Just in: ENO appoints a makeshift music director

Just in: ENO appoints a makeshift music director


norman lebrecht

October 21, 2016

To no great surprise, it’s Martyn Brabbins.

An Ilya Musin pupil in St Petersburg, Brabbins is a greatly experienced guest conductor. But at 57 he has only once ever been principal conductor, at an orchestra in Japan.

He succeeds Mark Wigglesworth, who resigned over artistic shrinkage. Under the rosiest of glasses it still looks like a makeshift appointment. The search for a new music director was neither wide nor well-informed. Brabbins will hold the fort for three years. He will conduct just one opera in the first of these years.

That gives him very little chance to instil confidence or exert authority.

ENO remains in trouble, creatively as much as financially.

Press release follows.


English National Opera (ENO) has today, 21 October 2016, announced that British conductor Martyn Brabbins will become Music Director of the Company with immediate effect. 

 An inspirational force in British music, Martyn Brabbins has had a busy opera career since his early days at the Kirov and more recently at La Scala, the BayerischeStaatsoper, and regularly in Lyon, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Antwerp.  He is a popular figure at the BBC Proms and with most of the leading British orchestras, and regularly conducts top international orchestras, returning to the Royal Concertgebouw, Tokyo Metropolitan and Deutsche Sinfonieorchester Berlin this season.  Known for his advocacy of British composers, he has conducted hundreds of world premieres across the globe. He has recorded over 120 CDs to date, including prize-winning discs of operas by Korngold, Birtwistle and Harvey. He was Associate Principal Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra 1994-2005, Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic 2009-2015, Chief Conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic 2012-2016, and Artistic Director of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music 2005-2007, and has this season taken up a new position as Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Music.

 Brabbins’s performances of The Pilgrim’s Progress at ENO (2012) were conducted with “wonderful breadth and assurance” (The Guardian) and The Times praised his “exemplary musical direction”. His acclaimed performances of Tristan and Isoldewith Grange Park Opera (2016) caused The Observer to describe him as “a musician’s musician, he can turn his hand with ease and perception to anything.”

The appointment runs until August 2020, and  Brabbins will plan the 18/19 and 19/20 seasons together with ENO’s Artistic Director, Daniel Kramer. We are delighted that Brabbins will already be able to conduct one opera production (title to be announced) in 2017/8.

 Speaking of his appointment to ENO from 21 October 2016, Martyn Brabbins said:  “With an orchestra and chorus of such exceptional calibre, and a musical legacy nurtured by the finest British conductors, from Reginald Goodall through to Mark Wigglesworth, I feel incredibly honoured to have been invited to join ENO and to become a part of this treasured British musical company.  It is quite an act to follow, and in a tough financial climate, but I am determined that ENO will continue to produce stimulating operatic performances of the highest musical quality at the London Coliseum.  I look forward to working with Daniel, Cressida, and with my dedicated and hugely knowledgeable colleagues in every department at ENO to achieve this.”

 Daniel Kramer, Artistic Director of ENO said: “I am very happy that Martyn will soon be at my side, leading this daring company.  He is an inspirational conductor and leader, and I am looking forward to collaborating with him immensely. His most recent work with ENO, conducting Vaughan Williams’sA Pilgrim’s Progress in 2012, was fantastically received and he is highly respected by both musicians and the company. His experience and expertise, particularly in new and contemporary repertoire, will allow us to continue to develop the exceptional music-making for which ENO is known.”
Cressida Pollock, Chief Executive Officer of ENO added:


“I am really looking forward to welcoming Martyn to complete ENO’s artistic team. His wealth of knowledge and experience will be invaluable in supporting our award-winning Orchestra and Chorus, and in ensuring that we continue to make opera of the highest quality accessible to the widest possible audience.”



