Michael Bell

Interview – Michael Bell MBE

The penultimate concert in Cardiff Philarmonic Orchestra’s 2018/19 season sees them play a rousing repertoire including many pieces that have featured in the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Neil Collins chats to CPO Conductor, Michael Bell MBE about this powerful programme.

NC: Would this be your dream Proms repertoire?

MB: When Sir Henry Wood founded the Proms in 1895, he had an idea of a series of concerts, with tickets at affordable prices and a repertoire that introduced classical music to a wide audience. That’s been the basis of our aim in planning A Night at the Proms. It hopefully tempts people who may never have been to a classical concert to come through the doors of St David’s Hall and experience live orchestral music.

Was it a difficult process choosing which pieces to include, and were there any that didn’t quite make the grade?

If we’d included all the pieces I’d noted in my initial list, our audience would have been in for a very long night! We have traditional Last Nightfavourites like Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, which we’ll be playing in its rarely heard, full version – brass fanfares and all – and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1.

Also the audience will hear Sir Malcolm Arnold’s dramatic and moving Peterloo Overture– commemorating an event that took place exactly 200 years ago in Manchester when a peaceful gathering of 80,000 people, meeting about political reform, was violently broken up by troops on horseback sent in by the authorities. The work was commissioned by the Trades Union Congress in 1969. There’s also film music in Sir William Walton’s score for Henry V, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier in the famous morale-boosting film of Shakespeare’s Henry Vmade during World War II.

michael bell

The concert opens with Gareth Wood’s Cardiff Bay Overture and later features Grace Williams’ Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes. With the Proms being such a patriotic occasion, was it important for you to feature Welsh contributions amongst the usual British classics?

It was absolutely important to include music by Welsh composers. Generations of young musicians in Wales will have grown up having played, at some stage in their lives, Grace Williams’s utterly delightful Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes. It’s beautifully constructed and orchestrated, and brimming with much loved tunes.

Gareth Wood’s Cardiff Bay Overture reflects the history of that iconic part of the capital city – with music that encapsulates its grandeur, its history, its industry, its different cultures and above all its vibrancy. The orchestra loves playing this piece in particular.

As an avid attendee of the BBC Proms in London every year, what have been your favourite Proms performances over the years?

One of the highlights of my year is spending several nights every summer at the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms. I’ve been a regular at the Proms for over 25 years, and there have been so many highlights. In particular, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Abbado in a breathtaking performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 9, and Havergal Brian’s A Gothic Symphony which featured more than 800 performers including two orchestras and a vast choir. It’s the sort of piece that is rarely performed and was a once in a lifetime experience.

There was also Daniel Barenboim conducting the four operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle, and in great contrast I was also there for the Proms debut of the John Wilson Orchestra in 2009 playing MGM film music. The impact of hearing these scores live for the first time was very special.

You will be performing Eric Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon, which is the theme tune to Desert Island Discs. With that in mind, what would be one the Proms piece featured within the repertoire that you would save from the waves above all others? And what would be your choice of book and luxury item?

That’s such a difficult question! Very possibly Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music. My book could well be No Minor Chords written by Andre Previn recounting his days in Hollywood as an arranger, composer and conductor. It’s full of insight into post-war Hollywood, and often brilliantly funny. Luxury item….how about a bottle of fine red wine that amazingly keeps refilling?!

CPO is backed by Cardiff Ardwyn Singers for this concert. What pieces will they be providing accompaniment for?

We’re delighted to welcome the Ardwyn Singers – with whom we last performed Orff’s Carmina Burana– and to be performing with them one of the most beautiful works ever composed for voices and orchestra in Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music. It’s based on words by Shakespeare from The Merchant of Venice. The Serenade was written in 1938 for a concert celebrating Sir Henry Wood’s 50thanniversary as a conductor. There’s a wonderful and very touching anecdote about this piece and the celebrated Russian composer Rachmaninoff, which I’ll be telling the audience of this in the concert!

The concert closes with Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. Is that the ultimate Proms finale?

No celebration of the Proms would be quite complete without Elgar’s most famous march. It’s so well known that its’s easy to forget what a great tune Elgar wrote. Before the first performance Elgar told a friend “I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em flat”, and so he did! It was later adopted for the words Land of Hope and Glory that weren’t written by Elgar at all.

CPO’s 2018/19 season at St David’s Hall finishes with Beethoven & Shostakovich: The Power of Music on Saturday 29 June. Tell us a bit about that concert.

The orchestra is particularly looking forward to the June concert. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 is one of the most majestic, yet joyful works that Beethoven wrote with a slow movement to die for. Our brilliant young soloist is Giuseppe Guarrera. He was born in Sicily and studied at the Berenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin. He’s appeared with among others, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra del Teatro la Fenice.

Shostakovich composed his Symphony No 5 in 1937 at the height of Stalin’s power when many Russians who had fallen foul of the authorities – as Shostakovich had with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – were arrested or simply disappeared. The Fifth Symphony has become known as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism.” It’s one of the most magnificent pieces of music in the repertoire that takes us though a whole range of human emotions, ending in triumph….or does it? One of the work’s many enigmas.

The last time CPO played this piece was 35 years ago, so we can’t wait for 29 June.

You’re not away for long though as you return for the Family Prom on Sunday 21 July. What have you got in store for us this year?

This year is CPO’s 20thsuccessive year in the Welsh Proms, and we’re delighted to be joined by BBC’s Derek Brockway and Behnaz Akhgar for an afternoon of weather-related music and stories. Best to bring both a brolly and sunglasses for all eventualities.

Are you able to reveal any plans for CPO’s 2019/20 season yet? A Night at the Movies celebrates its 25th anniversary in December.

Plans for the next season have yet to be finalised, but we’ll definitely be celebrating 25 years of A Night at the Movies in December performing some of our and the audience’s favourites. I hope the Force will be with us that night.


More information about the CPO season can be found here.