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An interview with John K. Andrews, Music Director of Trinity Orchestra Harrow

Harrow’s premier amateur orchestra, Trinity Orchestra, has its first concert of the 2022-2023 season under the baton of its Music Director, John K. Andrews, on Saturday, 26 November 2022, 7:30 p.m. (with a free concert talk from Maestro Andrews at 7 p.m.), at Trinity Church, Hindes Road, Harrow, HA1 1RX.

The orchestra will be led on the night by guest leader Marina Solarek, and the repertoire played will be:

MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture
C.SCHUMANN Piano Concerto (Cristiana Achim, piano soloist)
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 9, the ‘Great C Major’

I had the pleasure to interview Maestro John K. Andrews, a few days prior to the concert itself.

You really need no introduction. You’re Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, Conductor-in-Association of the English Symphony Orchestra … I just wanted to ask you, how did you also start conducting the Trinity Orchestra and became its Music Director?

Um, gosh, this is going back a few years. I think I was contacted by some of the players in the orchestra, actually. There are some players in that orchestra that I’ve known for years and years and years. We’ve made music together in lots of other orchestras, lots of times. And when Trinity were looking for a new music director, they suggested that I’d get in touch. So I did, and the orchestra – very wisely, I think – gave all of the people that they were considering for the post, a whole concert to do, so they could see them across the full scope of rehearsals. So I went and did a concert and they made the offer, and it’s lovely making music with them. It’s nice to do a concentrated burst of rehearsals before a concert. The orchestra doesn’t meet every week. And they’re big enough to do most of the sort of main 19th century repertoire without getting too huge. So it’s just a lovely group of people to make music with.

Tell me more about this concert that is coming up on the 26th November. Why did you choose this particular repertoire?

I try to plan repertoire a long way ahead. Not because I’m desperate to know what we’re gonna be doing in two or three years’ time, but so that there’s a nice spread of repertoire from different periods, different styles, different sets of composers. So I have lots of ideas bubbling, and I try to plan across the large scale, so that, when you see pieces that might fit together, you can do that and not worry about trying to get all the things you want to do in one season. And all of the three pieces in the concert I wanted to do for a while, and I’d never necessarily found a nice spot for them. And so, when I was looking particularly sort of post pandemic, because we’d had a 40th season that we were supposed to be celebrating, when everything shut down … so we kind of put the best bits of that together, last year. But then, seeing the various possibilities of things that might fit, I lighted on these three, and I put them together without really realizing quite how tightly they’re linked historically. Because we’ve got two pieces by very, very young composers. I mean, two of the really great prodigies, Clara Wieck (later, Schumann) was 14 when she wrote the concerto. She revised it a year later, and Mendelssohn was only 17 when he wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream. So we’ve got two really, really young prodigies.
I think it’s worth kind of noting this, because Mozart gets all of the publicity for being a child prodigy, but we don’t play things that he wrote in his teens very often. And we really don’t play much that he wrote before his mid twenties. If we are thinking about the operas from the Da Ponte trilogy onwards, you know, maybe; but even Idomeneo and Il Seraglio are in his mid twenties; the Da Ponte Operas, in his thirties; the Symphonies, from No. 30 onwards, are from his late twenties and thirties. The Piano Concertos, from No. 19 onwards, also … so the things that we really do of Mozart are from much later on. So, if you’re actually thinking about composers who were writing concert worthy stuff at a very young age, here we’ve got two of the really great examples.
So that seemed to fit together. And then I realised that Mendelssohn actually conducted the premiere not only of Clara Wieck (Schumann)’s Concerto, but also Schubert’s Ninth – because Schubert, when he wrote it, he couldn’t get it performed. Everyone regarded it as unplayable and so it went into a box, and Robert Schumann then found it when he went to visit Schubert’s brother, and then gave it to Mendelssohn. So we’ve actually discovered, after the fact, that all these pieces are, are really tightly linked amongst the group of people working at the beginning of the 19th century – and a group of people who in many ways came to define the way we perform music, because both Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann were really interested in the generation that went before them, in a way that no one really had been up until that point. And I think it’s largely to them that we owe this idea of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert as constituting a classical era, a really great era against which everything else is measured. So it’s turned out to be a very felicitous grouping of three pieces.


