INTERVIEW: Orchestra of the Swan artistic director David Le Page
Orchestra of the Swan’s new album, Timelapse, might just be the perfect lockdown soundtrack. Orchestral versions of Radiohead and Bowie mingle with Schubert, Satie and Reich to make a thoughtful musical landscape combining the past with the modern. Here artistic director David Le Page tells Gill Sutherland about that and what else he has been up to in lockdown.
Tell us about what you do and how you got started.
I am artistic director and leader of Orchestra of the Swan. I was born in Guernsey and began playing the violin at the age of seven. The first lockdown of 2020 represented the longest time I had not performed for a live audience since I began playing.
Where have you spent lockdown, and who are you with?
I’ve spent the various lockdowns in Leicestershire with my wife, two children (12 and 10) and dog, which has been a blessing but also quite hard in some respects - particularly in regard to home-schooling. We moved house last week which gave us all some much needed focus.
How have you stayed connected with the outside world?
Like everyone I immediately dived into the world of Zoom and Teams (I’d never heard of Zoom before March 2020) which I use almost exclusively for work. We were lucky to have all this technology when the pandemic hit but we’ve also realised it is a poor substitute for face-to-face communication.
Tell us about any work you’ve managed to do this year.
I’m very lucky to have the artistic director job with the orchestra which involves programming, arranging music, creating films and shaping its future vision. We were obviously very keen to perform, so when restrictions were eased in early October we managed to sneak in a few concerts before lockdown came crashing down again. I’ve enjoyed putting our films together with the wonderful Woodbury Studios audio/visual team which have also given us a chance to play together as musicians in the same space - socially distanced of course. We recorded a new album, Timelapse, in January which was a departure for us in terms of recording. It’s made up of shorter tracks linked by the idea of 400 years or so of music inhabiting the same emotional space; so, we have Schubert and The Smiths, Rameau and Radiohead, Couperin and Bowie. The mixing and mastering didn’t take place until August which gave us time to think about how to market it more effectively. Happily, it’s been by far our most successful and well-received recording to date.
As a professional, do you still have to practise music regularly?
Long periods of time at home have made me realise that at this stage in my career my playing won’t change dramatically by practising for hours and hours a day, so I’m not worried about stopping, even for a few weeks at a time to concentrate on other things. I always make sure I’m in shape for the performing and recording I need to do. It’s important to remember that it is the quality of the practice you do not the quantity.
How many instruments do you have at home - and how many are used?!
The whole family play instruments - often under duress - so there are cellos, violas, violins of course plus a drum kit and a couple of guitars. The new neighbours haven’t complained yet…
What have been the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown?
I’ve enjoyed the peace, the wildlife, the fact that I don’t have to drive almost every day; if you are healthy - physically and mentally - then lockdown can certainly be less stressful. Being with the same people day in and day out can be difficult, but it is much more positive than not. I’m not hugely sociable but I miss chatting to people in the flesh. Bumping into other dog walkers has been a revelation because you realise that generally it’s not about the actual content of the conversation but rather that you are communicating at all.
Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the crisis?
I love reading and always have about three books on the go plus an audiobook for the car. I enjoy the way your next book is suggested by a phrase or chapter in the one you’re reading currently. I’m addicted to the Adam Buxton podcast; he has a brilliant way of coaxing conversations from his guests in a way that you won’t hear anywhere else. The latest one with Stewart Lee is a good example. To relax I’m trawling through episodes of Columbo which I have on DVD; I enjoy looking at the sets, the clothes, the locations and the cars. In an episode I was watching last night from the late-70s a character changed the TV channel with an enormous metal remote! That’s fascinating to me and the closest we get to time travel.
Any tips for not going stir crazy?
Keep busy, keep exercising, keep planning for the future. Vary the routine. Take a right instead of a left. Habit is a great deadener.
What have you missed most?
I’ve missed performing to a live audience of course and also face to face conversations with friends. I’m not fond of crowds and would say I’m not hugely sociable so in some ways lockdown suits me quite well! It would be nice to go to a restaurant or cafe once in while and have friends over for dinner. I’d like to drive somewhere beautiful I haven’t been to for a while - an open space - and go for a long walk. It would be great to be able to get back to Guernsey and see the sea and the cliffs.
Have you found out anything about yourself during these strange times?
I discovered fairly early on that I’m an optimist although that might have been put to the test if I’d known how long this was going to last.
What was the first thing you did when the first lockdown eased?
We went on holiday (booked before lockdown) to Devon in July which felt like a relief. We were cautious at first but we all loved the socially distanced interaction and the relative freedom of the beach.
What help would you like to see being given to the arts community?
That is such a massive and complicated question. People need art of course and it needs to be supported, nurtured and appreciated but at the moment it’s more important to look after vulnerable people and appreciate those who look after them. There was an extraordinary feeling from both performers and audience members when I took part in my first live concerts in August; the sense of them having been greatly missed and needed was palpable. It was something we took for granted to a certain extent and it’s important to remember what having it taken away feels like.
How is OOTS faring through the crisis – and how much longer can you keep going before you have to rethink the future?
Ironically, having the space to really re-examine what the orchestra is and how it can best serve its community has been invaluable. We’ve been able to take a good look at ourselves and what we do and work out how to do it better. I’m not sure this would have been possible under normal circumstances. The orchestra is lucky to have a very strong team, from management through to players, underpinned by a supportive board of trustees. We talk and reevaluate constantly. From my point of view I’m looking at steering the orchestra towards a creative and accessible place which is utterly unique in the sector. I’m really passionate about blurring the edges of genres and providing new audiences - people who are not attracted to classical music for various reasons - with exciting, immersive and unusual programmes.
What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the crisis?
Be kind to each other and don’t take anything for granted.
Timelapse is out now and available from orchestraoftheswan.org or from usual retailers and streaming platforms.