Interview: Sir Mark Elder on Ariadne, the Hallé and the joys of being an English conductor

"We don't have the pressure of our own repertoire; Parry and Stanford don't sit on our shoulders"

13 June 2008

Mark Elder (Photo: © Laurie Lewis)The conductor Mark Elder is without doubt one of Britain's most valuable cultural assets and a knighthood in the Queen's birthday honours this year is testament to the fact.

In September 2000 he was appointed Music Director of the ailing Hallé Orchestra and is widely credited with bringing them back from the brink to vie for the top spot among British bands.

As an opera conductor he is a regular at the world's greatest houses and is equally at home in the German and Italian repertories, a champion in particular of lesser-known works by the bel canto masters. A one-time Music Director of English National Opera, he now maintains extremely close ties with the Royal Opera.

It's a demonstration of Elder's broad range that he is due to conduct his first Elektra with the company in the Autumn and will conduct Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca Bellini's take on Romeo and Juliet, I Capuleti e i Montecchi next spring. There's more Strauss this season though, with a revival of Christof Loy's smart production of Ariadne auf Naxos which opens on Monday, and that's where the conversation leads us first when I meet him.

It's an opera which went through an unusually long and complicated gestation period, and tends to split opinion. For some it is still a flawed 'operatic experiment', while others see it as the finest work in the collaboration between Strauss and Hofmannsthal. Where does Elder stand on the debate?

'I think it certainly has a magical quality to it that came from Hofmannsthal. The idea of writing something small-scale as a 'thank you' present for Max Reinhardt was a very attractive idea after they'd done Rosenkavalier which, although not the hugest orchestra in comparison to Elektra, was still a very large, complicated and technical undertaking. I think that his idea of trying to marry up the potential in the Molière with this idea of a show within a show was a lovely one, and there's no doubt that they improved it by putting in the Vorspiel [added in the second version of the opera], making it more marketable. Although there have been some good performances of the original version, it's such a long evening and so difficult technically – it's even harder than the present version – that it would never sustain itself. And so they've saved something of the original idea which I think is absolutely worth having. The problem with the piece is for the public to understand what happens in the last ten or twenty minutes. The climax of the opera can be very disappointing because of the way that Hofmannsthal wanted to introduce the idea of Ariadne being rescued, both emotionally and physically, by Bacchus. But the rest of it is so skilfully theatrical, so imaginative.

'Ariadne is also an outstanding example of the importance of not reading the composer's own words about something before you learn it. Strauss wanted to get on and write a big piece with Hofmannsthal. They'd already started mulling over and marinating this whole thing that became Die Frau ohne Schatten and he didn't really find his way into the Vorspiel - so he said - and was pressed by Hofmannsthal into doing it. Yet I don't find that there are many examples of his lack of interest; I think that it's exquisite and beautifully written for the singers and instruments. He uses the theatrical maturity that he'd honed through the first couple of operas – not so great – and Salome, Elektra and Rosenkavalier, where he'd proved himself a master both on the small scale and the big scale. I see Ariadne in a way as taking all the tiny intimate moments of Rosenkavalier and creating a theatrical entertainment from them.'

Should we be grateful to Hofmannsthal for pushing Strauss in a direction that he didn't really want to go? 'Yes, absolutely. As you know, they very rarely met and from that point of view their correspondence is of course quite riveting. They had very different temperaments, and I don't feel that Strauss really understood what Hofmannsthal was trying to achieve in the opera part of Ariadne, but in the Vorspiel Hofmannsthal reworks the material that already existed wonderfully to make a superb libretto, and Strauss understood immediately how to make something striking out of it. And the Vorspiel is very satisfying as a work of art. Forty minutes in an opera house is an act, OK, in the concert hall it's a major symphony or concerto, so it's an incredible achievement: the total integration of word, movement, melody and rhythm. It's wonderful.'

The unique nature of the opera meant that Strauss' score is for a reduced orchestra. One of Theodor Adorno's main complaints, though, was that despite the reduced forces, Strauss still managed to make it sound like a full orchestra and fell back on symphonic techniques. Does Elder see that as a fair criticism and is there any particular approach he has to the score?

