‘I will conduct 106 famous symphonies over 10 years’

The former Director of CIT Cork School of Music, Geoff Spratt, begins a concert series this Sunday which will see him conduct Hayden’s 106 symphonies over the next decade, at family friendly events in Cork city. COLETTE SHERIDAN finds out more
‘I will conduct 106 famous symphonies over 10 years’

FOR THE LOVE OF HAYDEN: Geoff Spratt with a painting of himself by artist John Adams, at the Cork School of Music. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

HE may have been retired from his job as director of the CIT Cork School of Music for just over three years, but Dr Geoff Spratt isn’t lounging around.

He has taken on an ambitious task which will see him conducting Franz Joseph Haydn’s 106 symphonies over ten years, beginning this Sunday, January 12.

The series starts with a performance of two of Haydn’s symphonies that feature four horn parts. The orchestra will be led by Liz Charleson, formerly second violinist with the Vanbrugh Quartet and a violin teacher at the CIT Cork School of Music.

Geoff, a remarkably youthful-looking 69-year-old, says he has always had a desire to perform music by Haydn.

“I was very privileged during the late ’80s and early ’90s to work with the Galway Baroque Singers and Orchestra,” he says. “We did most of Haydn’s masses. I’ve always been aware of Haydn’s monumental corpus.

“When I retired, I took a step back from everything. I was looking at what was going on in Cork and listening to friends who, like me, are great concert-goers. They were saying they’d enjoy something big that they could buy into as an audience. I did some audience research and got a clear sense that people would buy into this sort of project.”

The musical series will take place on the second Sunday of the months of January, February, March, September and October, starting at the family friendly time of 3.30pm, with each concert lasting no longer than an hour. The venue is the Curtis Auditorium at the CIT Cork School of Music.

“Saturday and Sunday afternoons have become very popular for afternoon or early evening concerts,” says Dr Spratt. “There are some people of an age that don’t come into town at night now. So they love the idea of an afternoon concert. Also, a lot of parents would like to bring their children to concerts.

Geoff admires the work of a friend, Lindsay Armstrong, based in Dublin, who ran the Orchestra of St Cecelia, a professional orchestra.

“He is a visionary man who presented the complete Bach contatas. I was involved in that over ten years and I had the privilege of conducting all of Mozart’s piano concerts with Hugh Tinney. Lindsay tried earlier in this decade to do the Haydn symphonies with the Orchestra of St Cecelia but unfortunately, the orchestra folded. It was down to costs.

“Ours is a voluntary orchestra even though the players are of a professional standard. They all teach and/or play professionally but they’re doing the Haydn symphonies for the sheer love of it. No-one is getting a fee, which makes the project viable.”

The orchestra of 27 musicians are not performing the symphonies numerically or chronologically.

“What we have done is paired them according to all sorts of patterns. For example, there are just four symphonies out of 106 that require four horns and the parts for horns are really virtuoso. Having four French horns is a really special sound. We’re presenting two of those at the start of this run and at the start of 2021. It’s celebratory.

“We have two wonderful horn players in Cork and two guest horn players. The guests are two of the principals from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra who are prepared to come to Cork because they recognise what we’re doing as a special opportunity. I’m very touched about that.”

Intensive rehearsals will take place at the CIT Cork School of Music, with the string players coming together eight days before the concert.

“Then the whole orchestra will come together for two three hour sessions on the day before and the day of the concert.”

Geoff says that if he was asked to perform the first 24 symphonies of Mozart, he would demur.

“I think they’re relatively early and relatively immature without great individual distinction. Don’t get me wrong. Symphonies 25 to 41 are just out of this world, but with Haydn, it’s different. From no. 1 to 106, they are all individual masterpieces. Of course, some are written earlier than others, but they have great character. They really are very special.”

As Geoff points out, Haydn was a relatively young man when he was employed as a court musician and a court composer for the wealthy Esterhazy family.

“He was living with the family princes in their Vienna house and in their country house. He had his own orchestra with some extraordinarily fine players. They were all employed to play Haydn’s music in the palace, in the opera and in the church. It was a symbiotic relationship, with the players responding to what he was writing. Haydn’s fame spread throughout Europe. He was a celebrity in his day. He was very famous in London where he went.

“His final twelve symphonies, known as the London symphonies, are amongst the most famous repertory works.”

Geoff says that “HC Robbins Landon, a wonderful scholar, has written a five volume book on Haydn. It’s a complete chronicle of the life and works of Haydn. At each concert, we will have a page or two from the book so that the audience can walk away with something that gives a bit of background and context. For example, we have a copy of Haydn’s first contract of employment, which we’ll reproduce for the audience.”

Retiring from his post at the CIT Cork School of Music in his mid-60s is not what Geoff would have chosen for himself. But clearly, he is using his retirement well.

“I don’t know if I’ll last the ten years of the series. That’s purely objective. I hope I do as I’d love to get to the end of the symphonies.”

The Cork 2020s Haydn Symphonies series starts at the Curtis Auditorium, CIT Cork School of Music on January 12 at 3.30pm. Admission: €10 (concessions €5). See www.cork2020shaydnsymphoniesseries.com.

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