Interview with Andrew Burn, Kokoro Administrator and former BSO Head of Projects

Andrew Burn

Andrew Burn retired from his position as BSO Head of Projects in 2016 but continued with his role as Kokoro Adminstrator. He stepped down from this position at the end of March this year and spoke to Quarternote about his 24 year career with the BSO.

 

 

 

 

 

Q. You’ve dedicated almost 25 years to working with the BSO and must have seen many changes during that time. How has the orchestra grown and do you have any memorable experiences you would like to share?

A. It certainly was a very different organisation when I joined as Head of Education in 1993, moving from the Liverpool Philharmonic; the main difference being of course we had two orchestras – the Bournemouth Sinfonietta as well as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The BSO served the larger venues whilst the Sinfonietta covered the smaller, rural venues across the South West. That meant the organisation had a particular dynamic: both orchestras were doing their particular concerts but with very separate lives, very separate schedules. The way it worked administratively was that the Chief Executive and the Head of Programming ran the symphony orchestra in effect; and then the Concerts Manager of the Sinfonietta and myself, as Head of Education, ran the Sinfonietta. The Sinfonietta probably did the lion’s share of the education and participation work at that time. In my time with the Orchestra I’ve seen four principal conductors and five chief executives

Q. What has been your proudest moment of working for the BSO?

A. That would be very difficult, so I’ll have to pick two! The first would be putting on the premiere of Stephen McNeff’s opera oratorio The Chalk Legend, which we staged for the Cultural Olympiad in Dorset as part of the 2012 Olympiad. This was a piece that grew rather like Topsy. It was originally going to be a choral work for the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, youth choruses from Dorset primary schools, Kokoro and the Dorset Youth Orchestra. But Stephen decided he needed a libretto written for this piece and the whole story was built around the idea of a Viking raid that happened on the Dorset coast and it coincided with the discovery of a whole series of human skeletons when the relief road was being built from Dorchester to Weymouth. And it was discovered that these skeletons had all been decapitated, through the amazing archaeology of the Dorset archaeological department and it was discovered that they were indeed a party of Viking raiders. So what Stephen did was create a whole story with his librettist Richard Williams around this incident, which starts in the past but actually also comes into the present. One of the challenges was that quite clearly this was growing and it was at the point when Stephen said “I think this really needs to be semi-staged and we need to get in a theatre director and we probably need costumes,” that my heart started to sink because I just saw the pounds, shillings and pence mounting up! But somehow we did manage to do it.

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Scene from The Chalk Legend

What was really important was to find a venue, because this was an event to celebrate the Cultural Olympiad in Dorset and it just somehow wouldn’t have been quite right here in Poole or at the BIC. We wanted some sort of venue out in Dorset. After some searching, it was actually Penny Tweed, a member of the Orchestra, who said her husband runs a sailing centre just outside Portland. This sailing centre was originally a huge helicopter hangar and she said they’ve got this huge space. So Stephen and I went to see it, along with Mark Forkgen [Kokoro’s Musical Director and Principal Conductor], and although I think ideally it could have been a little bit bigger from an audience point of view, we realised that this was a fantastic space to stage this opera oratorio in. And so it eventually ended up with fantastic costumes, with a set and my then-colleague Nick Thorne who was working for Kokoro and for me at the time, one of his challenges was to find a JCB which marked the change of time from the past to the present. It was a huge undertaking, amazingly worthwhile and exciting. We had fantastic audiences, very responsive audiences, which was brilliant, so that’s probably my proudest moment.

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Inspiration Choir Southampton

The other one was actually getting Inspiration Choir Southampton going, which was a two-year project. This was a project built on choirs in the north, in Leeds and Newcastle, which Dougie Scarfe had been working on when he was head of the orchestra up at Opera North and he wanted to bring down this project and establish it in one of the cities here. We went for Southampton because the Orchestra had rather lost its relationship with that city and it was actually really exciting and to get that going and to see it just beginning to really get itself established before I left.

 

Q. Are there any performances that have been particularly memorable for you?

A. Going back to 1993, it was the centenary of the Orchestra and we put on a huge concert at the Royal Albert Hall with Andrew Litton which was Mahler’s Second Symphony and an orchestral work by Henri Dutilleux, who was the Orchestra’s Composer Emeritus at that time, a really marvellous and distinguished French composer who came over for those performances. That was particularly memorable. Kees Bakels who did a semi-staged concert performance of Tosca, is another of my vivid memories and was a marvellous evening. Yakov Kreizberg, he put on an unusual piece of late Romanticism by Franz Schmidt, a symphony of his, which we did in Winchester Cathedral which was a marvellous concert. Then into Marin [Alsop’s] time, the two Bartok concerts that she put on – the semi-staged performance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and the ballet, The Wooden Prince – those were two particularly memorable concerts of her years. There was also her whole Stravinsky project and then her performances of contemporary music by John Adams and various other American composers. And then into Kirill [Karabits’s] period, I’ve been particularly interested in his exploration of unusual Eastern European repertoire – works by Shchedrin for example and this year Karayev and the Lutosławski Cello Concerto. But of course Salome – what an amazing opening to the season last year that concert was.

