Q & A: Conductor & Composer Mike Batt on his Career, Writing Film Scores, Composing for the Queen’s Jubilee & Other Memorable Projects

By Mike Hardy

Mike Batt, LVO, has been tremendously successful across many musical genres, but his work in the classical repertoire is hugely underestimated. He has composed, orchestrated, and arranged many pieces and has conducted many of the world’s finest orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, London Symphony,  London Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin Opera Orchestra, Amsterdam Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He has performed works by Bizet, Brahms, Dukas, and Rimsky-Korsakov, and has recorded—to positive reviews—Holst’s “The Planet’s Suite.”

Batt narrowly missed out on being appointed the principal conductorship of the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1980’s and has been since offered a titled position within the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra. He has recorded with Canadian soprano Anna Maria Kaufmann as well as Irish tenors Colm Wilkinson and Finbar Wright, and was instrumental in launching the careers of classical chart toppers Vanessa Mae, Bond, and The Planets. He was formerly the Deputy Chairman of the British Phonographic Industry.

Batt was appointed a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order (LVO) in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to the Royal Household, after being commissioned to compose a piece for Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which he conducted at Buckingham Palace.

OperaWire caught up with Mike at his home in Surrey.

OperaWire: I have interviewed many artists from the classical world who have subsequently dabbled in the crossover genre; but in a way, you’ve done that in reverse! Your place in the annals of the contemporary music industry is firmly cemented, as well as being hugely diverse, but ever since the 1970’s, many of your compositions have involved full scale orchestras in your tracks. Is Mike Batt really a classical composer and conductor in disguise who happens to have had some success with pop music?

Mike Batt: If I had a one word answer it would be yes. It is absolutely a balance which has come about by the various influences I have had over the years, and from the experiences I have sought to have. In other words, you don’t go into the studio with a pop group or a rock and roll band if you don’t want to, and you don’t go into the studio to do a classical recording if you don’t want to. So I wanted to do both and so I’ve done both. When I’ve been in the studio, for example, when I was younger and not having had any formal training, it was a good, fun way of getting experience as an arranger and conductor; choosing subject matter which gave me the opportunity to write orchestrations for big band or Hollywood or symphonic style… I even had the London Symphony Orchestra on a Wombles record… which were all great experiences for me. I’ve always had this insatiable yearning to work with orchestras and small ensembles.

I think the people who sucked me into pop, like many people of my generation, were The Beatles. When I was about twelve The Beatles started making records. I’d already discovered Schubert’s “9th Symphony,” however, and I was conducting a pile of furniture on Saturday mornings while my parents were out. I piled up the furniture and I put notices on them, little signs saying, ‘Violins One,’ ‘Violins Two…’ the ‘Oboes’ were just over to the left, others in the middle… and I would put the record on from Concert Hall Records and I would conduct my imaginary orchestra all the way through. So I knew Schubert’s 9th Symphony before ‘She loves you.’ But ‘She loves you’ came along shortly after that, and I was equally enthralled by it.

OW: You went on to conduct the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Sydney Symphony, and Stuttgart Philharmonic orchestras. Did your love of classical music come from your parents?

MB: No, they weren’t really into music at all. Having said that, my dad was a very practical, engineering type, he was in the army during the war and he came out at the age of 24 as an acting Major. He had done his BSc in civil engineering, he was also a qualified mechanical engineer: a really practical guy. It surprised me when he bought a piano. I had expected he’d be doing up the woodwork before selling it on, because he liked doing that sort of thing. And so we had a piano in the house for a period of time… and in fact it became forever. He vamped out three pub songs on just the black keys, with this great big rumpy, pumpy left hand… with tenths and octaves and stuff… I don’t know where the hell he learned it. I asked him once and he just said someone taught it to him, so he must have had music in him.

My maternal grandfather was, in fact, a brilliant organist, but I never met him. There was a scandal in the family. He had run off from my granny with his mistress. In 1941 they were found together on a bed together in a flat in Hampstead. She’d shot him and then shot herself. So the family music had stopped with my grandfather in 1941 when he got shot by his mistress. But his father had bought a massive organ: a big organ that had been in some castle, and of course it wouldn’t fit into his house, so he had a new house built round it. The pipes went right up from the living room, through the bedrooms. Apparently, it was quite an experience to stay there. He was a colliery manager so I don’t quite know how they could afford it, but apparently he was quite wacky. I think my wackiness comes from that side of the family. My mum made wonderful costumes, she was very artistic. She drew, she painted… so that’s what I get from her. But she was the daughter of this Arthur, my grandfather, who was a bit of a ‘Jack the Lad’ by the sounds of it.