  • Tanya says:

    Oh you guys are naughty! In this awful world of negativity this is great news and a shame you felt it necessary to insert the word “makeshift”. I’ve worked with Martyn on a number of projects and agree with ENO’s statement that he is inspirational and most definitely a leader. Let’s support our colleagues and be positive, more happy news please!

    • John says:

      I agree with Tanya. This is a disgraceful remark, in the fundamental sense of the word: it is utterly lacking in grace.
      Brabbins is known and loved by a huge number of musicians, not least at ENO, where he has conducted many times. [redacted: read the rules]

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    I’m thrilled for Martyn, he’s a lovely bloke and a wonderful conductor. There’s nothing makeshift about his talent and abilities.

    • Steven Holloway says:

      To Tanya, John and Theodore: You are absolutely right! John’s “disgraceful” is a pretty mild word to describe the header and intro to the press release, for it is astonishingly denigrating without any cause whatsoever — except, of course, another dose of SD’s personal animus. Martyn has not taken on an easy job, to say the least, but those of us who know his abilities expect naught but good things, musically. I just wish him all the best, as NL might better have done.

  • Susan Bullock says:

    I think first of all that you will find that Mark’s surname is in fact WIGGLESWORTH and not WRIGGLESWORTH. Secondly, Martyn Brabbins is an excellent conductor, greatly loved and respected by the people in the profession who actually know and work with him, unlike yourself, and the “orchestra in Japan” is in Nagoya, where I have sung several times with Martyn, and it is of the highest standard. Can’t you give anyone a break? He hasn’t set foot in the place yet and you are already doing him down.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I am not doing him down, Susan, I am pointing out the lack of process. There was no proper search. Martyn may turn out to be a revelation in the job, and I hope he will. But the failure to conduct an international search, to identify candidates who might have ideas that could raise ENO from its present mess, to choose someone who could start by conducting more than one opera next season – those things need to be pointed out as symptoms of all that is amiss at the company. Or would you prefer to muzzle criticism and let the company die?

      • David Pountney says:

        I think your point about Martyn only being appointed in time to conduct one opera next season is naive – you surely understand the facts about conductor’s schedules as well as anyone. WNO is thrilled to have appointed Tomáš Hanus as our new music director, and he conducted a dazzling concert of Mahler 2 last night. But he will not be available to do an opera with us until next summer, and we had much more notice of this process than ENO. Using a cheap word like “makeshift” is not serious or well thought out criticism, it’s just cheap.

  • Susan Bullock says:

    Ah, I see you have now corrected the spelling of Mark’s surname…that’s a start at least…..Now how about giving Martyn a fair go?

  • Susan Bullock says:

    Norman, do you actually KNOW how Martyn was appointed? Or is it speculation? I think the company needs a strong British conductor to lead them, and I am sure Martyn has got plenty of ideas to help them raise their game. I am the first to agree that this needs to happen, and that the company needs help. To that end, I have had several discussions with key figures there over the past months. Have you? Where do you get your information from? Perhaps you could enlighten us? Having started my career there in 1986 , I think it is outrageous of you to suggest that I would rather see the company die than listen to criticism. Your brand of “criticism” is actually offensive to a great many people in our profession and smacks more of personal attack and gossip. I do not intend to enter in to any further discussion with you about this, as I have already broken a golden rule by starting this dialogue, which quite frankly I find to be demeaning.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Susan, I do not speculate. And I am sorry you have demeaned yourself with this OTT reponse.

      • Susan Bullock says:

        On the contrary Norman my response is not OTT but an honest reaction (which many others are sharing and agreeing with by the way) to your negativity. Actually just having my name on your tawdry website is what I consider to be demeaning. Now I am going to sign off, and have a lovely evening. I hope you do too.