You anticipate my next question, which is about Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which, as you said, she wrote when she was only 14. I personally feel that it’s started to be heard more, lately – but it’s still, compared to even her husband, Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and the other concertos of the repertoire, it’s really little known. So I was going to ask you especially to tell me more about this piece. Why this piece? Also, please tell me about the evening’s piano soloist, Cristiana Achim; why her, and what do you feel she brings to the stage, to the performance?

So, the concerto, I think, is on a very steep ascent of popularity. I’m watching, even since I programmed it, more and more recordings appear, more and more live streams of it. It’s a really infectious piece. I think. Clara Schumann was really trying to develop the concerto form in quite a different way. She had in mind the idea that it would be performable with orchestra, but actually it was very easy to adapt as a purely solo piece. So she had her eyes on this culture at the beginning of the 19th century where a lot of music was taking place in small venues. There was a lot of domestic music making that there was a real market for, for purely solo piano music. And of course there were concert opportunities for Concerti.

I think “experimental” is quite a good word for it. And you have this whole second movement, which is just the piano and cello. So it’s rather wonderfully navigating these two different aesthetics: the pure chamber music and extrovert concerto. And I think that that’s one of the things that’s really fantastic about it. We have quite an orthodox first movement, which feels very much the heritage of Mozart and Beethoven.

Then we move into the second movement, which is not like anything before because we’ve suddenly gone into a “chamber” place, and then a last movement, which is really extroverted and points very strongly towards the music that’s to come. I mean, it’s a cause of tragedy that we don’t have more large scale music from her, because that romantic spirit that we will come to see in Schubert, that we will come to see in Brahms, is absolutely alive in that last movement. And it allows for really extroverted playing. So you get a lovely range of styles, the intimacy in the middle, and then, then there’s this, you know, really kind of muscular extroversion in the last movement.

Cristiana, the sort of the nuts and bolts of how she came to do it is because we have a relationship with the Royal College of Music. So I can’t claim credit for choosing her; that was done through our relationship with them. So they are responsible for pairing us up with Cristiana, but she already knew the concerto and I rehearsed with her earlier this week, and she just, she plays it so beautifully. She’s got a real sense of that early romantic rubato, a really subtle but effective bending of tempo. And she’s got the power to really grip the contrasts, particularly in the last movement. So it was a real pleasure to work with her earlier this week, and she gets to meet the orchestra on Friday, before the performance.

It sounds so amazing.

Tell me more about the rest of the programme for the 2022-2023 season. I was looking through the Trinity Orchestra website, the other day, and I noticed you’re doing, for example (on the 21st of January 2023), a whole, concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen at Harrow Arts Centre. What are the challenges and the rewards which come with such a monumental, I suppose, undertaking?

The impetus for Carmen came out of a really successful concert performance we did of Hansel and Gretel, by Humperdinck – I was going to say a couple of seasons ago; it’s, of course, a couple of seasons plus a pandemic ago. It will be edited down for concert consumption. We won’t, obviously, do some of the kind of big choral scenes because they don’t make any real sense in that context. And also some of the minor characters we don’t meet in this, just to try to keep it to a fulsome concert length.

The joy of that is that a lot of amateur orchestras don’t ever get to play … well, even a lot of professional orchestras don’t get to play opera. And it’s a different world. It’s a completely different musical world. It brings us a fantastic set of challenges. We get to be accompanying singers. We get to be in a drama that’s not just rooted in the music. So those are the challenges and the joy, because the challenges are, musically, bending around the singers. Because this is a very free, late, mid romantic style. There’s a lot of rubato, there’s a lot of very sensitive accompanying that you have to be able to do.

And also, of course, getting the drama across without staging. So, being able to convey the story, and convey the sense of place and the sense of danger and that sense of tension. I think that will not be such a problem with the singers. We’ve got a fantastic cast. A challenge, of course, also is to get enough people to come and see it because we have to move into the larger space of the Harrow Arts’ Centre. So (he laughs), if it’s not too pointed, the challenge is that we want lots and lots of people to come and see it. It’s a  big, fantastic spectacle.

And then, after that, we’re in much more conventional land. This is where I hope that being able to plan on a larger scale has helped us, because we’ve then got two fairly beefy, romantic concerts. We’ve got a Brahms, Strauss and Price concert, just before Easter, and then (Errollyn) Wallen, Kodaly, Mahler, Tchaikovsky in May. These are quite big, romantic pieces. And then we can be properly intimate and classical with a bit of Haydn, Tabakova and Mozart, in the summer. So, you know, we want to be able to give the orchestra an as wide a set of repertoire as possible. So we have the big works, followed by something a little bit cleaner, crisper and classical.

