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What was your musical experience at Lancaster?
I did the piano as a free ninth, which I’m not sure still exists. The degree was divided into nine units, and eight of them were counted towards your degree, but one of them could be anything. I thought it was quite a good idea actually, well certainly brilliant for me because you could do a bit of music when I was committed to doing economics. I can’t believe I’m saying these words out loud: ‘economics!’ Anybody that knows me knows that it was so not what I should have done.
I played the piano for various people around the college, for example people taking their solo instrument exams. I also played the studies for the Theatre Studies panto. The band consisted of me and a percussionist. Once we did one that we’d never played before: ‘Happy Days are Here Again’, so five minutes before the show we thought we’d have a quick run through, but someone backstage thought that we’d started, so they pulled the curtain up and all the cast had to come on singing while they were still getting dressed.
I ushered for the concert series, where I had to go and get the artists. It’s not a very long walk, but it made sure that they didn’t get lost in a Spinal Tap type moment. I did it so much, all that music stuff, that someone who I was living with in second year punched me out of fury because he thought I was doing music not economics.
How did it feel when you came to Lancaster and conducted on the same stage that Princess Alexandra gave you your degree on?
Very weird. I mean let’s be honest about it, that venue could do with a lot of renovation. I’ve been all around the campus and so many things are new. The college I was in, Cartmel, is now County South, and so many blocks have been knocked down and replaced. Really all I knew were the foundations, which I love. The Great Hall is pretty much exactly the same though, which was one of the first buildings to be put up when it was being built.
Do you lament the loss of the music department?
Yeah I definitely do. I was probably as involved in it as any member of the music department. I gave little recitals in the Jack Hilton Room, I played in the orchestra – really bad percussion – but I think that for me Lancaster was about the things outside of my degree. If they hadn’t have been there, then I’m not sure that I’d be doing what I am today. I did a lot of theatre as well, which was when I first started doing the comedy, going on stage with my own written material in front of an audience. All that is what Lancaster gave me.
And it’s not there anymore. I know there’s a strong music society, but it’s not quite the same as being able to play the piano with someone in the department and all the rest of it. I was rather shocked to hear it actually, I only found out a few days ago, that it had fallen away. It’s a real shame. For music students now, it’s really hard with all the extra commitment that they have to put in – the £9,000. I sort of drifted in to economics, but if I’d really looked at it then I would have done music. It was essentially a mistake for me doing that degree. What wasn’t a mistake though was me coming up here and having that university experience. You have to make so much more of a commitment now, that you have to look into everything really closely, which doesn’t really suit someone who’s undecided, because they might not go in the end.
Moving on from Lancaster, what kind of audience do you find most responsive to your performances?
Well lately, I’ve done some shows which have been more pop orientated, like what we did in the Great Hall. Basically I stand up there and take the piss, then we do the numbers in a funny way. I tried it at the Southbank and it was one night, at Christmas time, and when we walked out on stage people were so up for it. Wearing reindeer hats and jumpers and everything. To dip your toe into the world that is more on the pop spectrum was quite remarkable. Those people are really up for a good time, and especially on the comedy side it’s stuff that they’ve grown up with since their childhood.
On the classical side though it tends to be something they grow into, and they’re usually more reserved about that. It’s a really great pleasure though to go out there with a classical set and for people to realise that you can really have fun with it, when you bring that fun and that joy, they love it. The most responsive are those pop audiences, especially the younger ones.
As an example, I did a play that I wrote about Victor Borge, that I did in the West End. We had this group booking from a group of 70 Norwegian Schoolchildren, out of about 200 seats in the theatre. It was money in the bank, so I thought ‘yeah let’s do it.’ It was a Sunday afternoon, and I thought it was going to be a real blot on the run, all these 18 year old school leavers on their trip to London. But, I walked out there and they were the best audience by a mile. They absolutely fucking loved it! From the off they were laughing at all the jokes, about this guy who they couldn’t have possible known anything about. So there it is. Young people. They get it and they’re into it and it’s great.
Do you think making classical musical jokes makes it more inclusive, or does it shut people out who might not understand them?
