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U of T's David Briskin performs for 1100 audiences worldwide – at the same time

Conducting for London's Royal Opera House and audiences in more than 30 countries

David Briskin conducting the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra (all photos by Richard Lu)

When Shakespeare wrote the phrase “all the world’s a stage,” he couldn’t have predicted what that would come to mean in the future.

On April 28, when David Briskin, assistant professor and director of orchestral activities at the Faculty of Music, and music director and principal conductor of The National Ballet of Canada, steps into the orchestra pit of London’s Royal Opera House, he will be conducting the orchestra for the audience inside the Opera House as well as cinema audiences in more than 30 countries. 

Briskin is the conductor of the critically acclaimed production of Christopher Wheeldon’s new full-length ballet, The Winter’s Tale, playing at the Royal Opera House. For the second time in his career he will be conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra in Covent Garden as it is being broadcast live to audiences in Seattle, Rio de Janiero, Melbourne and more than a thousand points in between.

Writer Kelly Rankin caught up with him in the U.K. via email to ask him about conducting, his career and what recordings he would want to have with him if he were stranded on a deserted island.

What is the conductor’s role in a performance?
In conducting for the stage, be it opera or ballet, the conductor is the person who ultimately shapes the dramatic and musical arc of the performance. In ballet, the conductor helps connect the music that is being heard with what is being seen on the stage. The Winter’s Tale is a highly dramatic work, so pacing the musical narrative is critical to helping the dancers tell the story. That has been a big part of my responsibility here in London.

Is this your first time conducting for several audiences at the same time?
No, I conducted the worldwide cinema broadcast of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the Royal Opera House in March 2013. (Alice was conceived and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon with the same creative team - including composer Joby Talbot - that created The Winter’s Tale). It’s a thrilling experience knowing that the same performance that is seen in the Opera House is being shared with tens of thousands of people all over the world.  As part of the broadcast, The Royal Opera House invites the cinema audience to tweet about the performance and posts the tweets on the cinema screens during the intermission. It’s a great way of bringing people together even if they are not physically in the same location.

Does knowing that you will be conducting for more than 1,100 audiences simultaneously change how you will direct the orchestra?   
Not really. I don’t think that any of us involved in the production perform differently for the cinema broadcasts than we do for the audience inside the Royal Opera House, although I must admit, these performances are quite thrilling for us all.

How does the experience of conducting inform your teaching?
Unlike a solo instrumentalist or singer, a conductor can’t perform or even practice his/her art without an orchestra, the way, say, a violinist or pianist can. So in order to make music, a conductor must work. My method and approach, both to teaching conducting and to orchestral training, are strongly influenced by my work as a professional conductor. Both orchestral conducting and playing in a professional orchestra are highly competitive and demanding careers, and aspiring musicians and conductors must be ready for the challenges of the profession. Through my teaching, I try to prepare my students for the demands that await them outside of the University.

How important is collaboration?
Since moving to Canada from New York City eight years ago, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have made my home at two of Canada’s finest institutions—The National Ballet of Canada and The University of Toronto.

Over these past years, the Faculty of Music and The National Ballet of Canada have collaborated on various projects and initiatives with the intention of bridging the academy and the professional world. Side-by-side rehearsals and performances with the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra and The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra; bringing students from the Early Music program at the Faculty into the studios of the Ballet to sing the Pergolesi Stabat Mater as part of a new creation; introducing a former U of T composition student to an emerging choreographer at The National Ballet of Canada who will create a new work together; having both undergraduate and graduate conducting students and instrumentalists regularly attend and observe National Ballet of Canada Orchestra rehearsals—these are the seeds of collaboration that help create a wider sense of community in Toronto, and will help develop the next generation of professional musicians in Canada.

Although you are recognized as a conductor with a broad repertoire, do you favour one genre over the other or one composer over another?
One of the greatest rewards of a life in music is having the opportunity each season to discover new repertoire and to revisit and reimagine repertoire that one knows well. At this moment in my career, I am very focused on ballet repertoire, but before moving to Canada from New York, I was conducting quite a lot of opera, as well as symphonic repertoire. My real passion is working collaboratively on new creations, be it in ballet, opera, or instrumental works. It is a very exciting time to be working in ballet particularly, as the field itself is growing and changing and producing fresh new work in very creative ways. I’m very happy to be part of that.

What three recordings would you want if you were stranded on a deserted island?
The complete works of Mozart, the Mahler symphonies, and a playlist of completely unfamiliar music from one of my students.

The Winter’s Tale is a co-production of the Royal Opera House and the National Ballet of Canada. It will make its North American premiere at the National Ballet of Canada in the 2015/16 season.