Posted by Claire Whittle
Wednesday 18th January, 2017

In Conversation with
Belinda McFarlane


Week 1: Director, Porter Chamber Orchestra

Saturday 14 January, 4pm
MENDELSSOHN String Symphony No.10 in B minor
PIAZZOLLA (arr. Phatak) The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires:
Spring & Autumn

Saturday 14 January, 7.30pm
BARTÓK Divertimento


This AYO National Music Camp is full of overlaps and returns. For conductor Belinda McFarlane it is a chance to return to her own beginnings as a member of the Australian Youth Orchestra (1984-1988). Since then she has spent more than two decades as a member of the London Symphony Orchestra, gathering experience not only as a player but also as a core member of many innovative education and outreach programmes. For her, this is an ideal opportunity to give back some of what she has learned to the next generation.

Part of that is choosing the best repertoire to expose students to a number of musical styles, concepts, and technical challenges.

‘This week I brought Mendelssohn, so an early style – something classical. It’s also got two viola parts, which is unusual - that gives the violas a chance to be showcased. So I thought that was a great work. I also brought the Bartok Divertimento, which I think is an all-time great. It’s a big work and it’s also a staple of your career – it’s played all the time. Then I brought some Piazzolla, which is very interesting music. It has come to the fore in the last ten years, since the end of his life.’

Mendelssohn was only fourteen when he wrote his tenth String Symphony, which brings, says Belinda, a ‘quite simplistic feeling to the music, a naivety. But it’s very clean and it’s very perfect. It’s not like a youth’s piece at all, but I think it has the vibrancy of youth in it.’ She believes this adds an extra element of excitement to the rehearsal process for this piece.

Drawing on the youthful vibrancy highlighted in Mendelssohn’s symphony, Belinda has chosen to perform an arrangement of Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires that requires the orchestra’s creative input.

‘I think it’s all part of being a free musician – I didn’t want to do something that prescriptive for them because that’s not all music is. It’s about how it sounds – if you’re no longer really reading from the score, you know the piece, you feel it, you understand it. And I think the sooner you get to learn the music in its element, the sooner you’ll work out what it is you’re trying to convey.

‘So we’ve got the orchestral parts that Leonid Desyatnikov arranged for the Kremerata Orchestra, which is for an orchestra but it has a big solo violin part, and we’ve incorporated the solo violin line into the orchestral parts and distributed it amongst the players. For that you need skills in improvisation, so I thought it would be a really good challenge for the students to use their own imaginations.

‘Then there’s the Bartok Divertimento. He wrote it very quickly, within parameters to be ‘not too hard’. So he gave it some thought and he came up with a form which I think is just absolutely genius, taking influence from Concerto Grosso, and then from folk music - because he went around collecting folk tunes from villages. Although it is quite difficult both musically and technically, I often think learning things in a youth orchestra is a great time to start to get to something, because it’s going to stay with you for your whole life.

‘I’m very much about bringing all the different styles of music-making, because you can’t really always afford to be a specialist in one style. It informs you. You then just have to balance a program with what is achievable. That’s what I’m trying to bring.’

– Claire Whittle*

* Words About Music participant at AYO National Music Camp 2017