Joseph Wolfe

Written by: Julian Maynard-Smith

Joseph Wolfe talks about the connections between the violin and mandolin, and how playing chamber music has made him a better conductor…

2007 – On March 18, 21, 22 and 23 (21 & 23 being in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London), Joseph Wolfe will be conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in performances that include three symphonies (Beethoven’s Seventh, Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’, and Sibelius’s First) and Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No.1 (with Pieter Wispelwey as soloist). In June, he will further consolidate his growing stature as a conductor when he debuts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

“I’m looking forward to it,” says Joseph about conducting the LPO, “and I’m thrilled. With such a great orchestra there are so many possibilities. We played some excerpts from Swan Lake last June. It was a real joy for me; it was what I would call real music making.” Consequently, Joseph explains, there is very little need to guide the orchestra from a technical point of view; it is rather a matter of finding the best way to inspire them. “It’s very often the case of just picking the right word to spark their imagination, getting the mood right or challenging them by pushing the tempo here or asking for a little rubato there. The challenge in the concerts is to bring something fresh: plenty of energy coupled with a natural spontaneity and a healthy sense of abandonment and risk.”

Being a violinist has greatly informed Joseph’s approach to conducting. “Because you can sing so well with the bow, it’s similar to what the singer can do with the voice: the way it sustains, grows and fades away. There’s nothing quite like the roaring sound of symphonic strings that is found in the last movement of Sibelius’s First, for example, or the beauty of a frail pianissimo that takes you inward.” Likewise with the mandolin, which Joseph also plays. “The mandolin is tuned in fifths just like the violin, so the left-hand fingering is exactly the same. The huge difference is the right-hand where you hold a plectrum instead of a bow. But with tremolo, you can create the same line and fading as with the bow and voice.”

Chamber music has also been a profound influence of Joseph’s approach to conducting. “I played a lot chamber music as a child at Sheila Nelson’s groups in Highgate. Chamber music is the basis of all music-making and I think these years had a profound influence on me and really shaped me as a musician. I led the Cromwell and Wolfe Quartets for many years and I was joint leader of the Accademia di San Giorgio in Venice, and played regularly with the English Chamber Orchestra as well as freelancing with symphony orchestras. Playing in orchestras and knowing how it feels to sit in a section, and knowing the rhythm of rehearsals, is a great help to me now as a conductor. Also, having an idea of how the string section works is a tremendous advantage. It’s the biggest section, and it’s right there in front of you so I’m glad I am a string player! The knowledge of the instrument gives me access to a huge palette of sound colours – through certain types of bowing, vibrato and fingering.”

When I ask Joseph what drives him to conduct, he laughs. “I haven’t asked myself that question in a long time! It’s the love of music I suppose, at the bottom of it, and wanting to share the music with people. It’s music that really speaks to me. I’m instinctively drawn it; always have been. And I love the challenge. It demands every faculty you have. In one sense you’re a monk; you study the scores by yourself and ponder this problem or that. What did the composer mean by this? How do you want to balance certain passages and shape certain phrases? What about tempo? And then you’ve got the rehearsals, the challenge of communicating those ideas. Finally you have the concert, the excitement and the adrenaline rush of the moment.

“When I started conducting, I became much more sympathetic towards conductors because I understood how hard a job it is. Orchestras are not always in the mood to rehearse; sometimes they can be difficult. You have a vision in your head, but the minute you’re confronted with players it’s, ‘How do you get them to play it in this way?’ You have to be very persuasive. It’s finding the words, the manner or the physical gesture, to bring out the idea that you have in your head, but without imposing too much. It’s a fine balance. And you can never really know a piece. You can feel that you’re getting closer – but to entirely know a piece of music and produce a perfect performance is just out of reach. I’m sure the idea of that perfect performance is what keeps us all going.

“The performance is a gamble and you only have one shot at it. On the night it can be thrilling or nerve-wracking. Sometimes the orchestra will do something incredible that you haven’t rehearsed and didn’t expect, and you think, ‘where did that come from?’ It’s hard to know where it comes from but there’s nothing quite like it. I find the tempo is always slightly different in concert compared to rehearsals – probably because the heart’s pumping a bit faster.”