An interview with John K. Andrews, Music Director of Trinity Orchestra Harrow Harrow Online
Maestro John K. Andrews

What makes John Andrews want to wake up in the morning and conduct? What’s next for you?

Probably to the extreme irritation of a lot of the groups I work with, what brings me joy is finding music that people don’t already know. And that, that’s brilliant. It’s what I love. I love to introduce orchestras to repertoire that’s new, and audiences to repertoire that hasn’t been performed as much. It really does bring me joy to be able to find great pieces that haven’t necessarily got the reputations they deserve – and to be able to spread that joy, to be able to, you know, bring the enjoyment of that new music. And also just, particularly after the pandemic, the joy of being in a room with people making music.

I don’t think we took it for granted, but there was something really, really special and emotional, after that first lockdown, of being able to be back in a room, even when we were two and a half metres apart, just simply to be in the same space, making music together. And that, you know, that’s what brings me joy. I mean, quite a lot of life is spent in solitary learning, but that’s on the way to the joy of being with people, and being with audiences. We really, really missed that. There is nothing like that.

An interview with John K. Andrews, Music Director of Trinity Orchestra Harrow Harrow Online
Harrow Trinity Orchestra

I’m actually in the recording studio quite a lot, in the new year. I’ve just done a disc which will be released around Easter time. So we are editing that. And then I’ve got some Ethel Smyth, some Poulenc and some more 19th century English music in the new year, all of which are recordings. I’ve got a new concerto, which we are recording in the summer. I’ve got a new oratorio that we are performing at the Cadogan Hall in the summer. And then I’ll be back doing some opera in July. So it’s a very, very nice mixture. There’s not quite as much involving a real live audience as I’d ideally like in life, but we don’t choose, so we just …

I ask him more about the benefits of doing new repertoire, versus the “old classics”.

I did Messiah this weekend and I’ve deliberately not done it for, you know, eight or nine years. And it’s so, so much nicer, if you haven’t been doing these pieces again and again … it’s not that I dislike any of the core repertoire, but you appreciate it so much more if it’s not, you know, absolutely done to death.

I do feel that we appreciate these pieces much more if we get to know a little bit more the composers who were living around the time, who we don’t hear quite so much of. And maybe they’re not as good, but they’re part of that web of musical life, and we appreciate the classics even more for being able to root them in something a little bit broader.

I try to make sure that, you know, when people do come and do hear them, they’re hearing wonderful stuff there. There’s some lesser known things, this season, but, hand on heart: anybody coming is going to adore them.

My final question: why should people buy tickets for this particular, 26 November concert?

They should come because this is a chance to hear three of the most exciting composers of the beginning of the 19th century – and two piece by teenagers who went on to be some of the most influential musicians of their entire century, at their most exuberant, at their most enthusiastic, at their most joyful; and, in the Schubert, a piece that really opened up the 19th century symphony. Without that symphony, I don’t think we would see Schumann, I don’t think we would see Bruckner, in particular, composing the way they did. So these are three composers who are absolutely central to the creation of everything that we love about the 19th century. And we see them at a moment of absolute joyful creation. And we have a fantastic pianist who is going to communicate that buoyant joy … I want to say “effortlessly”; it’s of course not effortless, because she’s spent a very large amount of time practicing it, but with the apparent effortlessness of someone who is a complete master of their instrument.

I thank him for a wonderful interview and ask him if there’s anything further that he wants to add.

I don’t think so. I mean, you know: come along, it’s lovely music. That’s kind of it, the super short version.

I think I would say that it’s also really wonderful to – we touched on the edges of this earlier, but, to say it directly: it’s just wonderful to now feel that the orchestra is back together after the pandemic. We did a full season last year, but we were still kind of putting things back together, moving venues … there was still a … a little bit of a sense of improvisation about how the year would go. And it’s nice to feel now that, after the very successful visit of Owain Arwel Hughes, last October, that we are fully back on track, feeling settled and ready for the next decade.

The Bechstein piano for this concert is generously provided by Jacques Samuel, who also manages the Royal College of Music pianos.