BSO Salome - Herod (Kim Begley) begs Salome not to take Jochanaan's head with alternate offers of jewels and wealth

Salome, 2015/16 Season Opening at Lighthouse, Poole

Q. When did you first become involved with Kokoro?

A. Kokoro was founded in 1994 by Kevin Field who was the Co-Principal Percussion of the Orchestra. It was founded very much as a separate organisation – Kevin raised money for it, he got funding from the Arts Council which was Southern Arts at that time, although the BSO gave it a lot of help. We gave it publicity support, quite often Kokoro would do one item in an evening concert or a late night concert so didn’t have the costs of venues and so on. And in 1999 when sadly the Bournemouth Sinfonietta had to close, one of the things the Arts Council was saying to us was they still wanted us to try and serve a lot of the smaller rural venues which was a challenge.

The way we looked at it was, we decided we would try and create ensembles – the strings around 23 players, an expanded brass group of around 12, a wind ensemble – and so we could use these creatively to serve some of the smaller rural areas. And it seemed very logical to bring Kokoro within the BSO family. The other problem at that stage was that Kevin had moved to Malaysia to be the Assistant Conductor there and Kokoro was finding it difficult as there wasn’t somebody quite at the helm and it was having funding difficulties and so on. So it actually made an awful lot of sense for it to come into the BSO brief. And as I’d had a close relationship with the smaller local authorities when I was involved with the Sinfonietta, Michael Henson, the then Chief Executive of the BSO, asked me to try and develop the whole ensemble programme because it was linked to local authority funding and that’s how I came to be involved with Kokoro.

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Kokoro

Q. Could you describe your role with Kokoro?

A. I suppose I’ve been the flip side of the coin to Mark Forkgen, the ensemble’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor. Mark and I have worked very closely over the years on the concerts, the programming of the concerts. I will throw in my pennyworth of ideas – ultimately of course Mark as Principal Conductor is very much the driver of it – but we’ve had a really good working relationship over the years. Latterly for a time when I was running Education and Ensembles, we did have somebody to help me with Kokoro but that became financially unviable so in later years I’ve done everything. I’ve booked the players, organised the marketing, get the big copy for the flyer to our colleagues in Marketing and so on, organise the music with the library – basically doing all the day to day things, going with the ensemble when they’re at their concerts and so on.

Q. Kokoro is known for championing new compositions. Are there any premieres the ensemble has given that you feel particularly proud of?

A. Stephen McNeff was the Composer in Residence of the BSO – this was a project funded by the Performing Rights Society and the Royal Philharmonic Society. That was really, I think, quite important in that Stephen also wrote for Kokoro as well and there was a number of premieres that we gave in that time – there was his cabaret piece Strip Jack Naked, for example– so those were important premieres for Kokoro. Also, latterly, works by Hywel Davies, who is currently Kokoro’s Composer in Residence. We’ve also had interesting opportunities that have come our way. We were able to give a premiere of a piece by Hugh Wood because for various reasons it hadn’t been performed and that involved Canticum, Mark Forkgen’s chamber choir from London. And for the opening of the Lighthouse we were invited and commissioned by the Lighthouse to perform a premiere of a work by John Taverner.

Q. Could you tell us more about Mark Forkgen and Kokoro’s work with Canticum?

A. Mark conducts the London Concert Choir which is a large choir of 200 singers, so a big standard chorus, but he also conducts this very fine chamber choir. They are amateur and semi-professional singers, often young singers who are establishing their way in the profession, they’re a very, very high standard. And it really started in 2004, which was the 70th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, we decided we wanted to try and celebrate Max’s birthday. Mark and I devised a whole day, a sort of mini-festival event, and it was at that point that Mark said, “Well actually I would really like to involve Canticum because they can do certain bits of repertoire which Bournemouth Symphony Chorus would be too big to do,” and so that’s how Canticum got involved. We liked them, they liked us and so it’s continued with almost an annual collaboration in some way.

