Helen Harrison, one of Orchestras Live's talented and hard-working Trustees, recently sat for an interview with the Royal Philharmonic Society, to discuss the RPS' Women Conductors programme and her reflections on the lockdown experience. Reproduced with kind permission from the RPS.
This interview was originally presented by the Royal Philharmonic Society in its dedicated e-bulletin sent to its Members. If you're a music-lover or music-maker, you may like to join the RPS yourself to receive the bulletin and much else besides, to make you feel more connected to what's happening in classical music. Gift Membership is also a prospect as the festive season looms. Every subscription helps the RPS in its charitable work supporting musicians nationwide. Find out more at https://royalphilharmonicsociety.org.uk/
The RPS is proud over the last five years to have been home to the UK’s foremost initiative that helps women further their skills in conducting. You can read about our Women Conductors programme led by the brilliant Alice Farnham here on our website.
To date, over 500 women have taken part, and Helen Harrison is one of them. We asked her to tell us how the RPS has helped her. As Music Director of the award-winning Blackpool Symphony Orchestra and several other ensembles, she’s been keeping busy, but has taken some time away from the podium to share her perspective especially with RPS Members.
How has the RPS helped you as a conductor over the years?
Taking part in the inaugural women’s conducting course run by the Royal Philharmonic Society in partnership with the Royal Opera House and the National Opera Studio in September 2018 was, quite simply, a life-changing experience. Joining a vibrant network of women conductors all looking out for each other and willing each other on has been so powerful. This summer I was invited to take part in the pilot scheme run by the RPS in partnership with the Royal Northern Sinfonia at Sage Gateshead, furthering gender equality on the podium. The opportunity to spend two days working intensively with such a fantastic orchestra, and to receive highly focused and personalised coaching and mentoring from the Artistic Director of the RPS Women Conductors programme, Alice Farnham, along with a constructive feedback process with the players from the orchestra, was invaluable, and a breakthrough experience for me on my journey as an artist and conductor.
How were you able to keep yourself occupied during the pandemic as a conductor?
It was very hard as a conductor – on our own, we make no sound, so we cannot make music without musicians in front of us. To go from conducting musicians every day, with the buzz that brings, to conducting being a rare and special event was tough. That said, I was fortunate during lockdown to be able to conduct live musicians when it was permitted; we all so cherished those occasions to make music together. I did enjoy rehearsing outside when the British weather chose to be kind; especially a rehearsal where the birds joined in with Dvořák’s sunny Eighth Symphony.
For me, during the hard times of lockdown it was important that some kind of musical activity was happening for the non-professional and youth ensembles I conduct; it was not a time to be silent when the power that music has to connect us was needed more than ever. At Blackpool Symphony Orchestra, we were over the moon that our lockdown video ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ was commended by the RPS in their 2020 Inspiration Awards, along with winning and receiving commendations from other prestigious organisations.
The enforced downtime did have an unexpected upside for me – with no rehearsals and concerts to prepare for it was an ideal time to expand my repertoire and work on my technique and artistry. I desperately needed to keep my conducting brain alive! I have been extremely fortunate to work with Jessica Cottis, who continues to coach and mentor me. Again, this connection was made possible through the RPS, as Jessica had coached me on that inaugural course back in September 2018.
What are your hopes and goals for the future now things are opening up again in the classical music sector?
I am really hoping that we don’t thoughtlessly go back to old ways of working: everyone’s musical voices need to be expressed and heard. I do hope we can retain the extra care and respect for one another that I know so many of us experienced at first hand at the height of the pandemic.
Just a few weeks ago I gave my first performance with a full orchestra and a living, breathing and brilliantly responsive audience in a beautiful theatre. It was only the day after when I’d been able to allow the experience to sink in that I realised I’d effectively been ‘holding my breath’ since my last major concert before lockdown – just over eighteen months. I hadn’t dared to believe that we would ever be able to make music for people to experience again.
It’s hard to put into words how it feels to be back in the thick of music-making after such an unprecedented time. It’s curious - akin to the sensation of hearing a melody you know really well scored with a fresh harmony and orchestration you could never imagine - leaving me with a sense of the familiar and strangeness all at the same time. Add to that countermelodies of joy, gratitude and sheer relief and I think that gets close to how it feels to be conducting and making music every day once more.