Douglas Boyd – Working the magic
April 2016 in People
Douglas—known to all as Dougie—Boyd has various tasks to complete before the end of the day when we meet, mid-afternoon, at London\’s Southbank Centre. As he reels them off I manage to scribble down ‘visit mother-in-law\’ (unwell, wife away); ‘be there when kids get home\’ (daughter 16, son 12—another son, 27, is fortunately old enough to self-cater); ‘learn score of Haydn\’s The Seasons\’ (in time for a concert at the Paris Philharmonie the next week). Since he lives in Archway, north London, and we are meeting on a blustery day when transport has been half wrecked by Storm Imogen, he has quite a tight timetable.
As I begin to voice my incredulity, Boyd volunteers the obvious: that he is a multi-tasker and has ‘no choice in this business\’. A portfolio of part-time jobs, which turn out to be mysteriously full-time with phone calls and emails rudely pinging away day and night, means he rarely steps off the wheel (treadmill would be the wrong word; he clearly thrives on it). A key part of life is assiduously filling in a time-chart on the kitchen wall incorporating all family activities. Since his wife, Sally Pendlebury—until recently the fine principal cellist at Opera North and now back in London with a busy full-time career—is often away, the variety of colour codes, asterisks and post-it notes required to keep the chart up to date can barely be imagined.
Born in Glasgow in 1959, Boyd started life as an oboist, mainly orchestral but as a soloist too. After playing in the ECYO, he was a co-founder of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, in which he played until 2002. His childhood was full of music. His mother, a pianist with hands too small to become a professional (‘I\’ve inherited them\’ Boyd says, spreading out neat digits), was organist at the beautiful Charles Rennie Mackintosh church of Queen\’s Cross, Maryhill. His father, also steeped in music, was an academic at Strathclyde University. ‘I know I was lucky,\’ Boyd admits. ‘I was middle class. But this was the era of free music lessons and lots of local youth orchestras. I met people in Glasgow who came from very different backgrounds and who are now in the profession thanks to those amazing opportunities.\’ His musical friends from that time include the pianist and Lieder-supremo Iain Burnside and the cellist-conductor William Conway, founder of the Hebrides Ensemble.
The Pavilion at Wormsley, now one of Boyd\’s musical homes
Boyd quickly established himself as a virtuoso. A formidable musician with a generous, big-hearted nature, he made the instrument sing. It might be fanciful to say you can pick out his playing on blind hearings but certainly his distinctive lyricism set him apart: listen to COE recordings from the 1990s with Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and hear his pure-toned, passionate delivery (not words that can always be used about the oboe). Why did he give it all up, first to conduct, and then to run an opera company? The answers are interconnected. Around the time he was at the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied oboe with Janet Craxton, he realized he wanted to be the one on the podium making decisions. Ad hoc ensembles with friends gave him a chance to practise but the real insight, he says, came from his years in the COE, ‘an extraordinary experience which still lives with me, and was better than any number of conducting lessons\’. Eventually, he knew the time was right to change direction.
‘I got to 40 and I thought, if I live to 85 I\’ll be very cross that I didn\’t get off my backside and have a go at what I really want to do.\’ He had opportunities to conduct the COE and then secured the job as director of the Manchester Camerata, a formative experience which opened many new doors. Since then he has worked, among many other places, in Colorado as the principal guest conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, as artistic partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and as principal guest conductor of the City of London Sinfonia. ‘At first I was doing 80 per cent playing and the rest of the time conducting. Gradually it began to change. I decided to stop playing altogether. Without compromise. My last concert was with Abbado and the COE—all Schubert-in 2002. I haven\’t opened the box since then.\’
Always a plain speaker, Boyd hates the idea of sounding what he calls ‘poncey\’ and sends himself up any time there is a risk of doing so—usually when talking about his passion for music, and his sense of privilege at making a lifetime\’s career from the art form he loves. He may not realize that his warm, open enthusiasm and irresistible Glaswegian inflections make such a danger remote. He was a natural choice for Garsington, a brilliant musician but also the kind of person able to speak to anyone in any walk of life. ‘I\’d always loved the company ethos. I loved working with [his predecessor] Anthony Whitworth-Jones-his integrity, the sense of his heart being in the right place. And I loved the audience—for all the apparent poshness and dressing up, here were people who were really dedicated to the art form and loved it and were prepared to support the cause so generously. We have an amazing story to tell: this season 31 performances of three operas and Haydn\’s The Creation—a piece I\’ve always adored—in collaboration with dancers from Rambert. Can you believe that Leonard Ingrams started Garsington, at the manor, with one—just one—performance of Figaro?\’
