Martyn Brabbins

Doctor of Music Martyn Brabbins

Thursday 31 January 2013 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor John Pickard

Mr. Pro Vice-Chancellor,

In July of last year, the First Night of the BBC Henry Wood Proms took the form of an Olympic-style ‘baton relay’ shared between four generations of British orchestral conductors. The conductors invited to perform this honour were Sir Roger Norrington, Sir Mark Elder, Edward Gardner and Martyn Brabbins. Since this was just one of three appearances Martyn Brabbins made at the 2012 Proms, his position as one of the outstanding British conductors of our time immediately becomes clear.

His prolific output of CD recordings, now numbering over 100 discs, and a repertoire of literally thousands of works has carried his reputation around the globe.

This distinguished professional career, now in its 25th year, is all the more noteworthy since his upbringing offered few easy opportunities. The fourth of five children, Martyn grew up in a council house in Leicester. His father having suffered a serious car accident, Martyn spent a considerable part of his formative years looking after his dad. I sometimes wonder whether the extraordinary talent he now displays for nurturing and supporting others has its origin in those difficult years.

The primary outlet for his musical talent at this time was the local brass band, in which Martyn played first the euphonium and later the trombone. The trombone is perhaps not an instrument ideally suited to being practised in a small council house; for one thing, you need a resonant space in which to play. Martyn’s solution was to practice on the landing at the top of the stairs – no doubt to the delight of his family and the admiration of the neighbours.

Equally gifted as a sportsman – he played rugby for his county – it was the musical impulse that eventually won out when, armed with his trombone, he left school in 1977 to study Music at Goldsmiths College, London University. At this stage, conducting was not on the agenda. As he himself has said: ‘It was something I'd always wanted to do, even as a child, but there's such incredible competition and I didn't come from the right background. It's usually public school, Cambridge educated types with the right contacts and full of self confidence.’

Instead he specialised, not in conducting, but in composition. This fact is significant – and also a lesson to any aspiring young conductor: Martyn started out as a player and as a composer, not as a conductor. In these two roles one is potentially on the receiving end of the worst excesses of bad conducting: from the incompetent hack who can wreck a composer’s carefully crafted music, to the tyrannical maestro who can destroy a performer’s confidence in seconds. How many of those situations Martyn directly encountered I do not know, but certainly his own platform persona is as far removed from the clichéd image of the wild-haired, swivel-eyed, egomaniac maestro as could possibly be imagined.

It is possible though that Martyn had other, non-musical, reasons for gravitating towards the conductor’s rostrum. During his very first term at Goldsmiths he caught the eye of the leader of the College Orchestra, one Karen Evans from South Wales, and although Martyn no doubt soon realised that no-one in their right mind would wish to marry a penniless composer, by the time they did eventually marry – eight years later in 1985 – Martyn had his sights firmly set on the hardly less perilous career of a professional conductor.

But first there was some serious studying to be done and the place to do it was the Leningrad Conservatory, in the class of the legendary conducting teacher Ilya Musin, the man credited with nurturing more outstanding twentieth century conductors than anyone else. Martyn remembers him as ‘well into his 80s by then but still incredibly vigorous. He was a saint of a man, an inspirational tutor, and absolutely dedicated to his students’. With Musin, Martyn learned his craft, spending day after day practising beating patterns, studying scores, refining his ear, developing an invulnerable conducting technique that is today distinguished by its clarity and relaxed style.

During his two years in the Soviet Union, Martyn also had the chance to witness at first hand some of the key players in the final years of Soviet communism. He recalls how once, on an otherwise packed internal flight from Moscow to Leningrad, he found himself seated at the front of the aircraft, surrounded by inexplicably empty seats. Seconds before take-off, the entourage of the soon-to-be-President Boris Yeltsin swept on board to thunderous applause from the passengers. Yeltsin heaved his vast bulk into the seat next to Martyn’s and glanced suspiciously at the English-language book his young travelling companion was reading. Martyn handed him the book: a learned analytical study of the symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Yeltsin stared at it for a moment, then, without a word, signed the book and handed it back.

