Megan Thomas speaks to Caroline Pether, Leader of Sinfonia Cymru, as they embark on a mini-tour of Wales.
You’re well known for your chamber orchestral involvement across the UK, participating in groups Manchester Camerata, Zelkova Quartet and Sinfonia Cymru. You also do duo performances. What is it about chamber or smaller orchestra that appeals to you over larger orchestras?
There’s something about smaller ensembles that allows for a more improvisatory feel in terms of phrasing, colours and timings; all those things that a composer can’t easily write in the score. Somehow when there are fewer people it’s easier for individuals to shine and change the course of the musical journey within the framework of the whole. That said, there is something awe-inspiring about a vast number of people all working together in, say, a Mahler or a Brahms symphony. That depth of sound can be incredibly moving.
As the leader of Sinfonia Cymru, do you have get the final say when it comes to the music the orchestra plays? How do you go about choosing the repertoire?
It’s always more interesting to me to make programming choices collaborative. If I’m directing a project myself then of course I’ll have a big say in what we play but it’s so great to hear ideas from both other players and the fantastic management team. It sounds obvious but I think that when programming concerts, one should always choose music that one loves and believes in. Only then will audiences feel that genuine connection to the music. It’s also really fun to play around with themes and connections between pieces and composers. It’s like playing in a sand box!
Sinfonia Cymru has been described in the media as first class. What do you think are the key elements of success for a chamber orchestra to rise above the rest?
For me the key is in the name; chamber orchestra. If the musicians approach the music as if they are playing in a string quartet or a wind quintet i.e. with a sense of individual responsibility and spontaneity, then the music will fizz with life. If we fall into auto pilot or crowd mentality, then we’re in trouble!
Do you have any pre or post show traditions? Any habits to quell the nerves?
I’m not a superstitious person so I don’t have any lucky underwear or anything like that! For me the most important thing to do is to get my head in the right place i.e. in that improvisatory, creative, audience-serving mode. For me pre-concert is not the time for practise – it’s too late for that! I often like to play something that will make me feel relaxed and ready to give generously, Tonight from West Side Story or excerpts from the Brahms violin sonatas are some favourites.
You’ve won multiple awards and competitions throughout your years in various ensembles. How important do you think competition is when it comes to music and performance?
I think many musicians would agree with me in wishing that we didn’t have to do competitions. Music is such a subjective art and it’s quite rare for juries to agree on who the winner should be. It feels strange that there should be a binary yes or no outcome to any generous offering of music made by a performer. That said, competitions can be useful platforms for musicians to share their love and talent for performing and for concert organisers to hear said musicians. However I do think it’s very important that musicians do not place their sense of worth on how well they do in competitions. Some of the greatest musicians didn’t win a single competition.
Sinfonia Cymru performs both live concerts as well as recording. Do these require different types of performance from you and your team?
Yes absolutely. I think a lot of concert-goers would be quite surprised to observe the recording process. We often repeat patches again and again until we get the winning take; it requires huge levels of concentration. In a concert the odd little slip here or there is not going to be registered or affect the enjoyment of the audience. This knowledge gives the performer a sense of freedom. The challenge when recording is to preserve that artistic freedom but also nail all the tricky bits. It’s a mental marathon!
You are performing as soloist in Sinfonia Cymru’s October shows. What is the most challenging part of a show like this?
I’m struggling to answer this question because if I’m honest I always love working with this orchestra so much and it’s hard to think of challenges! My colleagues and friends in the orchestra have a great can-do attitude and strive for the highest of standards. The only challenge I can think of is that I’ll have to make sure I don’t have too much fun during the rehearsals so I preserve both mental and physical energy for the concerts. But that’s probably the nicest challenge one could have.
Sinfonia Cymru, Royal Welsh College, Cardiff (Wed 10 Oct); Riverfront Theatre, Newport (Thu 11 Oct); Hafren, Newtown (Fri 12 Oct); Pontyberem Memorial Hall (Sat 13 Oct). Tickets: From £12 (£5 for U27s). Info: www.sinfoniacymru.co.uk