No complaints: Ben Palmer
Meet the Maestro: Ben Palmer8:00, 21st March 2018
The London-based conductor, artistic director of the Covent Garden Sinfonia and chief conductor of the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck, tells Toby Deller why taking things slowly is the secret to success
‘It’s like accompanying the worst soloist you’ve ever met in your entire life, because it never adjusts,’ says Ben Palmer, explaining the challenges of conducting live film soundtracks. We are speaking a few weeks before he and his orchestra, the Covent Garden Sinfonia, accompanied a soloist from another planet altogether: the film ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.
He is not complaining, however, since the Queen Elizabeth Hall audience’s response to ET was positive, evidently including a standing ovation during the flight scene. It’s a good thing too, because in 2018 he is touring the UK and Europe with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (the first UK dates are 5-14 April) conducting John Williams scores.
His first taste of this kind of performance, in 2013, was The Snowman at the QEH when he and what was then called the Orchestra of St Paul’s stepped in following a cancellation. They followed that with performances of other classic soundtracks, although Palmer had not set up OSP with the aim of conducting film scores. Indeed, there was no real masterplan for it and he calls the orchestra ‘probably the most brilliant accident of my life’.
That lack of ambition may, curiously, help explain how CGS has endured beyond its first decade, going from being a play-for-free group to a professional ensemble hired by other promoters. ‘I have seen so many young professional orchestras arrive to great fanfare and the next year are gone. I think the answer as far as I’m concerned has been just to do it slowly. It’s like playing the board game Risk: if you try and take over, you might have a couple of rounds when you own a couple of continents but then it all implodes.’
Palmer himself, as a young conductor having just graduated from university, did however have strong ideas about his musical direction. These were given added impetus when he came across the work of Roger Norrington, of whom he was only vaguely aware at the time, but would go on to assist for several years. A hearing of the Magic Flute – that was all the more revelatory for being via a recording purchased because it was cheap, rather than by Norrington – led him to seek out live performances, including a Prom with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra that featured Elgar’s first symphony.
‘There was the tune at the beginning played completely without any vibrato at all. By this point I had already been doing this with orchestras for a couple of years because it’s how I thought the music should go. And I sat there through the first five minutes with tears streaming down my face because, on the one hand I felt: this is literally the most beautiful thing I have ever heard in my whole life. But also it felt like someone was saying: it’s ok to have these thoughts about music that apparently no one else has.’
Palmer’s determination to stick to his guns in following Norrington’s often-denigrated example paid off in his appointment in Germany as chief conductor at the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck, a three-year post that he took up in 2017.
‘One of the ladies who works in the office is good friends with Roger Norrington and rang him and said: who’s the new Roger? He said: you want this guy. I got a phone call saying would you like to come and do a concert and I said I’d love to. It was, if you can believe it, an outdoor Last Night of the Proms concert in Darmstadt: totally sold out with over 3,000 Germans singing Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory and clapping along to the sailor’s hornpipe.’
He describes the orchestra’s programming as fairly conventional, but is looking to encourage it into being a little more broad-minded in what it plays. He has introduced some more Elgar, for instance, and likes to create themed programmes; there are even concert performances of film music. If that appears to be a long way from the historically informed performance that helped him get his foot in the door with DKM, he has a different view. ‘The more I’ve done it the more I’ve realised that it is actually historical performance, it just happens that you’re doing it on a film score written in 1982 or 1990, rather than a symphony written in 1790-something.’
One difference, of course, is that the original soundtracks are available for consulting, as may be the composers too: for one live project, Palmer did indeed email John Williams to ask for the exact orchestral layout used in one film recording, so as to recreate it properly in performance.
‘It is absolutely about getting the right sound, the kind of stridency of the trumpets or the lushness of the strings: it’s absolutely about trying to recreate what was heard on the original soundtrack. You’ll quite often get an audience full of people who really know the film, insanely well – much better than I do – and have a really deep connection with how the music interacts with it. So you can’t just approach it with a slapdash attitude.’
1982 Born Denmark
2000-5 Studies music and postgraduate composition at University of Birmingham
2007 Founds and conducts inaugural concert of Orchestra of St Paul’s (OSP)
2011 Starts working as assistant conductor to Sir Roger Norrington
2013 Conducts first film-with-orchestra project with OSP
2017 OSP rebrands as Covent Garden Sinfonia
2017 Appointed chief conductor of Deutsche Philharmonie Merck
2018 Begins UK and European film touring with Czech National Symphony Orchestra