Right through the noughties, Kokoro put on these mini day festivals following on from the one for Maxwell Davies because that had gone so well. We did mini festivals devoted, for instance, to Benjamin Britten; we did an American day; we tried to link into BSO projects so when Kirill’s theme for the season was ‘East Meets West’, we put on an ‘East Meets West’ mini festival and Canticum has been involved in all of these. More recently, when we were looking at various pieces Hywel Davies might write for us, we had the idea of Hywel writing a piece for Kokoro and Canticum and that was a particularly moving and powerful work on the theme of war – the First World War – which we premiered at the Cheltenham Festival in 2015 and then revived last year at Kings Place, so it had a London performance, and all those were with Canticum.

Q. Could you tell us about Kokoro’s collaboration with Arts University Bournemouth and past projects that you’ve done with them?

A. This started because Stuart Bartholomew, the very charismatic and remarkable Vice-Chancellor of the University, knew of Kokoro and had been to some of our concerts and at one point said to me, I would really like to see if Kokoro could do a concert on campus, we have this new lecture theatre that’s been built, perhaps you could put on a concert there. Mark and I went to speak to Stuart and we devised a concert which somehow would reflect aspects of the work they do there. We put this concert on, it was absolutely packed out and a big success. Then Stuart asked us if we would do a follow-up and we did this very much sort of linking up painting and drawing with music and there was a project of AUB students that was linked into this. And then after that we sat back and thought, well what do we do next? And Stuart said, “Well we have this Acting Department and wouldn’t it be great if there would be something you could do with our actors?” This led to putting on Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, and of course not just the Acting Department, they have the Costume Department, Make-Up so they all joined in. That was our first collaboration which we put on at the Ocean Room with South West Dance – very successful and a documentary was made by the Film Department about it and we immediately said, “What can we do next?” Mark had the idea of doing Brecht/Weill’s The Threepenny Opera which is a big piece and again that worked really well. And I think by this time AUB were beginning to realise the opportunity this gave their Acting students to develop their music skills, their singing skills. The Acting Department is very much for actors, it’s not for actor-singers, but in each year there are some very talented singers as well.

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Kokoro performing in the joint production with AUB of The Threepenny Opera

So that led on and then, we decided what shall we do next. This is 2014, the centenary of the opening of the Great War and we thought, let’s do Oh! What A Lovely War. In this production we actually had the Puppet Department joining in, they had made fantastic huge puppets of generals and some of the other characters in the opera. We then took a break for a year and we did after that Sandy Wilson’s musical The Boyfriend. Right throughout this time we had been thinking one of the things we would love to do is a Sondheim musical theatre work, but of course Sondheim is unbelievably difficult and so we had been really waiting for the right moment and last year, Doug Cockle who is the Head of the Acting Department said to us, “We’ve got a year coming up next year a lot of whom are really quite strong singers and singer-actors.” So the decision was made to stage a production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods in March this year, bringing together students from the Acting, Costume and Make-Up Departments, with Kokoro’s Principal Conductor Mark Forkgen as Musical Director. This has been Kokoro’s most ambitious venture so far and yet another fruitful collaboration between the ensemble and the talented students and staff at AUB.

 

Q. Could you tell us about Kokoro’s work with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies?

A. As I mentioned before, when Max was 70, Mark and I decided we wanted to celebrate that milestone in his career and we started planning this mini festival day of his music involving lots of people – the Dorset Youth Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Kokoro of course and some local schools, Poole High School for example was involved. At this point we were working with Max’s then-manager and she made it very clear, Max very much likes what you are doing. It wasn’t quite actually in his 70th birthday year, we planned this as an upbeat to his birthday. So this was going to be in January or February and his actual birthday was in September.

We put together the whole programme and we kept in touch with his manager and we were saying, we hope Max likes this and we totally appreciate he’s so busy composing and conducting across the world that he’s unable to come. And then suddenly in July my wife and I were up in a little cottage in Shropshire and the phone rang and this was Max’s manager who said he’s coming, which of course this was absolutely amazing. So we were then able to add him into the mix he agreed to introduce each of the concerts, I did an extended hour long question and answer session with him and he was just in great form. He was just lovely with all of the performers and with the young performers and I think went away – well I hope he did – we got the impression he went away very happy with everything. It also led almost immediately to him saying to Mark and Canticum, “I’ve got two pieces that haven’t been performed, I would very much like Canticum to have the premieres,” and one of the pieces was actually dedicated to Mark and Canticum, so that was a great spin-off. The other exciting thing out of that was the ensemble was nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for that year, in the category of Concerts and Festivals, which was a very exciting thing for us. We didn’t win, unfortunately, but there we go. But it was a great thing to be recognised and it was largely through that, that we started doing more of the mini festival days.

