Dan Bates: Strauss, Mozart and missing the “magical connection” of live music

Posted on: January 11, 2021 in: Programmes>2020-21 Season

In November, we had planned to present a wonderful programme of music for up to 13 wind instruments for a live audience at Southwark Cathedral, but the performance was cancelled due to lockdown restrictions. The good news is that we were still able to record Restore and Revive: Strauss and Mozart, and we’re excited to share the video recording (produced by Apple and Biscuit Recordings) with our online audience on Wednesday 13 January.

To give you a flavour, we asked Principal Oboe Dan Bates a few questions about the music, his love for Richard Strauss, and how he felt to be able to perform with his wind colleagues again.

We’re so happy to finally be able to release our recording of Restore and Revive: Strauss and Mozart on 13 January. What do you remember of the day we recorded, and what can people watching expect?

My first thought was that it was incredibly cold in Southwark Cathedral. I don’t think they had had many people in the building for a while and the heating had been turned off. It was freezing and those kinds of temperatures play havoc with wind instruments. It caused us all a lot of problems. However, it was so amazing to be playing together again and so brilliant to spend time with colleagues that I love and respect. Of course, we hadn’t seen each other for many months, so there was a lot to catch up on – how we had all been coping emotionally and financially. To be honest, it also felt a bit dangerous to be mixing with other people (although socially distanced, etc) inside, when we had all had to be so careful for so long. I hope that our joy in being together again and our genuine love for the music that we are playing comes across to the audience, despite our frostbite and blue noses!

13 musicians playing wind instruments
CLS wind musicians by Nick Rutter

This programme was originally planned to be a concert until lockdown two was announced in November. How does the vibe differ when recording, as opposed to performing to a live audience?

It is completely different. In many ways, recording is a lot more stressful – it is very hard to dismiss the thought that every note you play is going to be endlessly scrutinised and criticised by an online audience. This means that one feels less free, less able to take risks. When something goes out online, it is possible that it will be online forever, so you can never live it down! That is the beauty of live performance: it is ephemeral and much more in the moment.

This is the only concert in our Restore and Revive series, so far, to involve just wind instruments. Does playing in a wind ensemble feel any different to performing as part of an orchestra?

The main difference here is that the atmosphere is so much more collegiate, as there is no one single person clearly in charge. When working with an orchestra, the leader is clearly the boss and always has the final say in any discussion. As a wind ensemble, everyone has an equal say. This is a good thing and a bad thing – sometimes it can get a bit chaotic in rehearsals with so many different voices and opinions chiming in. But it was lovely in this instance because everyone genuinely likes and respects each other so much. And we had missed playing together, of course!

Music by Mozart and Richard Strauss feature in this recording. Why have these composers been programmed together?

Mozart was Strauss’ hero. That is clear from the latter’s use of melody, especially in the piece that we play in this concert (Suite for Winds, Op.4). Strauss modelled a lot of his compositions on Mozart’s examples – think of Mozart’s operatic writing for the female voice and how Strauss followed Mozart’s lead in so many of his own operas. Mozart also wrote extensively for wind ensemble, so I am sure that Strauss closely studied these works before embarking on his own wind music.

Tell us more about your relationship with Richard Strauss’ music. What is so special about his Suite for Winds?

I am a Richard Strauss fanatic. I share a birthday with him and even have a tattoo of the silver rose from his opera Der Rosenkavalier on my back (I got this done as a pretentious 19-year-old!). His Suite for Winds is a piece that is not often played because of its technical difficulties and because it needs a large number of players to perform it. Strauss’ father was a horn player and I think you can really hear his love for this instrument throughout this work.

It was brilliant to see CLS musicians together again in the Autumn, after so many months of not being able to perform live music. Tell us about how the last several months have been for you.

Honestly, the first few weeks were blissful. Being a musician in London is exhilarating but exhausting and it was really nice to have a bit of guilt-free time off. When the novelty wore off, I became very depressed and unhappy. We were very well emotionally supported by the CLS team and encouraged to produce online content, as a way of keeping creative and happy. However, the online and making music alone experience is incredibly frustrating and lonely. I hugely missed playing with other musicians and the magical communication that is created between musicians and our audience.

Like everyone, I was so unused to not leaving the house – musicians usually travel nationally and internationally very regularly. This travelling life is often a bore and very tiring but, being accustomed to that way of life, suddenly being housebound felt exceptionally strange. As musicians, I think we are addicted to the good energy and the variety that our life brings to us. Music and performing are so fundamental to our identity and sense of self-worth that, without it, I crashed. I was one of the lucky ones and my brother found me an office job in his company, meaning I could still afford to eat and pay the mortgage. Others were not so lucky, and I am constantly amazed by how my colleagues have managed to adapt to survive.

From August until November, my life felt like it was returning to something more resembling normality and I was pretty busy with outdoor concerts, recording sessions and orchestral concerts streamed on the internet. I even did a week with an Austrian orchestra at the Esterhazy Palace. Then in December, pretty much everything stopped again and now I have nothing in my diary until February (if that happens, at all). I would love to have had the strength to turn lockdown into a positive experience, but I found it (and continue to find it) incredibly hard and disorientating.

‘Restore and Revive: Strauss and Mozart’ premieres on Wednesday 13 January, 7pm GMT, and is available to watch for 30 days on City of London Sinfonia’s YouTube and Facebook channels. Find out more on our website.

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