London Winds - Michael Collins

John Robert Brown

London Winds came together twenty years ago. The choosing of the name was easy. "We're all based in London", says Michael Collins. "We're winds; it's very simple. And we can be duos, trios, up to Strauss 13 Winds and beyond, a flexible group. Luckily - can you believe it - for twenty years we have the same people." Clarinettist Collins directs Philippa Davies (flute), Gareth Hulse (oboe), Robin O'Neill (bassoon) and Richard Watkins (horn). "We do it because we love doing it," he says. "And we love the repertoire, though its not going to pay the mortgage!"

The repertoire is usually determined by the promoter. "They see the list. They often put the programme together," says Collins. "With the Wind Quintet, they want the Reicha Quintet, Samuel Barber's Summer Music, and Ligeti's Six Bagatelles. We can be doing a series of concerts, including the Ligeti Bagatelles, which are accessible, not squeaky gate at all. Then we'll go somewhere and suddenly we are told: "Oh, not Ligeti, no thanks!" So we have to substitute with an arrangement of Mozart, or something. Audiences for classical music are not adventurous enough - though it might be the promoters who are cautious, they who have to put bums on seats. When they see the Ligeti they know that a lot of people are not going to come. It's difficult."

London Winds has commissioned works from John McCabe, Robin Holloway and Richard Rodney Bennett. "Can you believe it?" asks Collins. "They get second performances; Robin Holloway we've played three times!" He laughs. "Partly because of our upbringing we all play a lot of contemporary music. We have a passion for it. Things have to move forward, so it's lovely when we come together to work on some new thing. Otherwise, if you go on playing the same standard repertoire you can become rather blasé. Doing a lot of contemporary music really tightens the nuts and bolts."

Collins admits that these days, making CDs is difficult. "We did the Mozart 13 wind, which was voted the top version, which is lovely. But trying to get a record company to commit, particularly to wind repertoire, is difficult. The big companies have all disappeared."

"The point of making a CD is not vanity, but to make the public across the globe know of the work you are doing. You want a CD out in the shops, you want it to sell. So you have to be careful in your choice of company. For instance, we recorded the complete works of Richard Strauss, for Hyperion, which is still available, and sells. Hyperion have done a grand job. They are adventurous. Such companies need encouraging. They are the ones that are going to keep us alive."

Collins believes that the strength of the wind ensemble lies in contemporary music. "Ligeti, Henze, Berio, Birtwistle, that's where the ensemble comes into its own, with a sound world very different from Reicha, Danzi, Mozart and Beethoven, and different again from Nielsen, Hindemith and Barber. So you can plan a nice programme."

"We do more concerts with wind quintet and piano, which is attractive to the promoter. We can have a well-known pianist - Pletnev, Barry Douglas, Boris Berezovsky, Leon McCawley, Cristina Ortiz, Pascal Rogé - and play Mozart, Beethoven, Poulenc or Rimsky-Korsakoff."

"Overseas, for a lot of our work we tend to fly out one day and back the next. Jet lag slays me," he says. "I've had five trips to America this year, on my own, plus other long haul ones, including South Africa." For Collins, it isn't so much the time change as the experience of being stuck in "that heap of metal", as he describes an aeroplane, for longer than seven hours. "That completely disorientates you," he says.

Tellingly, he's done more travelling this year than in the whole previous thirty years of his career. "Travel upsets the reeds so much," he says. "Maybe it's not the flying but the climate. You've got to scrape the reeds. You can't make the sound you want. It's a nightmare. If you've got a good reed you can cope with anything."

"I've learned to go with jet lag, not to fight it. On my last couple of trips I slept when I wanted to, even if it was one o'clock in the afternoon. I had a good three or four hours deep sleep, then I didn't go to bed until two or three the next morning. I felt fine. There is no answer. We are all different."

London Winds never has a conductor for anything, even for the Kurt Weill violin concerto. "If it's something I can't actually physically direct myself with a nod of the bell, we work out who's going to take over the wagging," he says. "That works well, we're free. I've been touring with the Academy of St. Martin's. To do all of this repertoire - Mozart, Weber, Copland concertos without a conductor - is bliss. I would say that a good 75% of the clarinet repertoire you can play unconducted. That's not to put conductors down."

Collins has two concerts as a soloist at the Lincoln Center in New York in June 2009, playing the Mozart Concerto and John Adams' Gnarly Buttons. "It's a big honour. John Adams is conducting. That's nice, because he's a clarinettist. He knows the Mozart very well. I've got a sneaky feeling that it's going to be pretty good. It will be a joy, it really will. I'm very lucky."

First published in Classical Music magazine, 27th September 2008. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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