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Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

We continued to perform Max’s pieces from time to time, we would send him a postcard just saying, we’re doing this piece, and quite often we would get a postcard back saying “Great, I’m delighted you’re doing it.” And then as his 80th birthday loomed, we decided we want to mark this in some way. The final piece that we did in the Maxwell Davies Day, was his great music theatre piece, Eight Songs for a Mad King and around the same time he wrote another iconic music theatre work for dancer and ensemble, Vesalii Icones. We went to talk to Pavilion Dance South West and asked them if they would be interested in becoming involved in putting on a performance of this piece, which they were.

They organised the choreography, they got an amazing dancer straight out of Trinity Laban to be the main dancer. And in the first half, we put on a mixture of Max’s solo pieces and duos, interspersed with short dance pieces which were danced to Max’s music. The choreographer was a hip-hop dancer and it was fascinating to see how he actually created his own world around the Maxwell Davies piece. This was 2014 and by this time Max’s health wasn’t that good – he’d had leukaemia and had had treatment and had recovered but was still suffering – so there was a big question mark over whether he’d be able to come. And then finally we heard that he was coming and again just like before he introduced the piece and was charming and gracious and very complimentary to all the performers and took part in a Q and A session afterwards. And after the show, I took him out for a meal with his friend who was looking after him and he did reveal that day he’d actually felt really ill at the beginning and was almost on the point of saying I just can’t go down to Bournemouth, but did come down. So we were really pleased we had that second opportunity. And then sadly of course he passed away last year. But about a week before Kokoro was doing our concert at Kings Place with the London premiere of Hywel’s piece and as a tribute to Max, Mark played his beautiful short piano work, Farewell to Stromness, which Mark said was one of the hardest things he ever had to do to play that piece under those circumstances, but it was great for Kokoro to have that relationship with this remarkable composer and human being.

Q. Kokoro regularly perform in rural areas, could you tell us more about these performances?

A. This is not just Kokoro, but in my work when I was Head of Ensembles, we used to take these smaller ensembles into small rural venues. We built up a very strong relationship with Artsreach, Dorset’s rural touring organisation, and over recent years we’ve had groups like BSO Resonate Strings, the BSO Winds, the Brass ensemble and Kokoro all doing concerts in often small churches, small village halls right across Dorset, and for me these are often some of the most special concerts because you get such a rapport with the local audience. It almost doesn’t matter if it’s really quite difficult contemporary music because the members of the orchestra have gone to that community, it’s something special for that community, and they come and listen and they often listen with real rapt attention and in the intervals the musicians and the local people mix and it’s really very exciting indeed and I’ve found that a very rewarding part of my work over the years.

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Kokoro performing at Burton Bradstock Village Hall in collaboration with Artsreach Dorset

Q. Finally, what would you say you’ve enjoyed most about working with the BSO and are there any words of wisdom you would offer to someone working in the orchestral sector today?

A. Taking the latter part first, I don’t think I’ve got particularly any words of wisdom! I think the only thing is I think it’s very similar when I look at my younger colleagues compared to when I was starting around forty, getting on for fifty years ago. You have to work very hard, you have to be very passionate about music or the arts to want to work in this sector because it’s not terribly well-paid – you do it often for the love of it. But the rewards are fantastic – to hear marvellous performances, work with marvellous musicians and artists and composers.

I think the other thing is that the orchestral sector as well as the arts generally in this country are very resilient, they’ve gone through hard times and vicissitudes, but continue to survive and indeed are now such an important part of the country’s economy that I do believe they will continue to go from strength to strength and I do believe that people want them, audiences want them, need them and I think the way companies have expanded to involve education and participation work, so people are playing alongside BSO musicians, and the work that the Orchestra does with dementia patients in public health and so on is all a major part.

The other thing I think is the musicians themselves – certainly when I started off, the musicians trained at a conservatoire and that’s what they then did, they did concerts and it really took quite a number of years before they started to do education, participation work. But nowadays the young musicians coming out of college really think, I think, in terms of portfolio careers, so they may have a time playing in an orchestra, they might quite deliberately elect to do some orchestral playing freelance and then also do education work, participation work, working with smaller ensembles, working on solo work, doing a whole range of musical activities to earn their living and I think that is a way forward and I think musicians have become more flexible now and I think that’s only a good thing and power to their elbow.

The BSO is a family – it was a larger family with the Sinfonietta but it was a family – and there is always this family feeling about it and that was one of the things I liked so much when I came here. There was a marvellous violinist in the 1st Violins, David Sheen –alas now passed away – and on my second or third day, he came and said to me, “You’re the new boy in education aren’t you?” and I said, “Yes I am,” and he introduced himself and he said, “Well you’ll have a marvellous time here, it’s a great family; I came here forty years ago and have played and have had a most marvellous time and I know you will too.” And he was quite right. The musicians of the orchestra have always been very supportive in the work that I’ve been doing and there’s a real camaraderie and friendship, so it’s been a great time.

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