5 Minutes with Conductor Brad Cohen

4 May 2022
  • Meet the Artists
by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

Brad Cohen is conducting Symphony Series 2: Affirmation on 13 & 14 May. Brad divulges his love of the organ, what led him to conducting and why the name of the program aptly reflects the repertoire.

You left Sydney for the UK in 1982 on a music scholarship to the King’s School Canterbury – describe your time there and how it led to you conducting.

It was a bit of a culture shock – or should I say trauma! I was deep into organ at the time, and hoped to get an organ scholarship at Oxford or Cambridge (which amazingly actually happened). As part of my duties at college, I conducted the chapel choir – but I found the orchestral repertoire so much more interesting, I made the switch.

What drew you to the organ? Is it still part of your life?

There’s a thread connecting some organists and conductors – something to do with the complexity of the instrument, the size and volume you can achieve, and the sheer number of simultaneous challenges. But organ is a solitary instrument, and conducting is profoundly social!

I say as a joke that I now only play organ for funerals and bar mitzvahs. Sadly, there are more funerals coming my way in recent years. But whenever I play the organ, I re–connect with why I loved it – and also why I felt the need to move beyond it.

You are conducting Symphony Series 2: Affirmation – do you think the title aptly reflects the repertoire?

I’m delighted with the programme we have crafted together, and affirmation is a wonderful way of expressing it. Respighi and Chindamo are colouristic, personality–driven, joyful works – both say ‘YES’!. The focus shifts in the second half of the programme to intensely–focused organic processes, in Lisa’s case beautifully–shaped deep listening, and in Sibelius a whole world of growth, cyclical recurrence and transcendent arrival. If you’re thinking about affirmation, the end of Sibelius 5 takes us all pretty much beyond anything!

ASO Principal Trombone player will be performing the World Premiere of Joe Chindamos Ligeia Concerto an ASO commission for Trombone and orchestra. Tell us about the piece and how you will approach conducting Colin and the orchestra.

I’m deep in the score as I answer these questions for you, and I’m enjoying getting to navigate Joe’s world. In this kind of piece the soloist is the star; it’s my job to support them and enable the orchestra to do the same, to create a space for play and expression and no anxiety. There’s a joyful accessibility to this concerto; I can’t wait to bring it to the ASO audience, in collaboration with Colin, Joe, and the ASO.

You’ll also conduct Lisa Illeans work Land‘s End which was inspired by the graphite seascapes of Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins. What can audiences expect to hear?

Lisa’s piece makes me think of William Blake’s line about “The whole world in a grain of sand”. It’s deeply-felt, subtle, expertly-crafted music, which invites the audience to truly listen IN to small shifts in texture and activity. But in the imaginative space Lisa creates, these ‘small’ details balloon around the listener to make a piece that is immense, despite its few minutes’ duration. Also, it leads on beautifully to similar processes in the Sibelius, and I hope we can build a bridge from one to the other…so that our experience of the Sibelius is also informed by this deep listening.

How important is it that new works like Illeans and the work of other women composers are performed?

It’s never been more important. As a performer once said. “If I rest, I rust”. And the same goes for the music industry – I don’t want to live in a junkyard! It’s new voices which connect us to the present. Music may be eternal, but that doesn’t mean it’s timeless! We need to privilege, respect and nurture music of the present. Otherwise what is our future?

What do you enjoy about working with the ASO and what are you most looking forward to when in Adelaide?

My first meeting with the orchestra, back in 2006, was preparing a challenging contemporary opera. I’ll never forget my realisation at the end of that project that the strings’ tuning was so impeccable, despite not–easy writing, that I had not needed to correct them once. Also that I arrived for the first rehearsal to find that the percussion section had been preparing, on their own, for three months for this one piece! Those two examples sum up for me the excellence and professionalism of the ASO – I always relish the chance to work with them. Not only that – I come away feeling that working with them has elevated my work, for which I’m deeply grateful.

And as to being in Adelaide – riding my bike up into the Hills and back down again is one of my all–time favourite rides. It’s been too long and I’m excited about getting back up there!

Symphony Series 2 – Affirmation Info & Tickets

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