'The orchestra is handled with much the same sensitivity and imagination that he had shown in parts of Salome, Elektra and Rosenkavalier. It's a significant difference, though, to have only six violins for Ariadne; in Elektra there are thirty or as many as you can get in the pit. It's true that because he was a very considerable symphonic composer Strauss does still compose in a thorough, continuous, texture; in a symphonic way. That is to say these melodies, the Leitmotifs associated with different parts of the story, are integrated and developed and coloured skilfully. The main problem for the orchestra is to find a sound where the small number of strings isn't overbalanced by everything else and it means that the woodwind players need to play as if they were playing chamber music – Mozart serenades, for instance – with great delicacy. And of course there's one trumpet and one trombone, just to bring a bit more weight in the climaxes. But I trust the way it's written, because he had such a fine ear, because he was such a great theatrical musician, right from his youngest days. He was trained as so many thousands of German musicians are, through the tradition of the opera house, and he had a great theatrical gift and flair. And to me it's lovely to do this piece here because I know the orchestra pretty well, we've worked together for a very long time, and it's lovely to do something more intimate, involving just a part of the orchestra, something that's like chamber music writ large. Particularly since our next thing is Elektra!'

So conducting Ariadne will do no harm in helping keep Elektra under control and conduct it, as Strauss instructed, like Mendelssohn's Elfenmusik?

Mark Elder (Photo: © Sheila Rock)'Yes, what Strauss meant was to drop a hint to the conductor that his music isn't best served if a conductor is too emotionally flamboyant. What he had a skill for was writing pieces that were like the most brilliant, glittering machine, and the conductor has to be the chief mechanist in order to keep watch over it not becoming too inflated. Of course, in Salome which I've done a great deal and Elektra which I've not done, it's very important to establish with the orchestra that they must play with an uncommon delicacy.

'The Mendelssohn image is like a joke to say to everybody "don't let it get heavy and loud and boring – incessant. Play with the skill you need when you're playing a Mendelssohn Scherzo". If the whole orchestra can believe that that's going to happen then you can get a transparency in the sound. Of course there are many moments that are very, very loud in Elektra but by far the majority of it is a highly detailed musical fabric, like a coral reef with all those little things moving. Of course, it's really my experience with Salome that will stand me in good stead with Elektra.'

Elder is a renowned Elgarian and has, in the past, mentioned his desire in conducting that composer's work to try and get behind the Edwardian veneer. Elgar and Strauss were contemporaries, so does he think that the layers need to be peeled back in the same way?

'That's a good question, a whole topic in itself.' He pauses for a moment's reflection. 'I think Strauss was never in any doubt as to where his music stood on the pinnacle of great music. He recognised that he had the skill to write with brilliance, colour, imagination, technical skill, command of the orchestra, dazzling new effects, outrageous harmonic progressions and theatrical response to the text. That's Strauss's great quality – beautiful writing for the voices, wonderful melodic gift. Profundity? I'm not so sure. I think Elgar is a very profound composer. I think if you strip back Strauss, you're in danger of finding less than you would like and I think he recognised that. That's why, I think, he said on his last visit to England, "I'm a first-rate second-rate composer". I think that's why when he conducted his own music on film for posterity, he appears to be completely bored. That's his way of saying that to throw yourself completely at my music, and try and interpret it as all famous conductors do Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner in that sense, it won't get you anywhere. The most important quality in Strauss's music is finding the natural flow because it is so beautifully written and so skilfully realised that the emotional journey of the music is not to be compared to the emotional journey of the Ring, Tristan or Parsifal. It is not on the same level of musical-psychological profundity.'

It was fortunate, then, that Strauss had Hofmannsthal and could rely on his librettist to come up with profundity rather than needing to find it himself? 'Yes, I think that's true. But your original question was in relation to Elgar. It's interesting, because they knew each other. Gerontius was performed in Düsseldorf much better than it was when it was premiered here in England, afterwards there was a dinner and Strauss proposed a toast to "one of the great modernists of our time", to Elgar. So there was a lot of mutual respect. Strauss was a towering figure of fame, and I don't mean to imply that I think he was a bad composer - he was a brilliantly talented composer – but I just don't think his music stands up in the same way as I think Elgar's does – or Wagner's of course – to that sort of stripping back and trying to get to the core of it. I think Elgar's music does, because he was an uncertain, neurotic, highly-sensitive person who came from such a simple and provincial background and became the giant of his day. He was so worried that people didn't want to listen to his music, that he was out of fashion, that he was being rejected and that the success of the First Symphony was never really matched by the premiere and later performances of the Second Symphony – the Second Symphony is the greater work in my view, by a little: they're both wonderful! Into these great pieces he poured his very complex personality and there are shadows and limitless shades of grey between the black and the white in Elgar. In Strauss, much as I enjoy his music – and I love conducting it – you have the feeling that you're dealing with the most exquisite, sophisticated…' he pauses, 'box of tricks seems a little callous, because there is genuine beauty in it and genuine emotional depth… sometimes. I think the last fifteen minutes of Rosenkavalier is as great as anything he achieved, and there are parts of Frau ohne Schatten that touch me more than any other opera. I think the central part of Sinfonia Domestica – this much-maligned work which I love – is very beautiful because it's one of the most humane and sincere passages of music he ever wrote, it's very touching.'

