London Connection Q&A: Richard Sandland

Peter Quinn talks to RSC Music Coordinator Richard Sandland about sourcing strange instruments, great theatre scores and why the BA English degree gave him an organised mind
Michael Boyd and Richard Sandland
Richard Sandland (pictured right) receiving a long service award from the RSC’s outgoing artistic director, Michael Boyd
Shakespeare is big enough to make you take the time to think again, even after 400 years

The RSC is famously committed to using live music in all its productions. How many composers do you commission in a typical season?  
I guess it’s something like eight or ten – each show has newly commissioned music. Where I get involved is in finding the players and finding the instruments. My boss does all of the composer negotiations and I usually react to their unusual requests.

Our current Julius Caesar is set in modern Africa (Theo Ogundipe and Paterson Joseph pictured below in Julius Caesar), so we have an African band on it, pieced together from people we already knew, people we researched, met, heard and booked, and people that we dropped on by chance and who proved to be just what we needed. This was great because it forced us to widen the pool of people that we know, and hopefully we can draw on them again in the future, not necessarily in an all-African band.

The current Much Ado is set in present day India, so we had to source Indian players for that. It always feels a bit touch and go though, to have great players who I can persuade to get out of other gigs they will already have in the book so that we can have as close to a through-line as possible. We are usually the last “in” – set design often takes place a year in advance of a show going in, but we sometimes have two weeks’ notice from the composers of their final line-up; great players don’t usually have blanket availability at that sort of notice. But we always seem to get away with it.

Theo Ogundipe and Paterson Joseph in Julius CaesarWhat’s the most unusual instrument you’ve had to source for an RSC production?
How long is a piece of string? We have a show early in 2013 where the composer has asked for a Nickelharp player and hang drum player as two of his band. I had to surf to find out what both of them are! But with unusual instruments there’s usually a core body of enthusiasts who can point you the right way; but if there are only, say, three players in the country of a particular instrument, then I worry about what happens if they get ill. A few years ago we had to find a kobza, which is a sort of Ukrainian harp/guitar; we found a player, but then, fairly typically, the instrument was cut from the show. But if I need him again, I know where he lives! I remember driving to Ross-on-Wye to borrow a Hungarian cimbalom from a Hungarian restaurant, which came with a complimentary serving of paprika potatoes too. One of the perks!

"If there is a really musical director and a composer who’s on his wavelength, then that relationship generates special stuff. The vital third element is an inspirational music director on the show who can make the band want to play for them."

What do you think are the main ingredients that make a really great theatre score?
Largely, it’s a director who has the nerve to use music to its full potential. Many directors cut music (i.e. remove it from the show) if they think that it draws attention from the Stage. If there is a really musical director and a composer who’s on his wavelength, then that relationship generates special stuff – Greg Doran and Paul Englishby leap to mind. And, of course, the vital third element is an inspirational music director on the show who can make the band want to play for them.

In terms of the RSC’s box office takings and overall turnover, 2012 – the company’s 50th birthday – has been a record year. Given the current economic climate, what do you think has been the key to this extraordinary success?
It’s been the sheer variety of the shows this year, I think – we’ve been lucky enough to collaborate in joint productions with a variety of companies as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, which have thrown some really left-field productions out there; they’ve not all been to everyone’s taste, but I think that’s what you get with variety. Anyone that saw Troilus and Cressida in the Swan, with the Wooster Group from New York, or the Russian A Midsummer Night's Dream (As You Like it) would have had quite a few preconceptions challenged. As for wholly RSC productions, we have shown a loose trilogy of Twelfth Night, Comedy and Tempest in the RST and at The Roundhouse – an unusual juxtaposition which again has altered notions. Shakespeare is big enough to make you take the time to think again, even after 400 years.

The company’s production of Matilda The Musical transferred to London in October 2011 and won seven Olivier awards this year, the highest ever number. Why do you think it’s been such a huge hit with both the critics and the public?
Great tunes, great jokes, great kids, great actors and the wonderful Tim Minchin. It’s just about the biggest feel-good factor I’ve had in the theatre. It’s just so good! Perhaps it reminds us that we grow up at our peril. And Trunchbull is everyone’s headmistress nightmare.

The RSC now has an extensive back catalogue of plays. Do you have a particular favourite?
I will narrow it down to three. Of RSC productions, I would cite Nigel Williams’s play Country Dancing that I saw in the Pit in 1986; Adrian Noble’s Pericles, with heartstoppingly wonderful music by Shaun Davey from 2002; and Greg Doran’s production of Written on the Heart from the Swan Theatre in 2011. Written transferred to London but sadly had to close early – shame on you, London theatregoers!

