Christopher Morley talks to the newly appointed associate conductor of the CBSO, Michael Seal.
Toscanini did it from the ranks of the cellos in an Argentinian opera-house, Leonard Bernstein at very few hours’ notice, Sakari Oramo from the leader’s desk, Andris Nelsons from a trumpet stand.
And now Michael Seal has done it too, standing in from a second violin seat for an indisposed conductor.
He has done it on more than one CBSO occasion too, most recently when Ilan Volkov had to cancel his conducting of a Scandinavian concert earlier this month with the orchestra.
For several years Michael has done sterling work as assistant conductor to the CBSO, but now his talents have been rewarded with his appointment as associate conductor, the first incumbent of that title since Harold Gray held it for so many decades during the last century.
He tells me about the business of being a stand-in.
“Each cancellation has its own particular set of circumstances and problems. The first time I took on a late cancellation was in December 2004 when I was asked by the CBSO to stand in for Sakari Oramo and conduct the world premiere of Richard Causton’s Between Two Waves of the Sea.
“In that instance I had about a week to learn the score before starting rehearsals. It was a particularly tricky piece as it was scored for orchestra, but also a pre-recorded orchestra. This meant that I had to be incredibly exact over tempi, with virtually no leeway, as the live orchestra had to synch up with the pre-recorded element exactly. It meant hours spent with a metronome, just doing repetitions of certain passages over and over again!
“The recent Volkov cancellation was over a much shorter timeframe – I was asked to stand in just two-and-a-half days before the rehearsals. Stephen Maddock brought the scores round for me to see and we had a discussion as to whether it would be possible to keep the programme as advertised. Having seen the score for Bent Sorensen’s’ Exit Music, I decided that with a couple of late nights, I could learn it along with the rest of the programme in time.”
It must be tricky for Michael, crossing the lines from orchestral ranks to the conductor’s podium and back again, as he explains.
“My colleagues are incredibly supportive and have been a massive help to me. I’ve learnt so much from them over the years – either by direct suggestions and comments, or through the usual discussions musicians have about the music we play, how we played it, what causes problems, how to overcome them, and so on.
“I’m sure many conductors would dearly love to be able to tap into this incredibly knowledgeable database of wisdom and experience.
“When I go back to playing in the orchestra, I just try to do my job as well as I can and just be one of the band. Whether I achieve this is for the CBSO to decide but I would never try to do it any other way.”
And Michael is at the elbow of one of the world’s greatest young conductors, CBSO music director Andris Nelsons. I have seen them in action together, as Michael confirms.