I mention Metamorphosen, a work often seen as one of the composer's most emotional and which Elder conducts with the Hallé next season. 'I love it. I think it's a really, really great work. It has a combination of extremely beautiful musical material and a real feeling for the sonority of this group of solo instruments. I've done it quite a bit now and performed it with the Hallé when I first went, so this is the second time. We played standing up, too, which is very powerful. As far as the meaning, I think it does have a great emotional journey in it, whatever was the springboard for it. He never really made it clear; of course he said how sad it was to think of this great tradition of German performing arts being destroyed, these theatres and great centres that had been the focus of his life being destroyed by the war, just as any of us would in a similar situation. And the other works of that period don't seem to probe as deeply.'

Mark Elder (Photo: © Laurie Lewis)One of the highlights of the Hallé's next season is their performance of Götterdämmerung over two evenings. This follows performances in concert of Act III of Siegfried, as well as Tristan and Die Walküre. This programming would seem to lead towards a complete Ring so I ask Elder if this is all building up to a major event.

'Well, I think my colleagues in Manchester will probably say that Götterdämmerung surely qualifies as a major event and they're probably hoping that I'll just shut up after that! This is music, though, that started for me even before I joined the Royal Opera as a very young man. I sensed, without necessarily – in fact, definitely without – understanding it all, that it was very important music for me. It spoke to me and I was fascinated by the sound world of it. I thought not only that it was beautiful but I thought it was very much more', he searches for the right word, 'epic in its scale than anything else I'd ever heard. Even before I went to university, I started to realise the power of Wagner. Then I went to Bayreuth, and heard the Ring, Tristan and the last performance of Wieland Wagner's famous Parsifal. I could never forget it, and I could name the cast still. It was a very, very important experience for me to hear, over two or three weeks, the concentration of some of this great man's greatest pieces. And for many in my generation it was a very exciting time, because of course Solti's recording, the first studio recording, was very much on our lips and in our ears. The Ring has, in the succeeding forty or fifty years, become much more available. Then, in the sixties, it was extremely exciting to be able to start living with the music. That's when it started marinating, which is very important to me. It's been like putting something down, not drinking clarets too young and being patient. I've just been marinating it all and it's music that I now feel I want and need to conduct.

'But there's also a whole other aspect to an undertaking like this Götterdämmerung, in fact there are two: artistic and, if you like, business. The business side of it is that Manchester has never had its own opera company; it's never had regular, quality opera being performed there. So the public for opera is, by definition, limited. Yet when Scottish Opera did the Ring in Manchester, they could have done it twice; it sold out quite substantially and the Lowry is not a tiny theatre by any means. So for Wagner there is a public and I hope by announcing a complete Götterdämmerung over two nights it will encourage people to make a journey and perhaps come for the weekend. I'm sure, for instance, that people will come up from London. Another important reason for doing this is that to play Wagner – however tiring and however daunting it might be - is very good for and orchestra's discipline and development. That is why, ever since I've been with the Hallé, I've always wanted the next Wagner project to be planned, and the virtue of doing so has been borne out by the success of it. The way their sound has developed through all the pieces we've done up to the Third Act of Siegfried two years ago was very significant. All the players have developed in their ability to rise to the event because in this work every single person has enormous responsibility for the end result.'

Would he say it's also important for symphony orchestras playing any works from the second half of the 19th century onwards which have been heavily influenced by Wagner to know Wagner's own works? 'You're absolutely right, if we ever do the Golly-Wog's Cakewalk as an encore, the fact that we know the Prelude to Tristan so well means that the joke, when he quotes it in the middle of that little piece, will not be lost on them. It's true, too, that all that post-Wagnerian music that we dip in and out of, must be related to the knowledge of the original. Not just Tristan but Parsifal.' This reminds Elder of another forthcoming engagement when he and the Hallé will be performing the Prelude and Good Friday Music from Parsifal at St. Paul's as part of the City of London Festival (on 24 June). 'It will probably sound alright in there, it's slow enough!'

