Through the eyes with... Judith Colman
How did you come to be the Concerts Director at the SCO and what does your role involve?
After having spent 13 busy years in London as General Manager of Trevor Pinnock’s period-instrument band The English Concert, I’d been freelancing for almost a year when in 1995 I met Richard Hyder, then a member of SCO’s Concerts Department, at a wedding reception in Dumfries. After talking to Richard, the job sounded like a perfect fit …
I work closely with our CEO (formerly Roy McEwan, now Gavin Reid), in planning and coordinating the artistic activity of SCO and the SCO Chorus – our Season concerts, summer work, engagements, overseas tours and recordings – and with Team Concerts in ensuring that a huge volume of behind-the-scenes logistics, budgeting, negotiation, personnel issues and general admin is covered. It’s a bit like continuous three-dimensional chess, trying to ensure we have a good variety and balance of work throughout the year.
We start planning the main Season about two years out, so plans for the 2021/22 Season are now well advanced. We’re also planning well beyond this, for our main Season and overseas touring. It would be lovely to think that it’s all about artistic idealism but there are many pragmatic considerations. SCO is a freelance orchestra with 38 positions, and we try to include all our performing members in as many programmes as possible. During the main Season we perform weekly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and regularly (although less often) in the other main Scottish cities. Every few months we review plans with the other Scottish orchestras; the aim is to maintain distinctiveness and avoid artist/repertoire clashes. We also have to keep a weather eye on the finances at all times. Key to the SCO’s planning is a framework of strong musical relationships, particularly with our named artists. I spend a lot of time liaising with our Principal Conductor, Associate Artists, Chorus Director and other visiting artists and their agents. Gavin and I try not only to nurture and develop our existing relationships but to keep refreshing the mix by introducing new ideas and musical personalities. Each year we also feature many of the superb soloists and chamber musicians within the SCO, who each have their own loyal following amongst our audiences.
When planning, especially if there are specific themes we want to pursue, we think about which conductors would bring something special to that repertoire. We aim to play to the strengths of our visiting artists and create an interesting schedule of work, ranging from late 17th century repertoire to brand new commissions. The SCO is known for its stylistic flexibility and virtuosity and its players want to be artistically stretched – therefore, many of our visiting artists are specialists who bring extraordinary insight in their fields of music. It was Sir Charles Mackerras, during his long and fruitful relationship with SCO, who instilled a style of playing that was truly ‘historically aware’. Now, we regularly welcome experts in historically-informed performance practice such as Kristian Bezuidenhout, Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr; and in other specialist fields such as contemporary music with the great composer-conductors Sir James MacMillan and Sir George Benjamin. Other regular visitors, such as Emmanuel Krivine, François Leleux, Joseph Swensen, John Storgårds and Pekka Kuusisto, bring a special affinity for particular composers, or different kinds of programming.
What are the biggest challenges of the job?
The best-laid plans have a habit of going pear-shaped; things invariably start shifting when the Season is already blocked in, so programmes/artists may need to be swopped round. And sometimes things go wrong at the last minute. There was a particularly torrid phase a few years ago, when conductors and soloists seemed to be going sick every couple of weeks! It can be somewhat daunting trying to replace carefully-chosen artists with new ones who are (a) suited to the repertoire in question and (b) actually (as opposed to “in principle”) free – and to negotiate conditions, arrange new travel and hotel bookings, send music materials and issue new contracts against the clock. Once a new artist is confirmed, the whole Concerts team swings into action to put the new plans together. Every now and then we manage to pull something out of the fire and introduce an exceptional artist (like Maxim!). Now, while things are so uncertain, we’re in contact with all our artists and their managers to work out what the future will bring, and what we may be able to re-schedule.
And what’s the most rewarding thing about it?
I get enormous pleasure from hearing the Orchestra play, especially when the combination of conductor, soloists, repertoire and orchestra is a fruitful one – it’s a great feeling when the musical sparks are flying! I also really enjoy the process of planning and bringing all the moving parts together. It’s particularly satisfying to have played a part in the formation of new artistic relationships for the Orchestra.
You’re a member of the SCO Chorus, what are you looking forward to the Chorus performing next Season?
Brahms’ wonderful German Requiem with Maxim.
If you weren’t involved in music, what other career might you have pursued?
Probably something health-related – I was a volunteer at Middlesex Hospital for many years before I moved to Scotland, so it was a definite possibility at one stage.