OW: So how come you’re conducting an imaginary orchestra to Schubert at age 12?

MB: Schubert came through the letterbox. Back in those days, before the web, junk mail wasn’t what you saw on the screen. Junk mail was a leaflet that came through your door, offering crocuses and daffodil bulbs. Instead of those, I had a leaflet come through the door one day for ‘Concert Hall Records’.  The tantalising offer was four, free, classical EP’s, for nothing! It did say, underneath, that you then had to buy one album per year, for twenty six shillings, which is about one pound fifty. That was a lot for me, because I got a shilling a week as pocket money. So, somehow, I had to go and find the money to buy one album a year… but I remember clearly when the free EP’s arrived. I was absolutely thrilled to get them. There were excerpts from “The Mikado,” the “Swan Lake” overture, Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances” numbers 3 and 5, I think, and I can’t recall the fourth one.

So, it wasn’t really an ‘interest’ in classical music: it was a passion for classical music from the get-go. I absolutely played those records to death. I knew ‘A wandering minstrel I’ before I knew any pop music at all. And when it came to having to buy my first LP, to pay real money for it, I had to choose from whatever was on offer from Concert Hall Records that month and I picked out Schubert’s “9th Symphony.” I had no idea what I was picking out. It was almost like putting a pin in a map. So I received Schubert’s “9th Symphony,” conducted by Carl Schuricht. I still have that record somewhere, in a box in the attic.

OW: From there you went on and conducted and recorded Holst’s “The Planets,” which was pretty much universally well-received. Why Holst, and what did you hope to achieve that hadn’t already been done with this work?

MB: Well, the problem is, I’m the outsider in every genre. Let’s address Holst. The BBC Magazine didn’t even review it. I was very delighted about those who did review it, especially those who gave it a good review. In the reviews that were slightly snobby about it, or ‘snotty’—that’s a better word—the word ‘Womble’ appeared in the first paragraph of the review: that told me where their minds were when they had listened to it. I’m very proud of the Wombles, and they did me a lot of good and, let’s be honest, when I was a young man, they made me quite wealthy. Not that I’ve been wealthy all my life: it goes up and down because I’m very much a risk taker, artistically and commercially. By doing that you forfeit the right to just growing your wealth. You have to risk it on a yearly basis, you know.

But I’ve always thought it would be fun to do a blind tasting. To say, ‘let’s take six different versions of “The Planets” and play them to six critics and ask them to fill in a little form as to which one they thought was conducted by the Wombles!’ I bet they couldn’t tell. In a way it’s perfectly understandable, and maybe even necessary, for there to be snobbishness. I hate saying that because I’m a complete enemy of snobbishness, but in a way you have to have people running classical record companies who are snobs because they know they’re putting out music for people who’ll feel similarly to them. I would like to be arrogant enough to say that I don’t think my individual genres suffer by my not having specialised in them. I’d like to think I can do as well as any specialist in each of the different disciplines that I have chosen.

But, I nevertheless think that the world needs specialists… and the world needs snobs. One of the things I enjoy about being alive and doing the job I do is I don’t look down on other kinds of music, and I don’t really look up to any other kinds of music either. I just think of it as, you know… it’s all music.

OW: You’ve conducted many great orchestras from around the world, including the London Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic. Tell me about your work ethic concerning conducting and composing.

MB: Rimsky-Korsakov was once complimented on his orchestration, and he wrote one of the best books on orchestration. I have it on my bookshelf, the same copy I’ve had since I was 18. He said, ‘Actually, I don’t orchestrate, I compose for orchestra.’ There is a difference. Take film scores, for example. I have friends who are well known film composers, and I’m talking about the very best-known ones. I’m not going to name names because what I’m going to say could be read as slightly disparaging. It’s not disparaging, it’s just that the world has changed. They’ll come in and work out what should be, and they’ll say to the orchestrator, ‘This is how I kind of see it, with big strings here… maybe some timps (timpani) here… maybe at that point where the guy comes crashing through the door and falls down stairs…’
And then the orchestrator finishes it all off. They say that’s because of the time involved, but I’ve always just worked with just me and the copyist. We’ve worked all the way through the night and turned up at the studio the next day to conduct it, getting it straight down onto tape, as it used to be, in the old style of Ennio Morricone. Farming out the orchestration would be anathema to me because it’s part of the composition.

I’m quite sure that while Rimsky-Korsakov was writing his book, if he was anything like me—and here I am putting airs and graces on—but if he thought anything like the way I think, he would be sitting there thinking, ‘Right, what would come next? Maybe the violas would sweep in here. What should I write for them? Okay… How about that? Should I double up with the cellos? I think so, yes, because we’re not using them. But I’ll mute the cellos so they blend in softer, and you’ll hardly notice them, but you’ll know they’re there because it sounds warmer.’

You’re making all these decisions while you’re writing the melody. Not only that, if you write a good melody after that, you might think, ‘Wow, that could be used for the oboe with a bit of staccato over it, when we introduce the next section at double the tempo.’ You’re composing as if you’re orchestrating. This is not what happens in modern film music. Not to compare myself in any way in quality to Rimsky-Korsakov or Holst, but certainly in the way I work, I think I often need a soft, instrumentation moment with a clarinet lead coming up, and then bang, in comes an up-tempo section which you’ve got already from the theme when you wrote it the first time. In classical, symphonic terms, this would be called the first subject, in sonata form. That form was used throughout the ages, particularly in the romantic era. You’d have first subject, second subject, development, recapitulation. That form was structured for years and years. It’s the same now when writing a composition; you should always be thinking, ‘Ah, now I’ve got that theme, I’ll now repeat it, but in-between it I need to do something else to take your mind off it before I come back and reveal it again.’

Those are the compositional thoughts that any intelligent composer—and a few unintelligent ones too, I must add—is going to have. But that’s what I like about Holst. Take another piece that I love, Wagner’s “The Siegfried Idyll;” for me, that is a piece written with the same structure, written as he went along. I’d be very surprised if Wagner did a pencil sketch for “The Siegfried Idyll” before composing. Likewise, Holst is so gloriously orchestrated, and “The Planets” is definitely being orchestrated as it’s being composed. That’s what I love about it. The compositional thought is organically ingrained into the melodic and harmonic thought. That is what makes it a great piece to me, and such an exciting one to conduct. Sometimes, when I listen to other conductors being critical and snarky—in my mind, because we’re all jealous of each other, and there are obviously people I look up to—I think, ‘Fucking hell, they’re brilliant.’

Let’s take another example. I won’t mention names, but say… he is a well-known composer/conductor. I remember hearing something he’d conducted and I thought, ‘yeah that’s fine, slightly lightly conducted I think.’ When you’re conducting, you have this feeling that some conductors will reach out over the orchestra and almost conduct down from the top. And I think that, not always, but sometimes conductors have to get underneath the orchestra, like a forklift truck, and lift them up from the bottom. You’ve got to think from the floor up. What you’re doing, effectively, is making sure the rhythm section is tight. Because that’s where the bases and cellos and the base trombones and timpani are all working.

For me, my passion for both conducting and orchestration stems from the fact that they inform each other. I have conducted Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Sinbad,’ from “Scheherazade,” a few times in concert. To be immersed in that swirling sea and fabulous, compositional orchestration—as I call it, for it is more than just orchestration of a composition. The whole thing feels like you’ve got your arms underneath it and you’re holding it up, as it swirls around and over and under. And then sometimes I’ve critiqued other conductors and thought, ‘yeah that’s fine but I can hear they haven’t absolutely grabbed it by the balls, or scruff of the neck… they haven’t made physical contact with it.’ That’s what it is. That’s what I love about conducting; you reach into the orchestra, and you make physical contact with them. That’s the glory of being a part of that orchestra, which is the same glory you feel when you’re writing an orchestration with passion, delicacy, beauty. Something that’s going to end up, hopefully, as a well-balanced piece with power. There’s nothing that turns me on more than working with 70 great musicians in a fabulous studio.

OW: You recorded an album as a tribute to Irish tenor John McCormack. How did you get involved with that?

MB: I’d made an album some time back with Colm Wilkinson, an Irish tenor who was the first Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables.” It was an album of two or three songs from several musicals, and I composed orchestral segues between each one. His manager contacted me a few years after that and said he had a new artist tenor called Finbar Wright and he asked if I’d like to work with him. We recorded an album of semi-operatic Italian pieces which became number one in Ireland, and they said we should do a follow up. St. Patrick’s Day was coming up and it was actually Finbar who said he’d like to do a tribute to John McCormack.

I thought, wow, that’s a great idea, particularly for St. Patricks day, and with the Irish Symphony Orchestra. So, I did a set of orchestrations for this and we did it as a live concert with the Irish National Symphony Orchestra with Finbar singing at the National Concert Hall of Dublin. It was recorded for RTÉ television and we recorded the album. So it was Finbar’s idea and it went to number three in the Irish charts and it was one of the highest points of my work and one of the most enjoyable moments of my life.

OW: You also played a pivotal role in launching the very successful career of violinist Vanessa Mae?

MB: Well, in 1994 the album I made with Vanessa Mae sold four million records, which really launched her. Mel Bush, her manager, brought Vanessa Mae to me one day and I made the album that broke her and we took her to EMI, who were obviously delighted because they suddenly had a commercial act that could sell millions, rather than making classical records that were a slow catalogue progress.

OW: Tell me about Bond and The Planets.

MB: Mel Bush came to me one day and he looked tired. I asked him what was wrong and he said he’d been working with Vanessa and her mother and he referred to them using some rather unpleasant names. I asked him how he could work with someone if he could refer to them using those terms. He said, ‘Well, we’re making lots of money!’ I suggested to him that we should form a string quartet of ‘Vanessa Maes.’ Two violinists, a viola, and a cello, maybe? The following day he called me and said, ‘Let’s do it!’ To cut a long story short, while I was doing another project with Universal, the “Watership Down” score—an orchestral suite which I’m very proud of—he went off and sold Bond to Universal behind my back. I was very irritated by this and decided to get my own Bond: four boys and four girls, who became The Planets. They went to number one in the classical charts for three months.

OW: Your composition “I will be there,” which was commissioned for the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, and which I know you also wrote for your own mother, has some of the most exquisite orchestration you’ve ever written, in my opinion. I always wished you’d created something bigger and longer, based on that first minute, which I thought redolent of Mascagni or even Dvořák.

MB: It was a piece that I knew I was going to be conducting in Buckingham Palace gardens for the Queen. My mum was upstairs in bed in our house in a bad way from cancer, and I was hoping she would get to the concert in time. She was exactly the same age as the Queen, 86 at the time. Sadly, she died about two weeks before the concert, but she did get to hear a recording. And I put that instrumental in knowing that it was going to be a concert piece. Funnily enough, I am intent on writing a symphonic piece based off it of some length. I shudder to call it a symphony because it sounds slightly pretentious, but I think that’s what it will be. But how modern I will make it in terms of instrumentation, I don’t know. But I am hoping to write an extended symphonic piece in the next year or so.

Let’s say I took that orchestration you mentioned and extended it into a full length piece: you and I might think, ‘great!’ And that really should be the benchmark. It would satisfy me in terms of what any artist should aim at. But it would absolutely not be considered by contemporary classic critics as being of cultural interest. Because they’re all into their avant-garde, atonal, and experimental stuff. I mean, if you’ve heard my work “Six Days in Berlin,” it’s the most experimental, avant-garde type of work I’ve done. There’s one piece I wrote from start to finish… I didn’t plan it… when I got halfway through I then wrote it backwards from there to the end. So it gets to the middle, and then I copied it backwards, bar by bar, until it ended up with the first bar backwards at the end. So technically, you should be able to flip the thing over and play it the other way round.

So I have gone there, and I do like going there, but I certainly wouldn’t like to have to write a piece and have to exercise solely the ‘how to best please the critics’ section of my brain. If I wanted to be taken seriously as a modern composer, I would be writing pieces of music that I didn’t want to hear. I would be writing music that would alienate the audience as much as possible so that the critics could feel all warm and cosy and superior in the knowledge that they did understand it, and I don’t want to write that kind of music.

But I’d write that symphony now if I had someone to pay for it to be recorded. It’s only a 100 thousand quid or something; less maybe, 50, 30 thousand… two sessions with a 60 piece orchestra. I’m not saying I can’t strain to find that if I really had to, but I have another 80 projects that I want to do as well. I have sometimes done projects where the art led it, rather than the money, and lost out. I’ve done projects which have been loss-making, and I’d certainly still do them all again, but these are the considerations you have to make.

OW: You would still do those projects again?

MB: Oh yes, artistically. “The hunting of the Snark” for example. As a piece… if you put a gun to my head and said, ‘right, here’s a red button you can press. And everything you’ve ever written or recorded is going to disappear from mankind forever, but you’re allowed to keep one piece…’ It wouldn’t be the Wombles, or ‘Bright Eyes’ (Watership Down), it wouldn’t be the Katie Melua stuff. It would be “The hunting of the Snark.” Because that, to me. is the central piece of my life. I want to record the full, two-hour version of it because we only recorded a 40 minute version of it, which was an initial concept piece. And I think I found my niche in terms of being able to write a theatrical piece which pleased me, but was also commercial, on that particular album. When we took it to the West End stage it didn’t last very long, for various reasons. It was under-capitalised, and it was in the first year of the Gulf War and there were no American tourists.

But I would go into the studio with it tomorrow. I’ve got all the arrangements made, I just need someone to finance it. Ten years ago it would have been a record company, a major record company. But now, with streaming, people aren’t spending the money, so even a classical label that wanted to be a bit ‘cooler’ and make a few bob might think, ‘right, we’ll do Mike’s “Snark.”‘ Those people are few and far between now, however. What I really need is a billionaire who’s a fan, who will say, ‘look, here’s a budget of a couple of million quid, just go off and do this project.’ That would keep me busy for the next five or six years.

OW: You spoke earlier of writing film scores. You have also composed some yourself?

MB: Well, yes. I felt, when I was in my mid-20s, that I was put on earth to write film scores. I did write a few, the favourite of mine being “Caravans,” which was in 1978. I was delighted to be put on the shortlist with John Barry, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Michel Legrand. I then got involved in so many other things, and learned my lesson. It’s probably too late to learn from it now for my own benefit, although I’m sure I’ve got at least another good ten years or so in me, at least, and I’d like to think I’ve got twenty. I don’t feel any less energetic than I did when I was 18, and I’ve probably got more to prove now. I just wish I had three or four lifetimes so I could be me, as I am now in this lifetime, and then start another as a film composer again, and another one as something else entirely… But you can’t. In a way I’ve probably squashed more into the blender of my life than most musicians, because I’ve got friends who might be famous rock stars who say to me, ‘Mike, you’re so lucky to do so many things.’ To which I reply I only do so because I want to. ‘You could do it too,’ I say to them, to which they respond, ‘I can’t because my public wouldn’t let me.’

OW: I have always thought, despite your success across several genres, that you never quite fulfilled your potential as a composer of classical music.

MB: Well, no, because I would have had to devote myself entirely to that. If I were only going to become a conductor. I came close, once, to being offered the principal conductorship of the London Symphony. They were waiting for their grant. They didn’t think they were going to get their Arts Council grant renewed. This was in the early ‘80s. Clive Gillinson and Anthony Camden were the people running it. They came to my house and said, ‘If we offered you the job as principal conductor, would you take it? We might not get our grant, and if we don’t get our grant, we’re going to go commercial. We need someone who can lead and guide us, who can still do the classical repertoire, but also bring in jobs, films or whatever as well.’ To my chagrin they got their Arts Council grant, and I think that was when they hired Claudio Abbado to be their principal conductor. And a bloody good choice it was as well!

I certainly don’t want to come across as big headed, but I think if I’d wanted to become just a conductor, I could have been up there with Sir Simon Rattle, if I’d done it full time. Similarily, with the Stuttgart Symphony orchestra, they offered me a title role: a position as a permanent guest conductor. I couldn’t take it up because of other stuff I had going on at the time. So in answer to your question about me being the classical composer who got away: in order to have seized that career, I would have had to say to everyone, ‘Look, guys, I just do classical composing. That’s all I do.’ And I can’t bring myself to do that, I’m afraid. I want to put a guitar riff in, or a kit drum if I need it. I’ve had a fantastic life. I just whinge about the things that would have been nice to have done, or the fact that it would have been nicer to have had status as one of the top people in all of the various genres I work in. You can’t ride six horses and win the race against people who are riding just one horse. That’s probably the best analogy I’ve ever come up with for it.

This might well sound a little bit of being off-kilter, but I think of myself as being a Van Gogh of music. There’s more people in the world who don’t know what I do than those who do, and it may well take for me to be dead before the rest find out. As long as the world survives long enough for some student in three generations’ time to dig my stuff out of the Bodleian Library… That’s why, when I put stuff down or record stuff that isn’t necessarily commercially successful, at that moment I think to myself, ‘well I’m laying it down like wine, for the future. If someone finds it in the future then that’ll be good.’ So I don’t ever think of it as wasted. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m still so ambitious at my age, which is 74. I’m the same now as I was when I was 18, and that’s because I still think I have a lot to prove. Not just prove but do, while I’ve still got breath to do it. Of course, the world is full of artists like me who, as they get older, feel even more desperate and feel they have to get their work down before they die. I guess I’m a bit like that.


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