When superstar singer Bryn Terfel takes the stage at Obecní dům Thursday night, the man charged with giving him the musical showcase and support he needs will be a fellow Welshman, conductor Gareth Jones. A trim, affable man of 50, Jones has been working with Terfel for more than a decade. I caught up with him at the cozy bar of the Imperial Hotel after rehearsals on Tuesday, where he was gracious enough to talk shop over beers.
|Keeping the beat for Bryn.|
“It’s always a joy,” Jones said of the 50-plus concerts he’s performed with Terfel. “He’s one of the greatest communicators I’ve ever run across.”
By which Jones means, first, that Terfel pays attention to what’s on the page. “He’s completely driven by the text,” the conductor said. “Every sound that he makes comes directly from the text, as opposed to, let’s make a beautiful noise here. Many singers make beautiful noises, but not always with meaning.”
Then there’s the adulation that comes with being an international star. “No matter where we are, from the minute he walks on stage, Bryn has the audience right here,” Jones said, tapping a finger into his palm. “Perversely, that lifts the burden from my shoulders. It makes my job absolutely the easiest thing in the world.”
Onstage, anyway. There’s still the tedium of rehearsals, particularly challenging when one parachutes into town a day or two before a concert to prepare an unfamiliar ensemble – in this case, the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra – for a program that ranges from heavyweight classics to Broadway show tunes.
“I usually start with the hardest pieces, to establish that we have to get a certain sound pretty quickly,” Jones said. One of the trickiest selections on Thursday’s program is “Stars” from Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score for Les Miserables. “It’s always a nightmare,” Jones said. “I have to remind the orchestra that it’s meant for a mild voice, sung acoustically, not with a mike.” A bit easier is Hans Sachs’ “Was duftet doch der Flieder” monologue from Wagner’s Meistersinger. “That’s a joy to do with Bryn,” Jones said. “It could have been written for him – it’s perfect for his voice.”
While this will be Jones’ first appearance on a podium in Prague, he is not new to Czech music or orchestras. Two years ago, he conducted the Prague Philharmonia in an appearance with Rolando Villazón in Paris. “Totally fantastic,” he said of his experience with the Philharmonia. Jones also had the good fortune to study under Sir Charles Mackerras at the Welsh National Opera from 2001-04, where they staged productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Kaťa Kabanova and The Cunning Little Vixen.
“If you’re going to assist somebody, it might as well be the best,” Jones said of his time with Mackerras. “He was an absolutely astonishing man to work with. And Janáček has such a unique sound. The first time I heard Kaťa Kabanova, I had no idea where the rhythms were going. But the music is incredibly beautiful. What I’d love to do now is House of the Dead.”
The schedule for this concert is relatively relaxed, with time for four rehearsals over two days. Jones said he probably would not take full advantage of them, as he wanted to keep an element of spontaneity. “You can rehearse too much,” he noted. And it sounded like he had already established a personal chemistry with the orchestra. “If you show a degree of trust in the musicians,” he said, “they’ll reward you by playing better.”
Gareth Jones is also the founder and musical director of Sinfonia Cymru, a Welsh chamber orchestra that showcases promising young players. More on that at: http://www.sinfoniacymru.co.uk/