The company is currently producing The World Shakespeare Festival (April to November 2012) as part of London 2012 Festival. What has it been like to be involved in the biggest celebration of Shakespeare ever staged?
It’s been exhilarating, but it has been a whirlwind, with shows dropping in and out of the repertoire with alarming regularity – just keeping track of things proved difficult. I finally found the tam tam that we lent to a Russian company six weeks ago just today; and who knows where the bagpipes we lent to the same show have gone? And at one point I just simply ran out of keyboards, something that’s not happened before. Fantastic, though to feel a link with colleagues at the National and the Globe, and in other companies too, and to perceive a tidal wave of Shakespeare.

"Michael Boyd has always said that education is at the heart of everything we do. Our education people are brilliant at making people realise that Shakespeare needn’t be an elitist, rarefied pastime."

Are you also involved in the RSC’s education work?
Not really, there is quite a large education department here, who drive projects themselves – I get involved when they need players for events generally. Michael Boyd has always said that education is at the heart of everything we do. Our education people are brilliant at making people realise that Shakespeare needn’t be an elitist, rarefied pastime.

You were a member of the Fine Arts Brass quintet from 1987 to 2002, a group noted for straddling genres from the Renaissance to the avant-garde. What is your favourite recording that you made with the group?
I always really enjoyed the new commissions. I enjoyed the challenge of a piece of music arriving, with the usually following stages of wondering how I would get around the tuba part, followed by wondering how we would get around the music together, and indeed get it together, followed by working to actually play the music rather than just playing the notes. Favourite recording, paradoxically, was of a romantic Sextet by Oskar Boehme (standard brass quintet, but an additional trumpet). But of the really new stuff, I loved Philip Wilby’s Classic Images. Giles Swayne’s A Memory of Sky was great too – he can write a tuba part!

The quintet is widely travelled, playing in more than 60 countries. What was the most unusual venue you performed in?
Under the Mango Tree at the Bagamoyo Festival, Tanzania. The great thing about the quintet is that we and all of our kit fitted into two Land Rovers, and so could go anywhere. I have fond memories of the Zomba Plateau, in Malawi too – although that was a hotel, not a playing venue.

While you were still a member of the quintet you took BA English through the University of London International Programmes. What prompted you to study this degree?
I had gone through the Royal College of Music, studying with John Jenkins of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and everything I had done was aimed at becoming an orchestral tuba player. Gradually it was evident, over the years, that I wasn’t quite good enough, or quite lucky enough, or both, to become one. And so I had a reality check, when on a ‘Battle Prom’ in a Country House somewhere – one of those gigs where it’s at a Stately Home, in a huge geodesic dome, and people come along and have picnics, and the show always ended with Land of Hope and Glory and fireworks – it was raining, I was cold, I was playing the Elgar for what felt like the 400th time, and I thought, I don’t want to do this when I’m 55. And what’s more, the Performer’s Course at the RCM gave you a Dip RCM, not a BMus, although the same course is awarded a BMus now. So I thought I’d need to get a degree to perhaps give myself some options. I was bitterly disappointed that I couldn’t make it work, but it felt like time to do something about the future.

"After all that time, I could still construct and follow through an argument or a line of reasoning. That was a surprise – I hadn’t written an essay since O levels, in perhaps 1980."

How did you balance your musical career with your studies?
With difficulty, although as a self-employed tuba player it was sometimes pretty easy to find time to set aside. I was always horribly busy eight weeks before exams though, and so always felt underprepared in the exam room.

What did you most enjoy about your study?
Finding out that I could do it. After all that time, I could still construct and follow through an argument or a line of reasoning. That was a surprise – I hadn’t written an essay since O levels, in perhaps 1980. Also, English literature is a reasonably broad subject! The most astonishing moment though, was turning over the Modern Literary Theory paper in the exam, and finding I could have answered any of the questions that had been set. I remember supressing a giggle and delivering a snort!

Did you find the degree content useful for your professional work?
In the organisation of thought and general will to absolutely see projects through, yes – the theory modules that I did were invaluable for making me feel that I could transfer skills. I had been tuba playing for ages and I never had to think about that – it’s still the thing I’m best at, but it never needed organised or consecutive thought, or planning, as far as I was concerned. I just did it. The degree content gave me what my grandmother used to call “an organised mind”. Also, within the options, there is opportunity to show a bit of flare, to go off on a tangent and to wing it a bit, which is always fun.

Finally, are there any composers (or musicians) that you would particularly like to collaborate with in the future?
I have no influence in this – but if I had, I’ve always admired the music of Carl Vine, the Australian composer. I’d love Peter Gabriel to write an RSC score! And if Count Basie was alive, I’d be onto my boss to be onto his agent!

  • Find out more about studying for a University of London degree by distance learning in the UK.