Magazine article The Spectator

'The Name Is Elder, Not Elgar'

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Name Is Elder, Not Elgar'

Article excerpt

A large portrait of Mark Elder hangs backstage at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. It's not a flattering representation; in it the Hallé's music director looks tired, haggard, old. Interestingly, the picture is positioned so that the conductor doesn't have to go anywhere near it as he passes through the corridors from his dressing room to the concert platform. On 2 June, the 150th anniversary of Edward Elgar's birth, Elder turns 60. He could pass for a man 15 years younger.

We meet outside his north London home. I arrive early, and he catches me loitering round the corner as he marches down the street after a haircut. Even though he was out celebrating the night before, after the final performance of Verdi's Stiffelio at Covent Garden, Elder looks fresh and healthy. Several young female colleagues responded to the news that I was meeting him with an immediate 'phwoar'; on and off the rostrum he comes across as a virile, dynamic figure, a real man, yet one with the sensitivity to conduct repertoire stretching from bel canto to English pastoral to the contemporary Georgian composer Giya Kancheli.

Elder's greatest achievement in recent years has been to turn around Britain's oldest symphony orchestra. When he took on the Hallé in 2000 it was nearly bankrupt, and lacked artistic leadership. He quietly concurs with my suggestion that it was a 'failing institution', arguing that the problem dated back to the 1970s and the aftermath of Sir John Barbirolli's three decades in charge, when no confident decisions were made about future direction.

Since taking over, Elder has excised substandard players, toughened up repertoire, and still managed to hold on to the audience. 'I feel a real sense of urgency to broaden the programmes we play, ' he says.

'Not cast people out by doing too much of what they don't want, but somehow managing to engender their curiosity. Right from the start I wanted them to see that I wasn't on an armed crusade -- that they could trust me.' By and large his plan has worked. Programmes of music inspired by conflict, tricky Russian repertoire, acts of Wagner and Verdi operas and the inspired decision to commission Colin Matthews to orchestrate the Debussy Preludes have kept audiences coming. Mancunians rarely wear their hearts on their sleeves, but those I've spoken to after concerts indicate a quiet pride at the direction Elder is taking 'their orchestra'.

Elder's first concert-going experiences were at Hornsey Town Hall in north London, but he is very aware of the Hallé's role in Manchester life. The orchestra's good and bad times seem to coincide with the ups and downs of the city. 'We've got our first skyscraper now, ' he laughs, 'and another on the way. More seriously, though, the people who run Manchester are well aware of what it was a century ago, one of Europe's richest cities. They want to recapture something of that character and aspiration, and part of that is having two immensely talented symphony orchestras [the BBC Philharmonic is the other] as well as two immensely talented football teams.' Talking about Manchester gives Elder the chance to discuss one of his great heroes, the orchestra's founder, Charles Hallé. 'He added the acute accent to the the 'e' in a desperate attempt to get people to pronounce it properly, ' says Elder. …

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