On returning to the UK, Martyn’s career was launched with a bang when, in 1988 he won first prize at the prestigious Leeds Conductors' Competition. Professional engagements flowed, including a period as conductor of the Brandon Hill Chamber Orchestra here in Bristol. The material stability this provided proved timely, since Martyn and Karen’s first son Alex was on the way, soon to be followed by Leo and Nina. The period also saw a permanent move to the West Country, first to Marshfield then to Stroud, where he and his family have lived ever since.

At this point, Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, it is perhaps worth pausing to consider what it is that an orchestral conductor actually does. As Martyn himself admits, ‘it's a mystery to everybody. Even professional musicians don't know what makes a good conductor. There are obvious things a conductor must be able to do like keep time, though many can't. You have to be able to move your hand clearly and correctly in a way that conveys the music and you need to be able to physically show what you want rather than put it into words. You also have to have an in depth knowledge of the orchestra. You don't have to be able to play every instrument but you need an instinctive knowledge of their characters and have to get inside the scores. I spend far more time studying scores than I do actually standing up conducting, it's not as glamorous as people imagine.’

Martyn would no doubt agree that as a conductor one also needs an innate sensitivity to the psychology of one’s colleagues, their strengths, their vulnerabilities, their contradictions, their humanity; and one must instinctively know when to lead; when to support; when to challenge; when to back off. These are of course the leadership skills one needs in order to succeed in almost any sphere of activity, not just in music and they are perhaps the most essential and at the same time the most difficult skills to acquire, because ultimately they cannot be taught.

Martyn is now firmly established as one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. In the last twelve months alone he has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Adelaide Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, most of the BBC orchestras, Opera de Lyon, Flemish Opera and English National Opera. Highlights of 2013 will  include two highly prestigious debuts, at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and at La Scala in  Milan, as well as taking up his new appointment as Chief Conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic in Japan.

Martyn has a particular affinity with contemporary music and has given hundreds of premières. It is difficult to think of a living composer anywhere who does not have reason to be grateful for his advocacy (I count myself among them). His contribution to the cause of British music is simply immense. In July 2011, for example, Martyn led over 1000 musicians in the first Proms performance (and only the sixth performance in its 85 year history), of the mighty Gothic Symphony by Havergal Brian, an historic event that sold out within two hours of tickets going on sale and which has now been issued on a commercial CD.

Martyn is also renowned as an educator. For a decade now he has directed a highly regarded course for aspiring professional conductors, taking place every June at the St. Magnus Festival on Orkney, under near-ideal conditions. Martyn has described the course in the following way: ‘we give eight conductors 10 days of scrutinised and criticised practice: scrutinised both by themselves, since every session is videoed, and by the public, since every part of the course is open to the public, and of course by the teaching staff. My job,’ he says ‘is to create the environment that can nurture them. They're all fragile people, and they're trying to enter the hardest form of musical performance, because it involves dealing with a lot of people all the time. But I have to be honest: if something's rubbish, you have to tell them, because an orchestra would tear them apart.’

Despite a busy international schedule (and he has admitted to me that there have been occasions when he has woken up in the middle of the night literally not knowing where in the world he is), Martyn remains passionately committed to home, to family and to locally-based musical and educational projects. That commitment goes well beyond mere lip-service: during his directorship of the Cheltenham Music Festival he set up a scheme to commission new pieces and ran sponsored half-marathons to raise money to support it. More recently, with amateur musicians, he conducted a ‘Beethovenathon’ (all nine symphonies in a single day) to raise funds for his children’s local school and for CRY, the charity that promotes awareness of cardiac risk in the young. This humanity and generosity, not to mention sheer musical talent, goes a long way to explaining why Martyn is not just admired and respected, but loved by professional orchestral musicians (a breed notoriously difficult to impress) and why the Guardian newspaper recently described him – with some accuracy I think – as an ‘anti-maestro’.

Mr. Pro Vice-Chancellor, it is with the greatest pleasure that I present to you anti-maestro Martyn Charles Brabbins as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa.


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