EIF preview: Sir Mark Elder on conducting The Damnation of Faust

Mark Elder has a fondness for the Fringe rooted in happy memories, family connections and the locals ability to pronounce his surname. Picture: PA
Mark Elder has a fondness for the Fringe rooted in happy memories, family connections and the locals ability to pronounce his surname. Picture: PA
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CONDUCTOR Sir Mark Elder brought the Hallé Orchestra back from the brink – but the renaissance isn’t over yet, finds Ken Walton

There are two good reasons why leading British conductor Sir Mark Elder’s appearance at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival is mutually resonant.

Members of the Hall� Orchestra. Picture: Peter Warren

Members of the Hall� Orchestra. Picture: Peter Warren

Firstly, he’s a quarter Scots – “Edinburgh’s the only city where I don’t need to repeat my surname,” he says. “I was born near the Borders [Hexham, on the English side], with family in Berwick, so I’ve always felt part of my soul is there.”

Secondly, having just celebrated his 70th birthday, he’s exactly the same age as the Festival.

His fondness for Edinburgh and its festivals goes back to his days as a Cambridge student. “I played on the Fringe for a Marlowe Society production of Love’s Labours Lost. I was so young and so green; but it was an amazing experience at the time. The city seemed to me to be a focal point for style, culture and love of life.

“Also, I have some romantic memories, which probably contribute to my fondness for the place!”

Today, Elder holds a position of enormous respect in British classical music – literally an elder statesman – mostly for his long-term associations with English National Opera (of which he was musical director from 1979-93), and then from 1999 with Manchester’s world-famous Hallé Orchestra, which he helped bring back from the brink of artistic and financial bankruptcy to a sound state of health it has not enjoyed since the golden days of Sir John Barbirolli.

For proof of that Manchester renaissance just listen to the orchestra’s recent Elgar recordings, or better still, get along to the Usher Hall tomorrow night, where Elder and his Hallé Orchestra are joined by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the gentlemen of the Hallé’s own chorus, and a heavyweight solo cast (Michéle Losier, Michael Spyres, Laurent Naouri and David Soar) in Berlioz’s epic opera-cum-cantata, The Damnation of Faust. For Elder, this Edinburgh visit marks yet another milestone in the Hallé’s long road to recovery. It started 17 years ago, a process that he always viewed as “a long game”.

“I’ve always been interested in building that kind of relationship with an orchestra,” he says. “I was only 32 when Lord Harewood asked me to be music director at ENO. I think a lot of the company thought I’d do it for a few years, then I’d be off on my path. But I wanted to stay the course, to develop things so that when I did move on, I’d leave something that was solid,a real legacy for the future.”

Elder was true to his word, leaving ENO fit and well 14 years later. He had nothing, of course, to do with the current perilous state it now finds itself in.

Instead, by the turn of the century, Elder was working his magic in Manchester, where he formed a winning alliance with the man brought in simultaneously to turn the finances around, chief executive John Summers.

“Manchester was waking up to the danger that the orchestra was about to go under. I had made it very clear I was very interested in the chance to build something new and fresh, but I couldn’t do it until I knew the finances were in good hands.” He refers to the hiring of the complete new team “as being like an arranged marriage”.

Under Summers, the Hallé’s bank balance swung back in the right direction, leaving the way open for Elder to make his artistic mark.

“We got off to a good start,” he says. “The orchestra were very broad-minded and mature about two completely new people coming in to run the organisation. They went with us, agreed to certain demands we made, and I started to work with them in a way that nobody had worked with them in a very long time.”

Elder’s priority was to instil fresh thought and self-belief in his battle-scarred orchestra. “I wanted them, like me, never to believe we have reached the maximum in our ability to play expressively.

“An orchestra’s soul and heart needs constant tilling, like an allotment. And I constantly do that through the different types of repertoire we examine. We’ve had wonderful times over the years doing Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart, with what I would call historically informed methods. That has significantly changed the sound of the orchestra.

“In the future now, and this is why this trip to Edinburgh is so essential, Berlioz must become more and more important to us as we approach the bicentenary of the orchestra’s founder, Charles Hallé [1819-1895], who was one the greatest energies in bringing Berlioz’s music to this country. He did The Damnation of Faust complete many times”.

The truth is, when Hallé first introduced this difficult work to Manchester, he did so in instalments. He clearly felt his audience should be drip-fed its eccentricities. “I think that is very interesting,” says Elder, who has conducted this hybrid “légende dramatique” several times complete, both in the opera house and concert stage.

Whichever way it is presented, Elder holds it in the highest regard. “I love this piece; it’s invention is extraordinary. It’s an exhibition for orchestra quite apart from singers, and it has so much colour and variety. I’m dying to play it. A few of the Hallé may have played it once about 20 years ago; none of them really knows it… but they will!”

• Sir Mark Elder conducts Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust tomorrow (Sun 20th August) at the Usher Hall