Interview: Sir Richard Armstrong

A week on from his outstanding concert, JOE BATES talks to SIR RICHARD ARMSTRONG about Cambridge students and ‘goddam stupid’ composers.

Cambridge Classical cums dream of gerontius Kings College Chapel Music scottish opera sir richard armstrong welsh national opera

Sir Richard Armstrong has lived his life ‘in the fast lane’ ever since he came to Cambridge in 1961. Last week, he returned to conduct at King’s College Chapel, leading a massive combined orchestra of nearly 250 players for an excellent performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.

As we settled down for a cup of tea in Patisserie Valerie on the day before the concert, Sir Richard enthused about Elgar’s music: “The music is wonderfully fine grained. The big climaxes, when they come, are thrilling beyond belief. He prepares them so extraordinarily. They’re the kind of build ups which, in the hands of a lesser composer, might sometimes seem over long. But Elgar is such a master.”

‘Fine grained’ is not a phrase normally associated with the composer of imperialist blockbusters such as the Pomp and Circumstance March, yet Sir Richard insists it is a “very subtle piece” that “takes a lot of work” from its performers. A wry smile had found its way onto his lips, so I pressed further, asking whether his work with CUMS was different working from working with professionals.

After a slightly awkward pause, he confessed that it was “very very different,” although he was keen to qualify himself. “Very good progress” was being made, and it was clear that there were “some terrific musicians” around. Yet he gave the impression that those musicians may be more than a little over-stretched: “I’d love to have more time with them, I’d be able to show the musicians far more things than in the relatively short time that I’ve got. But that’s life in Cambridge, you’ve got to get on with it… It’s staggering how much people can fit into a day.”

He, however, was somewhat less busy as a Cambridge student himself. Organ scholar at Corpus from 1961 to 1965, the brainy young conductor found the work “dead simple” because he “loved all the ear tests and the score reading” and was able to “just spend all the day making music and not having to do any work.”

Sir Richard is pessimistic about the state of music in this country. He contrasts it to his youth, when, despite the “shambolics” of music at Cambridge, “people were wanting more and more music. I was very fortunate to grow up musically in a world where there were lots of opportunities. It really started… in the growth of the ’60s and ’70s… that kind of confidence in the arts. After the war… the country had no money and everything was very quiet, but from the mid to late ’60s it all started to bubble again.”

He was involved in bringing music to an audience beyond the London elite through the founding of the Welsh National Opera. “From 1968 [the Welsh National Opera] was part of an idea to increase the availability of opera outside London. The arts council in collaboration with the company came up with an idea to expand it and make it a fully professional company and the whole transition from amateur to professional.”

14 years later, he moved to Scottish Opera. “It had got into the doldrums a bit” he “was asked to go and shake it up a bit.” Unfortunately, it shook back. Whilst he was very proud of the work he did in Scotland, “funding was never particularly strong” and after devolution in 2000, “a particular administration and Arts Minister really pounced and kind of decided that the work that the opera did [was unwanted].” Sir Richard bitterly recalled being asked the bizarre question “Is opera a Scottish art form?”

The funding issue was one that we touched on more than once in our interview. I challenged him, arguing that opera could be seen as an outdated, elitist form. Provoked, he replied: “Well, talk about elitist. You can only have access to it if you have money? Look at the art galleries and how full they are of people. Why? Because they’re free, which is fantastic. We have, in London, in places like the Tate Modern, we have the highest attendance of any gallery in the world and it’s wonderful. You go to London and you see people marching in with their kids their families, everything, going to see art.”

For him, opera has the same ability to “hit anyone right between the eyeballs the first time.” He was particularly passionate about overlooked modern operas such as Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk (“It’s not often you get to see that many sex acts on stage”) or Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Having worked with many composers on new works, he often found “no matter how clear you are… they’re usually kicking and screaming against limitations… and you sometimes think ‘just don’t be so goddam stupid.'” The librettists, on the other hand, wrote “too many words” and “got carried away.”

Despite this slightly misanthropic approach to the modern world, Sir Richard’s sheer enthusiasm and warm nature prevented a slide into an ‘enraged of Esher’ classical music stereotype. His anger at sliding standards shouldn’t be mistaken for that of a traditionalist reacting against the passing of time, but of a rebellious teenager still keen to shake up whatever needs a shaking.