Fresh from a tour of the Far East, and with the Proms fast approaching, Stephen Bryant is a busy man. The leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO), Bryant has come a long way from the young pupil who refused to use vibrato: ‘I didn’t like the way it distorted the clear tone of the violin but my teacher, Mr Piper, told me that in order to take my Grade 6 exam I would have to do it. So, reluctantly, I did.’ Despite having risen to the top of his profession, however, Bryant says: ‘I never stop and think, “I’ve made it.” I don’t think I’ve ever looked at things from that sort of angle. I’m always looking ahead to my next concert or project.’ Bryant’s desire for, or as he calls it, ‘obsession with’ clarity of sound came from hours spent listening to recordings of Heifetz, aged eleven, and it has stayed with him ever since. Indeed, clarity of sound is one of the reasons that he prizes the Pressenda he now plays: ‘The sound was the most important thing for me. My Pressenda has a clear, sweet sound with lots of natural overtones and good carrying power. The combination of the sound, its responsiveness and the feel of it under my hand makes it unique.’ It was the third violin he tried out at J.&A. Beare and he is now so comfortable with the instrument that he struggles to articulate what it’s like to play: ‘It’s so familiar and so much an extension of me that I find it impossible to describe.’ Nor does he expend much energy thinking about the people who have played the violin before and those who will play it after him: ‘Being a musician is all about the present – present practice and present performance. I don’t like the thought of anyone else playing it. It’s such a close relationship, a musician and their violin.’
Unsurprisingly, Bryant chooses the Royal Albert Hall as his favourite concert venue: ‘The building has real dramatic impact and the concerts are always exciting because of the atmosphere engendered by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Proms audiences. The orchestra is doing eleven Proms this year, all of them broadcast and many also televised.’ But Bryant’s musical pursuits range far beyond the Proms: his forthcoming projects include a Radio 3 broadcast of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto with Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSO, and a chamber music concert including Webern’s Rondo for string quartet, Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor and Schumann’s Piano Quintet, broadcast from Seoul, South Korea. Bryant also gets inspiration from a more unlikely quarter: ‘Bruce Lee, the martial arts expert, has been an idol of mine for many years because, although he works in a different field, he developed himself through self-discipline, focus and drive to be the best he could possibly be.’ Bryant even confides that he has a light punch bag in his music studio: ‘I have to remember to take my boxing gloves off for the violin!’
Lizzie Davis–The Strad Magazine.
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Hitting the right note demands a good understanding of each other, reveals this team from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Jiri Belohlavek, chief conductor, and Stephen Bryant, leader, BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Jiri: Every conductor has a great concern - the quality of his musicians and especially the leading ones. The leader is the closest the conductor gets to a partner, and this relationship is crucial for the whole collaboration to work. I am blessed to have a great concert master in Stephen. I love to work with him, not only for his excellent professionalism, but also for the way he approaches the members of the orchestra. He has a very specific style - calm but exciting at the same time - and he has a marvellous British sense of humour.
Stephen: Leaders and conductors need to trust each other in order to get the freedom they need to work. Jiri is not only a consummate musician but he knows how they tick. He never stifles the strings and therefore the sound he gets from the orchestra is beautiful. It’s inspiring. Best of all, there’s no ’side’ to him. What you see is what you get and there is none of the ‘bluff’ that some conductors employ and that orchestral musicians see through so easily. He even understands my peculiar sense of humour, although, admittedly, it has taken him quite a few years!
From BBC Ariel magazine 2010
This letter, Time Out article and Strad review all relate to my performances of the Korngold Violin Concerto. In 1982, when I was at music college, a friend and myself were keen fans of Jascha Heifetz’ playing. One of my favourite recordings at that time was Heifetz playing the Korngold Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and- having an urge to learn it- I looked about for the music. I found that it wasn’t available in this country but, as luck would have it, my friend was going to visit his father in America and picked up the music there for me. On his return he bet me £10 that I wouldn’t be able to learn it in three weeks ready for a concerto competition at the Royal College of Music.
Spurred on by the money (I was a penniless student!) I managed to learn it for the competition and later that year performed it with the RCM Symphony Orchestra. To my great surprise I was informed by the Korngold Society that this was the first British performance of the piece. It was only later that the Korngold Violin Concerto started to be played and to gain in popularity – nowadays everyone plays it – then, nobody played it! I sent a recording of the performance to George Korngold, Erich Korngold’s son, and you can see his reply. Feeling a special affinity with this concerto I then went on to perform it many more times including two broadcast performances with the BBCSO in 1994 and 1998.
Film buffs at Friday’s free BBC concert at Maida vale may detect familiar strains in Korngold’s headily dreamy Violin Concerto. Themes from the ex-child prodigy’s film music, notably the Erroll Flynn costume comedy ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, are noticeable. ‘It sounds a bit duff put like that,’ syas the soloist Stephen Bryant, ‘but it’s cleverly fitted together.’
At ten the Moravian-born Korngold was called a genius by Mahler, at 13 acclaimed for a ballet. Today he’s remembered mainly for film scores (‘Robin Hood’, ‘Captain Blood’), and for the lush, sweet-sherry Violin Concerto.
Bryant was surprised to find he’d been given the British Première of it as a student. ‘I’d admired the Heifitz recording and a friend got me the music in America. Then he got irritated and bet me £10 I wouldn’t be able to learn it over Christmas for some concert trials at college.’ Bryant won the bet, inadvertently giving the first British performance of a swooningly Romantic work that leaves one wondering what little Erich Wolfgang might have achieved if he’d resisted the lure of tinseltown.