Starring in the Hallé's Götterdämmerung is tenor Ben Heppner, as Siegfried. Does Elder see this as a coup for Manchester? 'Well, he did Siegfried with us two years ago and I did his first Peter Grimes, in Chicago ten years ago, so we've known each other a long time. And it's just at the right time for him, because he's putting these Siegfried pieces into his repertoire now. As we speak, he's rehearsing Siegfried in Aix and the morning after he does the Götterdämmerung with me, he and Katarina Dalayman will fly to Aix to start rehearsing it with my friend Simon [Rattle]. And that's completely coincidental - no-one believes me, but it is, totally. It never occurred to me, a) that Dalayman was being the Brünnhilde and b) when Simon was due to start rehearsing. It's good to get the continuity, though, with the Siegfried which I'm very happy about, and Ben is such a wonderful singer. Particularly, I think he's very much in touch with the German soul, which is why I'm sure he will be the most wonderful Gerontius. Because there is a connection there: Gerontius is our Tristan and Amfortas. And he's an immensely intelligent musician. We're lucky with the other singers, too. Peter Coleman-Wright sang Gunther here; Nancy Gustafson has often sung here. I'm not sure who's going to sing Hagen yet. Kurt [Rydl] was, but he's decided to do something else. He's got that black voice and there are so few of those.'

Mark Elder (Photo: © Sheila Rock)Talk of Wagner leads, inevitably, to Elder's relationship with Bayreuth, where in 1981 he was the first British conductor to be entrusted with conducting a new production. I ask about that experience and whether or not he sees himself going back? 'I was, of course, very, very young. It was an incredible learning experience working there because it's a very specialised atmosphere. The problem about conducting at Bayreuth, more than any other, is the covered pit, and that is something that takes a lot of time to get used to. That's why over the years there have been several conductors who have conducted at Bayreuth regularly. They know how to make it work. I shall never forget the experience of starting to rehearse there at the stage and orchestra level and realising how difficult it was going to be.

'It's unique what the conductor has to go through: if the conductor hears the singers exactly with the orchestra, then it's wrong in the auditorium. The singers have to be slightly behind the orchestra the whole time. It's a sort of trick and in the Ring and Parsifal it's probably easier, I can imagine. It's more difficult in Meistersinger – which is the piece I was conducting – because it was written for an open pit and so much of the music is fast, lively and light. Really it was too soon for me to be there. It wouldn't be a problem now, but the business of getting used to the pit and how you hear the singers and everything it's a knack, it takes time.

'I would love to give it another go now, because it would be a completely different experience to what it was before, but it would have to be absolutely with the right sort of conditions. Who the director would be and what the image of the piece would be would matter to me enormously. And I think the whole business of Wolfgang's successor is more than just who should run it, it's about how one should go on in the twenty-first century finding the right way to keep these masterpieces freshly interpreted. It's not so easy to find an answer, year after year after year. It's not just about the Ring which, in a way, is easier for me because of the huge mythic nature of this very primal story; it lends itself to a great many different slants of interpretation. And the old boy always said: "Kinder, schafft neues!" You must go forging ahead, don't accept the worst things of the past. They're at a crossroads, the end of one generation and the beginning of another, and it calls into question how one should go ahead.'

Since the Ring is now so widely available, does Bayreuth have a problem maintaining the unique pull and mystique? 'Absolutely. Of course, what it does have, that no-one else has is this sound, balance and atmosphere. And this darkness: when the lights go down it's real darkness, and the concentration on the stage is paramount, which, of course, was what Wagner wanted. But the quality of the sound and the balance with the voices and everything is unique. It was only once I'd been there, though, that I realised why no other theatres were designed on the same model. I think the biggest problem is the singers - finding really well-trained singers who know how to do these roles and to make them as beautiful as possible. And there aren't so many of them.'

So we still have the same problem that Wagner had when he first put the Ring on? 'Absolutely. I think the business of finding constant supplies of interesting, great artists who have the scale of personality to live up to Tristan or Hagen or Kundry is hard. People don't take enough time to prepare; we all rush around doing too many things, and the singers who really are constantly working at their art and constantly trying to better their mastery of these very, very demanding roles are few and far between. I think the big challenge for the world is to find Wagnerian singers and for orchestras not to play too loudly, not to just bellow. And Bayreuth has a problem with that. The text is vital, it's the starting point, but barking the text, roaring too much is not beauty, it's not art. I'm a great believer in the fact that this German music is sung in a German bel canto way.'

