With our July concert just round the corner, we asked Talkestra conductor Steve Dummer to give us the lowdown on clarinets, Cabaret, and the importance of supporting new music…
1 – Tell us a little bit about your involvement with new music.
I’ve been involved with playing new music since college and I feel very strongly that all performers should be enthusiastic about getting involved in it. It’s such a cool thing to do! As well as being a clarinet player I’m also a conductor and I try to programme as much new music as I can when the opportunity arises. I started Talkestra to attract reluctant concert goers and I found that ‘new ears’ were often more captivated by new music as long as the music was good, played well and they were given a few explanations as to why, how and when. Much of my work now is with amateur groups where there is often a reluctance to take on new pieces but many of the reasons are very understandable. The reluctance doesn’t necessarily come from a dislike of the music, more an irritation at unreasonable demands, unthoughtful part writing or just simply bad music. As conductor of the Horsham Symphony Orchestra, we’ve played quite a lot of new scores including Lutoslaswski’s ‘Mi Parti’ which they really enjoyed doing and we commissioned a symphony from your very own Julian Broughton, a fabulous piece that went down very well with both players and audience. The thing that marks both of those pieces out is they were really enjoyable for everyone to rehearse after a day’s work.
2 – What was it that got you into music originally, and what drew you to performing?
I started playing the piano when I was 10 and the clarinet at 12 but it wasn’t until I joined the West Sussex Youth Concert Band at 15 that gave me the bug to take it seriously and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I thought it as a career worth pursuing. I went to Guildhall as a clarinet player and then Royal College of Music as a conductor but I would say the biggest influence on my performing life was being in Itchy Feet, a very zany jazz band. We played for weddings, parties, pubs – all that sort of thing and it still makes me smile to think of it. We haven’t played for years now but a reunion is often spoken of.
3 – Most glorious live experience? And most hideously embarrassing?!
Most of the most memorable live performances have been with amateurs where the result is way higher than it was supposed to be – a bit like Leicester City. There was a Percy Grainger concert I conducted at Dartington a few years ago with professionals taking the first half (Green Bushes, Random Round for six pianists on two pianos – I was no.6!), then the all-comers orchestra in the second half playing all the well known lollipops (Shepherd’s Hey, Molly on the Shore, Handel in the Strand etc). By its nature an all-comers orchestra isn’t going to be particularly balanced but this one was spectacularly unbalanced in having eighteen oboes! One of the pieces we did was Harvest Hymn which has an oboe solo at the start. The sound of eighteen of them playing it was astonishing (in a good way!). The whole event was cracking. John Woolrich, who was Artistic Director at the time, said “when you realise it’s not the Vienna Phil it’s actually better!”.
Most hideously embarrassing was being in the stage band for Cabaret. The director wanted us to be dressed as women in a subversive, 1930’s Berlin nightclub kind of way. But we ended up looking like Hinge and Bracket. My mum brought one of her friends (who hadn’t seen me for many years) to see it. A bit strange meeting her after the show. We ordered a pizza for backstage one night and missed one of our cues. I remember the director walking down the corridor in the interval to tell us off but had to walk away because he started to laugh. There are photos but I don’t seem to be able to find them now…
4 – What was the last piece of music you listened to?
I occasionally get a bit concerned that my listening habits are governed by work rather than pleasure but that still means listening to some great music. Horsham Symphony Orchestra have got a great programme together for next year including Berg’s Violin Concerto so it’s been great fun getting back into other Berg and also Schoenberg and Webern. I’ve also started to go to opera a bit more and I went to see The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne last weekend. Fabulous music that I haven’t listened to for many years so it was a real pleasure.
5 – Are there any exciting projects you’re involved in at the moment that we should know about?
Recently I’ve quite enjoyed being involved in other people projects rather than doing my own but I’m starting to get itchy for doing something new. But the favourite project that I’m involved at the moment is Kidenza, a group that plays concerts for children. Not much chance of playing new music but I get to work with some great players, I can mess about a bit in the concerts and I’m normally home by 6.00.
6 – Talkestra will be playing a whole programme of works by NMB composers on July 2nd. Do you think there’s any unifying thread, a sound, that connects these works, or perhaps defines the Brighton compositional scene in general? What can we expect from the concert?
I’m not sure I can tell a particularly ‘Brighton’ sound or a unifying thread. Some of the composers have written for me before so maybe they have that in mind. There isn’t anything that’s overwhelmingly ‘experimental’ but there’s plenty of imagination in what the combination of instruments can achieve. I’m always amazed at how much composing is actually happening and Brighton is so vibrant in that respect. It’s always a pleasure to be involved with NMB which I have great admiration for. Val and Juliet are cracking players, both of whom I’ve worked with before but never all together so it’ll be great fun for us – and hopefully for the composers and the audience.
Talkestra perform a full programme of music by NMB composers on 2nd July @ Friend’s Meeting House, Brighton, 2.30pm. Visit the event page for more info: