Skip to main content

Firework master;Arts;Interview;Paul Rissmann

Christopher Lambton meets the RNSO's new animateur, who aims to kindle children's enthusiasm for classical music with the help of Stravinsky

Paul Rissmann has been described as a man with a mission. There was a time when orchestras saw their education departments, if they had one at all, as embarrassing offshoots from the real business of orchestral music-making. A lot of school children fooling around with percussion was rather beneath the essential dignity of Mozart.

All that has changed, however. As audiences for traditional concerts started to dwindle, so orchestral managers saw a lifeline in education. By introducing a new generation to the wonders of classical music, they could lay the foundations for a young and enthusiastic audience that would ensure the survival of the orchestra in the future. In Scotland, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra led the field for many years, its education department given a huge boost when Strathclyde Region commissioned 10 concertos from Peter Maxwell Davies, whose first performances were to take place within a framework of composition workshops for schools.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was slower off the mark. Its education department is only a few years old, but with the recent appointment of Rissmann as the somewhat weightily titled education manager and music animateur, it has demonstrated a solid commitment to education as a part of orchestral life. Rissmann is not merely a liaison officer for schools but more of a performer, composer, and physical stimulus for the orchestra's education work. "I am quite exhausted at the end of each session,'' he says.

For his first project he has chosen the very first work in the RSNO's winter season, a short four-minute piece by Stravinsky called Fireworks, written as a present to Rimsky-Korsakov for his daughter's wedding.

"You can't just play music to children and expect them to love it," he maintains. "So what I have done is made a recipe for Fireworks. I looked at the score and found that essentially the piece is made up from three ingredients." By taking this deconstructed Stravinsky, along with two musicians from the orchestra, to four first-year classes in Glasgow secondary schools (Castlemilk High, Smithycroft Secondary, Hillpark Secondary, St Mungo's Academy), he has encouraged the children to explore the possibilities inherent in the material. Their improvisation casts a light on the process of composition. "By the time we finish," says Rissmann, "they are so full of ideas you can hardly stop them."

Each school has three sessions, two hours long, in the month leading up to the RSNO performance. On the night, players from the schools provide music in the foyer before trooping in to hear the concert. "By this time the kids really 'own' the music," he says, "so it really means something to them."

Rissmann is convinced that the only way to generate enthusiasm for orchestral music is to reveal its detail and complexity. He recalls his own experience in the world of visual art, when his appreciation of Salvador Dali's paintings was enhanced when a gallery guide pointed out details he had never noticed. Besides, he has an unshakeable faith in mainstream classical music as an "incredible resource" for education, that allows teachers to draw on the skills of the RSNO.

Rissmann's appointment has brought him back to his roots. His school in Erskine had a thriving music department, where he was able to try different instruments before settling on the saxophone. The first orchestra he ever heard was the then Scottish National Orchestra ("groups of us would save up and go into Glasgow at the weekend to hear the concerts"); it was also the first orchestra he played in after completing his training at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Royal College of Music.

But life as an orchestral musician was not to be his metier, even if his saxophone is an essential part of his school workshops. He signed up for the performance and communication skills course at the Guildhall, where he was taught "everything you should learn at music college, but don't." Above all, to understand how music communicates, and how audiences can own the music they hear. The one-year course has now been remodelled to allow orchestral musicians to sample it for a month.

Rissmann has not been in his new post long enough to affect the orchestra's plans this season, but he has managed to select three other works (Michael Torke's Javelin, Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite, and Torke's The Book of Proverbs) for school projects over the coming year.

The selection reflects his own interest in minimalist music (his favourite composer is John Adams), for he describes Torke's music, somewhat tongue in cheek, as what happens when "minimalism meets Beethoven".

Torke will be on hand to offer advice for the weeks preceding the performances of his music.

Beyond that, the RSNO's new "Discovery Series", under the artistic direction of James MacMillan, will provide Rissmann with opportunities to get involved in the "study" days to help adult audiences come to grips with a more challenging repertoire.

He is candid about the criteria for success. "I wouldn't be doing my job properly," he claims, "if these kids just do one project and never come back to it." But if Rissmann feels the responsibility this implies - that he must rejuvenate and reinvent the orchestra's audience for the new millennium - he does not show it beneath his infectious enthusiasm.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you