Paul Philbert: ‘Stirring the pot is not always comfortable, but it offers opportunities’

Two orchestras sharing the stage at the same time: not something you find often, understandably. But when the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (or at least the musicians from both ensembles) meet at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall next week, it will serve a dual purpose. Not only will it send a message about collaboration and cooperation between groups that you would normally expect to see them compete, but it will also create the gigantic ensemble needed for one of the most exuberant masterpieces of the 20th century: John Adams’ Harmonielehre.

“It’s an absolutely glorious piece,” says RSNO Principal Timpanist Paul Philbert. “I get goosebumps just thinking about what’s coming.” It’s a remarkable mix of minimalist energy and Wagner- or Mahler-esque romantic richness that really put the California-based composer on the map in the 1980s. “I’m a little scared by the ending, though,” admits Philbert. “It is relentless and very strong. Due to Covid I haven’t been doing a lot of playing particularly muscular and vigorous. I’ll have to get back in the pool and work out my arms decently in the run-up.”

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However, let’s re-send that message about collaboration. The underlying reason for this unusual gathering is that the concert has been timed to coincide with the Association of British Orchestras conference, co-organized in Glasgow from 9-11 February by RSNO and BBC SSO. And it’s an event where Philbert has multiple roles: as RSNO artist, RSNO delegate, ABO board member and speaker – he’ll deliver one of the conference’s welcome speeches.

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For anyone who is not familiar, how would you explain what the ABO is? “It is the powerful force that unites orchestral interests and issues across the UK and represents them on a national stage,” he says. “He is often heavily involved in discussions with the government and also acts as a resource, an opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas within the orchestral world.”

The conference also marks an important opportunity to showcase Scotland’s, and particularly Glasgow’s, rich classical scene to industry across the UK, he believes: Scottish musicians and ensembles are prominent among ABO’s discussions. But why should Scotsman readers care about what goes on behind closed doors at an industry event like this?

Because the issues discussed define the changing relationships of orchestras with the communities they play and serve: what they play, the musicians they work with, and the groups they interact with. In addition to the fallout from Brexit and the quest for ever greater sustainability, inclusion is high on the agenda of many of the ABO’s discussions, across classes, genders, races, ethnicities and disabilities. It also ranks high on Philbert’s priority list, first in terms of the musicians an orchestra employs. “We need filtered auditions,” he says (auditions where the players are not seen and therefore judged solely on their performance). “My challenge has always been very simple: why wouldn’t you? Bringing in a player from left field has great potential to trigger an unexpected metamorphosis for the larger team.”

And secondly, in terms of the music played by the orchestras. “A little gift, if that’s the right word, that has come out of the death of George Floyd and the storm that followed is that the concert schedule has changed. For my part, I had never heard of composers like Samuel Coleridge Taylor or Joseph Boulogne until a few years ago. There are so many women composers that we never listen to either. There is great music out there that is relatively undiscovered. And I think the orchestral scene has already been enriched by its discovery”.

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One concern that sometimes arises is that embracing the new somehow means sacrificing the tried and tested, the traditional. “Stirring the pot isn’t always comfortable, but it offers opportunities for growth, and transformation and positivity come from those things. The limited view that this is how things have always been done, this is how we should do it, just doesn’t work. The world is changing. Something that Covid has taught us is that life is short and precious. We have to make the most of it. And excluding someone from that is sinful, shameful.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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