Monday, November 3, 2008

Conducting in Olney

I spent this weekend at a conducting workshop in Olney. Olney is a small town (circa 6,000 people) a few minutes' drive from Milton-Keynes, a larger town (circa 225,000) about a forty minute train ride north of London (circa 7.5 million). It ended up being a positive experience, but not necessarily for the reasons I had expected.

The course (here's the website) is taught by Michael Rose, a moderately successful and no-doubt very skilled conductor. While his work was/is mainly provincial, he did conduct the BBC Philharmonic and several Proms concerts in days past. While I didn't expect a hardcore, competitive atmosphere (indeed, a laid back approach was what I was looking for), the site led me to believe — mainly by repertoire selection: Mozart 40, Brahms Haydn Variations, and Debussy Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun — that participants were expected to have at least a basic working knowledge of conducting to build upon. This was not the case. I don't want to dwell on it, but most of the participants were complete beginners. They were terrified of standing in front of the small ensemble and would have a better chance of being struck by lightning on a sunny afternoon than ever have the opportunity — or even the desire! — to conduct one of the works with an actual orchestra. There were, of course, exceptions, but on the whole it offered very meager opportunity to learn from the other participants' time on the podium.

As I said, though, it was still a positive experience:

As a conductor, I learned to rein in my awful habit of bobbing my head and shuffling my feet while conducting, and gained a good deal of familiarity with the selected works.

The people of Olney are wonderful. Because I was lazy in arranging accommodation, the B&B's of dear little Olney were full and I had to be put up with friends of the course organizer. They were wonderful people with a funky sense of style (the staircase to their third floor was a staircase from a decommissioned double decker bus) who cooked me breakfast and refused to take any sort of payment.

Indian curry. I had only had Thai curry thus far, but had a great opportunity to sample a lot of adventurous Indian dishes at the group dinner.

And it was nice to get out to the country. Little towns, roundabouts, suburbs (I saw a Toys R Us!)... all welcome things from crowded, narrow London.

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