Boyd also considered that having spent half a lifetime thinking about breath control, resonance, support of a phrase, projection and making the best possible quality of sound from inside the body as an oboist, he had a good chance of being able to work with singers. ‘The two skills are not so very far removed—it\’s a larynx instead of a reed.\’ Having joined Garsington Opera in 2012, he is now into his stride as artistic director, the company bursting with ambitious plans and rare growth in a struggling industry. ‘I had already been a little bit part of the furniture at Garsington,\’ he says. ‘I\’d guested, working with John Cox and conducting his Fidelio as well as Figaro\’—the last, much-loved show at Garsington Manor before the move to Wormsley (where it will be revived in 2017). Kate Molleson (August 2010, pp. 1016-7) noted that with ‘excellent conducting from Douglas Boyd that kept tempos sensible and orchestra and singers glued together, this was a fine, high-spirited Figaro—a fitting end of a (mostly) happy era.\’ He also had success with Don Giovanni in 2012, directed by Daniel Slater. Reviewing it in August 2012 (pp. 1002-3), Amanda Holloway recalled: ‘Every member of the orchestra sounded like a soloist in this pin-sharp acoustic and the conductor Douglas Boyd kept up the momentum in spite of a brief blackout and a volley of rain on the roof.\’ When Boyd conducted a revival of Fidelio to open Garsington Opera\’s 25th season, Michael Kennedy admired it without reservation, giving chief credit to Boyd, praising the ‘fresh and exhilarating intelligence he brought to every note\’ and calling the Wunderbar quartet ‘sublime\’ (August 2014, pp. 1009-10).
This year\’s three new productions are of Yevgeny Onegin, conducted by Boyd and directed by the RSC\’s former artistic director Michael Boyd, a near neighbour in London but no relation; Roderick Williams will make his Garsington and role debuts as Onegin. Tim Albery and Tobias Ringborg, both new to Garsington, will respectively direct and conduct Idomeneo, with Toby Spence in the title role. David Parry, a company favourite, and the dancer and choreographer Will Tuckett, another Garsington debutant, will collaborate on L\’italiana in Algeri. With an overall budget of £4.5 million, production costs range from £350,000 to £450,000 depending on repertoire. An increased number of performances in recent years has enabled the company to spend more on stagings and to engage world-class singers as well as continuing to invest in younger rising stars, long part of the Garsington tradition. Covers, or understudies, have a chance to sing in special staged performances, free to audiences who may include some of the thousands of local schoolchildren benefiting from the company\’s rapidly expanding learning and participation programme.
Boyd mentions a school in High Wycombe, the children chiefly from Muslim families, which has no music education and for whom the relationship with Garsington has been life-changing. ‘We are, in effect, the music department of a school that has none.\’ No one who turns up at Wormsley for a night of glittering pleasures during the main season can have any grasp of the scale of Garsington\’s education programme. Talking to Boyd, who calls that side of the company\’s enterprise ‘massive\’, it quickly becomes clear it would take a separate conversation to do it justice. It matters to him: he refers again to his Glasgow upbringing which gave a chance to everyone. One major showcase will be next year\’s People\’s Opera project, Silver Birch, by Roxanna Panufnik to a libretto by Jessica Duchen about families affected by war. Professionals will work with amateurs of all ages, and schoolchildren, around 150 participants in all. ‘And I\’m conducting it!\’ Boyd says. ‘I want to be fully involved. It\’s a significant part of what we do. There will be some auditions. We want to achieve the highest standards.\’ The main festival, too, will stage a premiere in 2018, details of which are still under wraps. ‘We are a living opera company. We should do new works as well as old.\’
Among many plans ahead, Garsington is exploring streaming options, talking to the Paris Opéra Comique, moving towards a collaboration with Santa Fe and investigating ways of using the wonderful acoustic of Wormsley\’s auditorium (now improved by better heating and protection from the elements) for special events, such as the 2014 Beethoven weekend: workshops, talks and concerts which culminated in Beethoven\’s Ninth. This year, with new venues added, Garsington\’s Opera For All will offer free screenings in coastal and rural areas including Skegness, Grimsby and Thanet.
Dougie Boyd himself, having just completed seven successful years at the Musikkollegium Winterthur—where his successor is Thomas Zehetmair—has just started as music director of L\’Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. He has many guest invitations elsewhere but Garsington and Paris are now central to his working life. ‘I feel like a conductor of 27 not 57. I know everyone is always looking for the next Wunderkind, the next Rattle or Dudamel. But they don\’t come along too often and there are other ways …\’. Boyd is right. His zest and musical authority and his special gift for making friends and influencing people will work their magic at Garsington. His contract runs until 2020. ‘I feel I\’ve only just started.\’ Happily for us, he has.
The 2016 Garsington Opera season opens with ‘Yevgeny Onegin\’, conducted by Douglas Boyd, on June 3.