Written by: Colin Anderson
Conductor Russell Keable talks about the Kensington Symphony Orchestra as it approaches its 50th-birthday…
London is not short of orchestras. Thankfully! One such is the Kensington Symphony. It may give relatively few concerts and be of amateur status – but it is a splendid ensemble of musical excellence, one with an admirable willingness to explore the repertoire. It all began with a concert in Brighton in 1956. Since then the identity of the KSO has been firmly established. As a half-century of existence beckons, the orchestra’s new season is a winner. I congratulate the KSO’s conductor, Russell Keable, on the enticing programmes. “Reckless is another word! The Kensington Symphony has a glorious tradition of adventure.”
Russell describes being Music Director of the KSO as a “full-time part-time job. It’s a weekly orchestra in terms of rehearsals. If we have a break people really miss it, they like the sense of community.” Outside of the main season at St John’s, Smith Square, the KSO attracts “serendipitous things. Our management team is a small number of people that do all the work; e-mail makes all the difference.” The opening concert is on October 17 and begins with a little something of Russell’s own, a fanfare (“I have an idea, but I’m not saying anything to anybody!”). Russell has been associated with the KSO for over 20 years. “It keeps going up! I was a postgraduate at the Royal College with Norman Del Mar and I knew Lawrence Leonard. He conducted the Morley Symphony, and I conducted there for a while; Leslie Head, who founded the KSO, approached me to become his assistant. When Leslie retired, I took over the reins. It’s very hard identifying a slot for an amateur orchestra; we have this tradition of doing revivals and much contemporary music.”
The KSO provides opportunities for skilled musicians making careers in other areas. “In the centre of London there’s a tremendous pool of people; people who were professionals and those who trained to be professionals who did other things. The orchestra is shaped around me in that people gravitate to my style of conducting and the way I rehearse.”
That’s easily understood, for Russell is a fine musician, lucid in technique, and encouraging and perceptive in rehearsal. “Its about playing what’s on the page.” Yes, but Russell isn’t a pedant, and my experience of a KSO rehearsal is of the musicians caring, sharing and questioning, and Russell being accommodating and true to himself and the music he is directing. Following Russell’s fanfare, the first concert includes Concerto in Pieces by Poul Ruders, based on Purcell and which is “quite fun” and was once played at the Last Night of the Proms. Then comes the British premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Symphony No.8 (Autumnal Fragments), typically quixotic and approachable (and recorded on CPO 999 972-2). Finally Rachmaninov’s masterly orchestral swansong, Symphonic Dances, which includes a glorious saxophone solo and concludes with a dance of death.
The KSO’s other concerts include a Tippett/Beethoven pairing, Mahler 5, and two concerts of mouth-watering combinations – Colin Matthews, William Alwyn and Bartók, and favourites by Britten and Elgar with Hugh Wood’s “fantastic” Variations, another Last Night piece and “audience-friendly”. The Alwyn is his concentrated and powerful Symphony No.5; try it on Naxos 8.557647.
Did Russell always want to conduct? “Yes, I had my knitting needle at an early age and was standing in front of the old HMV Black Box waving my arms around.” And what of his teachers, George Hurst being the other? “A fantastic contrast. Norman was intellectual and knew the repertoire inside out and made me question everything in a score. George was the emotional input; there’s nothing more important than the long line of a piece, you’re telling a story.”
Russell sees himself “as a communicator – I love doing education projects and talking to school-kids, and I can recognise when an audience is falling asleep! I’m a bit of a missionary when it comes to contemporary music, which can have tremendous impact on the orchestra and the audience.” And the KSO certainly has a loyal audience, with the orchestra itself being for Russell “the centre of my life.”