a conductor's course.

As it is not possible for conductors to practise with an orchestra, it is taught by a lot of talking.

''This is not entirely useless, but you can see it does have its limitations.''

He gave himself a year to find out if he wanted to be a conductor or not.

''By mid-year the bug had bitten and there was no going back.''

A seminal moment for him was to sit in the orchestra pit for a performance of Parsifal conducted by Knappertsbusch in 1960.

''It was the most extraordinary experience.''

The pit was designed by Wagner to be like a concert platform in reverse and the orchestra is hidden from the audience's view by a massive cowling over the conductor.

''On really hot days some of the orchestra would play the performances in swimming trunks.''

But what made this performance special was seeing Knappertsbusch appear in lederhosen sitting down and looking off into middle distance.

''For no reason I could discern the orchestra started playing the prelude to the opera. He was holding his baton but that didn't appear to do anything. I think he may have slightly lifted his shoulder or moved his right elbow.''

Braithwaite sees the role of conductor as similar to that of chairman of a meeting.

''You are working with a group. Everybody is a good musician, everyone cares about and is passionate about the music; it's just they all have different opinions on how to go about it. So it's my job to unify people, to get them going in one particular direction.

''Working out the problem is easy. It's how to deal with it that is the problem.''

The hardest thing for a young conductor standing in front of an orchestra is finding the confidence to be in control, which requires not only knowing the score but also gaining the respect of players, he says.

''As a youngster you can be paralysed by nerves but that is not good enough.''

When you are the conductor, you are in charge.

''Work your way through it; at worst, bluff your way. You have to make measured choices and think fast.

''You have to think on your feet every second - that's one of the great joys of it. When it goes wrong you have to hold things together.''

To him, a great conductor is one who takes him totally into the ''heart and mind of those extraordinary men, the great composers whose music touches us all profoundly''.

''The great thing about being a conductor is it's unlike anything else you do.''

But he says there are very few who ''have everything''. Having great technique is not enough on its own.

''There are those conductors, not the most gifted in technical terms, yet can take us to the highest reaches.''

However, he admits to being totally disillusioned as a young conductor when he discovered many careers were based on the ability to network and politick than anything musical beyond competence.

Braithwaite settled in Australia when he was chief conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and before that of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

In 1990 he was invited to conduct the then Dunedin Sinfonia and was for many years principal conductor

''Its a remarkable city, wonderful location.''

The sinfonia does a lot of really exciting repertoire, wonderful chamber music and are very committed artists, he says.

''It was an absolute joy to be part of.''

These days he also worked with emerging artists in the state opera competition, as well as preparing for his next performances.

''I'm keen to work with young people and have the experience and knowledge to pass on to them.''

His advice to young conductors? Go and watch the best conductor you can.

''Watch how and why they do what they do. It's the only way to learn.''

It took a long while for Braithwaite to learn he needed to find the work personally satisfying and as long as the product was recognisable some people would like it.

''Trying to please everyone, you'll please no-one.''

Either that, or you have to recognise you have made a complete fool of yourself, he says.

''You have to say 'I'm really sorry, that was stupid', have a laugh. You have to be very, very careful not to appear to blame an orchestra member - you have to say 'I'm sorry about that'.

''Make it very clear not to blame other people for your mistakes.''

This is also where the book comes in. It took some time to do - trying to secure a publisher, then deciding to self-publish, then writing it and the long process of securing rights to publish photos.

''I've had a lot of help from other people.''

''The problem with writing something you're so familiar with is you do not see what is on the page.''

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