That brings us on to Italian opera. I mention Elder's two recent recordings of Donizetti on Opera Rara, Dom Sébastien and Imelda de' Lambertazzi. He lights up: 'Did you like them? We're doing two more next year'. According to Opera Rara, these will be Linda di Chamounix recorded with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and Maria di Rohan with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the recording of which will be followed by a concert performance in the Royal Festival Hall on 7 November 2009. Before I have a chance to quiz him further on these projects, though, he continues: 'I've spent my entire career trying to work out how to make the Italian style really go. It's one of the great advantages – we've been talking a lot about Germanic music – of being an English musician who is really interested in lyric theatre, as I have all my life. Because we don't have the pressure of our own repertoire. This allows us as musicians to follow our temperament and passion wherever they take us. You can have a great German musician who loves Verdi, but whenever he goes south of the Alps, he carries with him all the Germanness of his musical background and heritage. I really feel strongly that in this country we have the possibility to inhabit different temperaments and different styles if we can make that leap. It's a lighter leap for us, though, because Parry and Stanford don't sit on our shoulders. Elgar doesn't either, because he never wrote an opera. I've tried to see what it takes temperamentally and musically to steer yourself towards a certain style, and what I need to do deep inside is to be able to find the right sounds and the right style. When I was very young and I worked here at Covent Garden on the music staff – not as a conductor but as a coach and an assistant – the Italian coach was a remarkable musician and was responsible for inspiring generations of singers and conductors. For the last twenty-five years or so he has lived in Tokyo, far too far away, but he was a very remarkable man. He set me on the path and showed me what I'd got to aspire to to master it. I think about him every week, even now. Of course there have been great conductors who have been able to conduct both sorts of music and one great example is Toscanini who produced very, very great Wagner performances. Karajan's another example of a Northern European who had a genuine passion for Italian opera and conducted it very beautifully.

'I've always wanted to do as many styles as possible, which for a conductor is not so hard as it is for a singer. I think now there's too much emphasis on young singers. You do your display CD and you do the whole Kobbé on one CD, the whole history of opera. I think it's much better to find where your voice and temperament suit and to really become a master.' Here he mentions Robert Dean Smith, who is singing Bacchus, alongside Deborah Voigt in Ariadne. He's 'amazing', and while other singers have to use 'sheer balls and force, he never forces. He's a marvellous singer, a proper dramatic tenor, because the voice is so focussed. The first thing I did with him was Lohengrin, and since then he's started to do Tristan regularly in Bayreuth and you would never know, the voice has no signs of wear. That is amazing, that is so rare, and he is a role model for aspiring singers in this repertoire.

Mark Elder (Photo: © Laurie Lewis)'The Italian style is something that very few Italian musicians are great espousers of. There aren't so many Italian Verdi conductors which is amazing. Because to me he is the god, the king for everything I want to aspire to do well. And of course he's very different from Donizetti, from Rossini and Bellini. They're all four very different and you have to make a different sort of sound world for each of them. But the Italians have let go of the reins, have stopped being the role models; there aren't enough really well rehearsed performances of these pieces in Italy. The standard's not so great, the orchestras aren't refined and disciplined enough. There are voices but there isn't the training. The horse image is the one that's most eloquent to me: there are certain horses that can do the Derby, but there are others that should really do the Grand National, or the puissance. And the Italians don't have the dressage. They have more in the pre-ottocento, in the coloratura technique, than they do in the spinto technique. The world is desperately short of singers that have the technique and sound quality in their voices to sing these great roles.'

I ask whether Italians try to avoid what's expected from them and mention Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor, who only last year did his first Sibelius cycle, citing the stifling pressure of expectation on Finnish conductors to be Sibelius specialists.

'It's very interesting question. The Sibelius thing is fascinating because it's another very potent example of how England has become very strongly associated with the work of a non-English composer. We welcomed that man's music when the rest of the continent was very snooty about it. And although it's gone up and down in fashion as inevitably everything does, our loyalty and commitment to Sibelius, overall, is still very strong. I wonder how many European orchestras gave cycles of complete Sibelius symphonies for his anniversary last year. To me, it was one of the highlights of my life to do that. I'd been dreaming of having the circumstances in which I could do that. I think his music is completely wonderful, so different from theatrical music and so for me it's another avenue.

