Guildhall questions: Jonathan Morton answers

Jonathan Morton holding violin

Guildhall questions: Jonathan Morton answers

In this Q&A, violinist Jonathan Morton, directing the Guildhall String Ensemble in a programme of British and American music on Friday 20 January, tells us about the repertoire being performed in this concert and his approach to directing it from the violin.

Jonathan Morton is a musician equally at home in old and new music who enjoys collaborating with musicians and artists from different traditions. He is Artistic Director at Scottish Ensemble, where his eclectic and engaging programming has been enthusiastically praised by audiences internationally, offering fresh perspectives on familiar repertoire and championing new works. He is also Principal First Violin at London Sinfonietta, where he has been given the opportunity to work closely with many of today’s leading composers and performers.

We caught up with Jonathan in between rehearsals with the Guildhall String Ensemble to hear more about this exciting programme, his approach to presenting new music and working as an ensemble director, and his top tips for aspiring orchestral musicians.


Could you tell us about the repertoire you'll be directing for this concert?

This programme is a celebration of string music from the UK and US spanning the last hundred years, from Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro composed in 1905 to pieces from America that were written in the last couple of decades.

Britain has a great tradition of string music: Tippett, Elgar, Britten, Walton – these composers loved string instruments and made them their own. They found colours and voices that are quite uniquely British which is, I think, a wonderful thing to celebrate. There are two English bookends to this concert: we start with the Elgar and end with Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Both these works have an incredible richness of polyphony, rhythmic vitality and melodic material being bounced around. The Tippett is just such a thrilling piece, and I don't think it's played enough. I absolutely love it.

In terms of the American repertoire, we’ve got George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, a very beautiful piece that he wrote in the 1940’s as a lament to his grandmother. It’s a kind of a musical relative to Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings which premiered a decade earlier.

Caroline Shaw is a hugely creative person – she sings, she plays the violin, she’s an amazing composer. Her piece, Punctum, which we’ll be performing in this concert, is one which she calls ‘an exercise in nostalgia’, based on Roland Barthes’ extended description of a photograph. It also features a gradually revealed Bach Chorale, and she plays with classical music conventions, turning them around – it’s wonderful.

And then we have two works by Jessie Montgomery, Strum and Starburst.  Originally from New York, Jessie does a lot of improvisation in her practice, and has written many exciting pieces for strings, often informed by the various traditions within American folk music.

So, the evening will showcase an eclectic range of different musical voices. It’s such a tremendously active, virtuosic and high-energy programme.


You're a champion of contemporary music, especially through your positions with Scottish Ensemble and London Sinfonietta. What do you enjoy about introducing audiences to new works?

I suppose, in my mind, I try not to approach new music too differently from existing music, because I think that can sometimes be an issue for audiences. If, as a performer, you approach new music differently, then it's very difficult for audiences to go along with it. It makes the new piece in a concert a kind of weird aberration, or an interruption, or an unintelligible extra.

I think it's very important to blur the boundaries between the old and the new. For example, for this concert I’m trying to approach the Tippett as if it was a brand-new piece, and we've never played it before. This involves examining habits and developing an awareness of the dangers of automatic repetition. So that means that when people come to a concert, hopefully they hear these pieces afresh, as exciting as if it was a premiere. Which, of course, it's difficult to do – and maybe it's impossible – but at least having that as an aim, I think, is good.

And then when you play new music, to treat it with the same kind of respect and conviction as established pieces. Make it your own, so that it doesn't feel like new music anymore – so that you're as fluent as possible in this new language, and the new colours that have been written. It is a challenge, but that's what I try to do.


Do you think this programme showcases how string composition and performance have evolved over the last century?

Yes, the composition has evolved, of course. But what I like about this programme is that the more recent pieces really connect to the older ones. They're not Avant-garde pieces, but I think that's fine – not everything has to be, in terms of new music.

And yes, performance practice changes all the time, and it's nice to sometimes question the way we approach it. It feels like, especially in the last 15 years, string performance has changed in a good and necessary way. I think, and hope, that people are much more questioning of their performance habits: of the automatic traditions that just get passed down and not really examined. There's now more porousness between different genres and art forms – these things are getting more fluid, and people are picking up different ideas. And I think that's all for the good.


You'll be directing from the violin in this concert. How do you feel that affects the rehearsal process and the performance compared to working with a conductor?

The rehearsals are probably harder work – but in a good way, I would say. People have to work harder at figuring out how the music fits together. They’re not able to rely so much on a visual cue to know where they are, they have to use their ears much more, which as a musician is a good thing. I think once you get into that sort of intense listening, although it's more input from the players in rehearsals, in a strange way you feel less tired at the end. Because you're more active, you're more engaged and time goes quicker.

I like to just allow people to get into the music and discover it themselves through rehearsal, so that it's not just: identify, direct, instruct – I try to do as little of that as possible. You have to give some instructions, of course, but the more you give, the more the musicians switch off their brains. That's just not interesting, and often results in an uninteresting performance too. We've been given enough instructions anyway, with a score: that's the map of instructions. I'm quite honest as the leader: I don't always know how to do this, necessarily, and why should I? Let’s find out together. And then everyone is really involved in the process.

Without a conductor you often need to rehearse longer and more, just because the amount of information that every player must process is higher. But on the plus side, when the performance works it’s kind of euphoric, because everyone's really on the edge and fully committed. There's no reason why that can't happen – and it often does happen – with a conductor. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but there are certain differences.


What are you most enjoying about working with Guildhall musicians?

I generally love working with young people. Because I spend most of my time playing with professionals I really enjoy working with students, as they are curious and they're at that stage where there is a lot of learning of a lot of new information. The rehearsal time I’ve had so far with the Guildhall String Ensemble has been great: super concentrated, and with a lot of comments, which I always love. I encourage that from the outset: please interrupt me, question me, challenge me – it's fine! It's a learning process.


Who have been some of your biggest inspirations in your career?

That’s a tricky one. There have been many, but I’m just going to say two: György Kurtág and John Coltrane.


What would be your top tips for budding orchestral musicians?

Be curious, for sure. Go to concerts, listen to all this amazing repertoire, and engage with it as much as you can. When you're in rehearsals look at the score. Very few people just get a score, and that's a slightly asymmetrical thing: when you know the conductor has a score, has a complete picture, and then everyone else has a partial picture, it's difficult. I think it's better if everyone has one, because you can learn so much: you can always pick it up and learn about how the whole piece fits together rather than just your own path. So that’s a basic thing: bring a score to the rehearsal – it will make your life so much richer, immediately.


This performance by the Guildhall String Ensemble takes place in Milton Court Concert Hall at 7pm on Friday 20 January 2023. Tickets available here.