In fact, the energy levels for the whole orchestra are different in concert. “For example, Beethoven’s Seventh: because it’s so charged, in rehearsal you can’t play like you would in concert; you’d exhaust the players. One must trust the piece and the players. It will generate the necessary energy and take off in concert, especially in the last movement. It’s an incredibly rhythmic piece. I like to aim for a really articulated driven performance of the first movement. There’s the darkness of the slow movement, and the sweetness of the clarinet melody in the major. I think the scherzo should be quick and dance-like, erasing the bar lines and thinking in phrases – and a mad romp home with the last movement.”

Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ poses different challenges. “They must have played it so many times and probably know it better than I do! I’m really curious to see what will happen. Technically speaking, it’s not difficult; it’s the amount of care taken over the phrasing, the end of phrases and the accompaniment figures that matter: the darkness of the beginning, the quality of sound of the second subject, the ferocity of the middle section. There’s an interesting point about intonation – the cellos sometimes tend to be a bit sharper than the basses at the beginning of the first movement. It’s most noticeable in the development where the same idea is in E minor. So I try to get them to melt into the sound of the basses, let the basses lead and focus on line and a smooth change of bow. It varies from orchestra to orchestra. Some orchestras have a natural feel for it. I’m sure the LPO will.”

The very beginning of the symphony is also demanding, Joseph says, because it is so quiet. “To start a concert with that phrase is a challenge. You have to be really still and poised. Also, I find the tempo in that first movement very interesting. There’s a ‘sweet spot’ to the tempo, where it just happens; if you get it right you hardly have to conduct it. If you don’t it becomes slightly laboured. There’s also a slight fluctuation of tempo; the beginning needs a little more space. The minute the semi-quavers start, it’s naturally slightly tighter. I don’t think it should be metronomic; it needs that fluctuation.”

One question it is hard to avoid asking Joseph is whether having Sir Colin Davis as his father is a help or a hindrance. And was adopting the surname Wolfe partly to forge an identity of his own, unencumbered by the surname Davis?

“It was a huge benefit to grow up in a musical family and be surrounded by music from a young age. Of course everyone knows it’s tough to be in the same field as your parents, but you have to be courageous and tenacious and believe in yourself, and you’ll come through in the end. I changed my name in order to create some space to grow and develop my own identity as a musician. I chose the surname ‘Wolfe’ because I like wolves!”

Conducting the LPO is obviously a major milestone in any conductor’s career. So too is making your international opera-conducting debut, as Joseph did in November of last year in Sweden, when he conducted Malmö Opera’s production of Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie. The opera is based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean about a nun’s involvement with a death-row inmate in Louisiana, a novel that was turned into a film starring Sean Penn. Is conducting an opera, particularly a modern and challenging one, even more nerve-wracking than conducting a symphony?

“Absolutely. You’re dealing with much more. The conductor negotiates between director, stage, chorus, solo singers and orchestra, so there’s a lot of negotiating and dealing with people! But I was lucky in that the cast were very good, gifted people; we had some great lead singers. And the director was very easy to work with. An opera is a huge undertaking, but when you pull it off after eight weeks of hard rehearsing it’s really thrilling. It was fiendish for the singers to memorise, but they got there in the end – and they didn’t have a prompt throughout 14 performances.”

In less than a year, Joseph has notched up two impressive debuts: conducting the Malmö Opera and then the LPO. In June, he will have a hat-trick when he debuts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducting the Suite from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 (with Nicola Benedetti) and Dvořák’s Symphony No.8.

“I love the Eighth,” says Joseph, with total enthusiasm in his voice. “I love its freshness. It always cheers me up, and it has some great melodies. I’ve never conducted it before, although I’ve performed 7 and 9 before. And I’m looking forward to working with Nicola Benedetti. I met her before she won the BBC Young Musician competition, but I haven’t seen her since and I’m looking forward to seeing her again.”

Two musicians with meteoric careers, both making their debut with the CBSO? Sounds like a double debut well worth hearing.

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