'In Italy, though, I think it's more to do with conductors, singing teachers and managers. It's about how they are running it, how they are inspiring it, what conductors are prepared to do and not do. In Italy, the singers themselves tell me shocking stories about how bad the conductors are, how uncommitted they are and how they won't bother to rehearse. It's as if they've lost a sense of pride to constantly renew this repertoire. That's related to where their country is as a whole: what happened with the death of Puccini and how their tradition of providing great operas for the broadest possible taste faltered as it did everywhere in Europe. Then we had the Second World War and everybody's been struggling to find a language ever since. I think it's turned a corner now but the Italians have lost the way really. When I was in Florence, somebody said to me that it is really like a trophy city and the Italians don't know how to handle their artistic legacy. That they know it's there to earn masses of money because of the people who come to see it is clear enough, but how they belong to it, care about it, and how they should have pride in it and relate to it is not so clear.'

Although in Britain we're always envious of all the opera houses in Italy and Germany, are we, paradoxically, better off to have fewer houses, where there's more pressure to produce something significant and avoid slipping into routine?

'Yes, that's the word: it's the danger of routine. And the repertoire for the Italians is the first thing to get to grips with. It's this enormous repertoire of pieces that people enjoy hearing time and time again, when they're well sung and well delivered. These pieces are very very dependent – this is something that's different from Germany – on the performance, particularly from the conductor. These pieces have to be ignited; they have to be set alight every time you play them. That comes from the conductor, and with a great opera orchestra, as this one here in Covent Garden certainly is, they're responsive to what they're hearing coming over their heads: the greater the singing, the better an opera orchestra will play. They know that they must rise to it. This is basically because they want to imitate it. Great singing is something that everybody aspires to, whatever their instrument is: the double bass has to be a great singer too. It was in Italy that it all started: combining the word with the melodic line. What happened in Germany came later, with the addition of symphonic development, where the voice sits on the top of this steaming cauldron. In Italy, though, it's a different balance. I love the difference between the two countries' style - you have to be a chameleon. But then again, I'm a Gemini – a June baby – and being a Gemini, one of the twins is Germanic looking and the other is Latin looking.'

I bring the conversation over to Hallé Orchestra, which was set up the idealistic aim of bringing music to the people. Under Elder, it is involved in numerous initiatives to bring music to a wider audience. I ask if the dissemination of classical music is something he wants to be a significant part of his own legacy?

'Absolutely, each time I take the orchestra into a school – which we do every year and which I shall do in a few weeks – I want all the children that come to listen to us all never to be able to say they don't know what a symphony orchestra sounds like. Because they've heard us in the flesh, they've felt the noise of the fortissimo going through their bodies. For me, the first step is to excite children with sound. They're surrounded by sound – off the television, off the movies, off the clubs, CDs – but it's important for them to hear the sound live. Hallé, of course, was responding to something that he grew up in: a culture where every area, big or small, had its own symphony orchestra, which came from the dukes and the principalities. He was used to the German people's society being strengthened and enriched by live music, by live theatre and all the other performing arts. Manchester 150 years ago didn't have that. It had this great desire to be the perfect city, inspired by the success of its industry, but socially it was struggling and it needed an enormous amount of development. Hallé was very significant in that: he started something, and fifty years later the London Symphony Orchestra thought they'd better form themselves. And what Hallé stood for was something that for him was second nature: that live performance should be available for anybody in the community who wants it.

'There are different ways of satisfying that requirement for different people depending on what their curiosities are, what their ear is like and how much exposure they've had to it. What we try to do now is a 21st Century version of Hallé's first initial steps. That is to say, we provide different programmes and different types of concerts for different tastes throughout the year. Our education work is the coiled spring inside all that, hoping to prepare the way for the future audience. Not unconnected to that is my insistence that we form a youth orchestra when I came. It's astonishing that that hadn't happened before. I also wanted a youth choir, and some of the kids do both. And this year we're founding – at last! – the Hallé Children's Choir, so we will have the kids, the adolescents, the adults and then every year an all-comers event to give the people the chance just to come and join in. It's the construction of a vocal pyramid, as I call it. It's very significant for the whole community and not just the Hallé because it's a way of mixing the professional and the amateur and making the music-loving public ever larger and ever more aware that a symphony orchestra exists for them. It's not so I can do the pieces I do, it's because I want to enrich people's lives.

By Hugo Shirley

Mark Elder conducts Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House on 16, 19, 21, 25, 28 June and 1 July.

Mark Elder's knighthood was announced a day after this interview's first publication.