I try not to make too many in-jokes, so I try to make it so that anyone can get it. I know that people know 20 pieces of classical music whether they like it or not, they all recognise the famous ones. It’s just part of their culture. I’m not asking for any specialist knowledge. I’m not trying to educate people either, I really couldn’t give a monkey’s. It’s about having fun with something they previously thought was completely removed from fun, like a religious service.
Except for Victor Borge, who are your other musical or comedic inspirations?
Well there are some great musical comics out there, but all they do is sing funny songs. Tim Minchin, Bill Bailey. It’s all they really do. I grew up with Bill Bailey, and we did the circuit together, but it was never in his heart to do it with orchestra. He’s brilliant at what he does, but all he does it sing songs. There aren’t many people who really mess around with the music. Borge was one, but he didn’t do much with orchestra. I did a radio series for the BBC about the people who have done it, Spike Jones and people like that. The thing is I can learn from those people, but to me it’s not the same. I try to bring a stand-up style to things, which is quite 21st century, but of course that will look really dated in twenty years probably. Those people probably are part of that wave that I’m in, but I could never be like them.
Is it because of the enigma of the conductor, especially in the orchestra, that you like doing it?
Well I do now. It’s only been for the past 5 or so years that I’ve been with an orchestra, it used to be just me. To me, the orchestra thing is the most challenging thing that I can do, it’s something that interests me. It’s like a super tanker in terms of comedy. Working with the audience as well, who are often quite straight-laced, it’s all part of the challenge – the hardest nut to crack. I like being the man between the orchestra and the audience. They’re basically doing the gags really, I’m setting them up and the orchestra plays them out. Everything that I do though is a challenge. Arranging the music, being a musician with the orchestra, and then communicating with the audience. It’s really the limit of what I can do.
What is classical music going to evolve into?
Classical music is currently on a downward trajectory. It’s not part of what people consider part of their lives, like they did 30 years ago. In the US for example, there would always be concerts from the New York Philharmonic on prime time TV, which you would never find now. You really have to go to BBC4 to find it unless it’s a high day or holiday, or Proms or something like that. I think there will always be demand for people at the top of their game, because there will always be an audience for that.
There will always be an amateur scene as well, but where it will be difficult is for the people in the middle of that spectrum, who are doing good work. They’re going to be squeezed. Who knows with China as well, where there might be a massive market that we in the west don’t really know about. The focus might shift over there. From what I can see though, arts funding is just going to get much harder to come by. There’ll be big showcase things which will always be funded though. It’s in the human nature to produce music, and for all the parents who want their children to play musical instruments, every 1 in 10,000 of those will be an obsessive virtuoso. That will keep it going.
What is your best tip for conductors?
You’ve got to get the technique. By which I mean, how to beat the beats. I’ve seen so many conductors who I just can’t follow. I think I have an idea of how to do things, but it’s really important to know that stuff. The people who can really conduct haven’t got time to teach it, and the result is you get people leading courses who can actually destroy your confidence. You need someone who can give great feedback, who analyses the right things, and gives great positive pointers, who doesn’t just talk about the music in an airy-fairy way. Don’t be interested in what some middle ranking conductor thinks about you. Try to conduct as much as you can, two people or more and you can conduct them! Orchestral is probably the most difficult, because you have to know the most about what’s going on in front of you, but it really does just come with experience.
Do you think that because of your musical style you have an easy route into conducting these big orchestras?
Yeah, I do. I walk out there, and I’m going ‘hey, we’re going to do something fun and different.’ Especially for professional orchestras, who are so, so, bored, particularly in the US. There’s no freelance scene really, so when some guy turns up who says ‘we’re going to be playing these fun things now,’ it speaks to them as much as it does to the average person. I’m trying to make gags which everyone gets, but the musicians will get it more, because at its heart it is all about the music.
In any group of a hundred people, there will always be those three who get really pissed off, and they just want to do their Mozart Symphonies, but you’ll also get those ten people who think that it’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to them, and who wish that you’d be their permanent conductor. The rest just think it’s interesting and see what happens. I’ve got my Rainer Hersch orchestra, which I book for gigs, and we do lots of corporates, and I try stuff out on them. It’s a big machine though, an orchestra, and Rainer Hersch isn’t a big enough name to maintain something like that. Yet.