      • John Pickard says:

        There is absolutely nothing OTT about Susan’s response. It was you, Norman, who headed your blog ‘ENO appoints a makeshift Music Director’. There is nothing ‘makeshift’ about this Music Director – as anyone who has actually worked with him will tell you. In the main part of your ‘report’ you describe this as ‘a makeshift appointment’. Whether or not you are aware just how ‘makeshift’ it was, to describe the appointment itself as ‘makeshift’ is quite a different thing from describing the Music Director in those terms. Your use of language is imprecise and that lack of precision has consequences here in that it demeans a hugely respected and admired musician. It is a quite disgraceful thing to have said.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          Thank you for your opinion, John, which I respect. The term ‘makeshift’ applies to the selection process rather than the man, but his limited availability in the first 18 months tends to validate the patch-up nature of the appointment. I have nothing but admiration for Martyn Brabbins. I hope he does well. But the process was very limited and deeply flawed.

          • John Pickard says:

            Your reply, Norman, is certainly a step in the right direction. For those of us who care about Martyn and about English National Opera, it was most upsetting to see your headline, so it is good to hear now that you hope he does well. But why on earth could you not bring yourself to say so in the first place?

            You have now clarified that it was the process you were discussing not the man. Good, but even the processes you criticise are undertaken by real human beings, with real human feelings. They want ENO to succeed and, for heaven’s sake, what, precisely, have they done wrong here in choosing a Musical Director with a successful track-record of working at ENO? You complain that the search was not ‘international’; I think you will find that in the entire history of ENO only two Musical Directors were not British. One was Canadian and the other (Mackerras) was Australian, so this is hardly a perverse decision when viewed in the context of ENO’s history and its ethos.

            I believe you will find very few people who do not wish both Martyn and the company well in this challenging undertaking and all of us – his professional associates, ENO audiences and the media – have a part to play in trying make this new chapter a success. So, please, give him and ENO a break.

            As to your comment about his limited availability in the first season, I am sure you will find that these schedules are planned several years in advance and that the conductors were already in place for the season.

          • David Pountney says:

            That is obviously duplicitous. Your headline says “Makeshift music director…” not “appointed by a makeshift process”. You demean the man, not the process. Precise language is important.

          • Bryan99 says:

            But you still haven’t given any evidence of how you know this process to be flawed! The press release clearly refers to a process. It also clearly refers to the fact that MB will be involved in 18/19 and 19/20 season planning – when he is sure to be conducting more productions than 17/18 when, as has been pointed out, his schedule will then allow. As many people have also pointed out, this appointment should be celebrated, not denigrated with knee-jerk unsubstantiated negativity.

  • Michael Beeston says:

    I must admit, having been thrilled to see this news I was shocked to see the word “Makeshift” in your headline.
    It seems unnecessary for me to point out the respect and love which Martyn has always inspired in us musicians. I would say that, having worked with him (and of course others) many times, in my opinion no one reads a score better.
    He’s a good guy, he’s not a poser and I believe that his enormous musical ability will ensure he makes a great success of this opportunity.
    Moreover, I can’t think of many other conductors over whom I would be prepared to thus stick my neck above the parapet!
    Let’s celebrate this fabulous appointment.

  • David says:

    Norman, your last comment is disingenuous. If you look at your original article it’s quite clear that your target was the man as well as the process (‘he has only once ever…’ etc.) If that’s not what you meant, perhaps you could apologise. Nothing OTT at all about Susan Bullock’s response. Just a bit of passion from someone with first-hand experience. As a listener, Martyn Brabbins has always struck me as someone of enormous talent (and versatility) who has never quite been given his due. Lucky ENO!

  • Morello says:

    I could not agree more with Susan Bullock’s comments. Most of my colleagues in the profession just laugh at NL.

  • Simon Evnine says:

    Hey, this isn’t as bad as the time SD leaked the confidential details of candidates applying for an ENO position ( I think chorus master ?). There was so much outcry on the site that the thread was eventually removed.

    Come on Norman, you can do better than this.

  • Derek Bacon says:

    Brilliant appointment! Brilliant conductor; respected by EVERYONE!!

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Not by everyone, since, it seems, there is one person on this site who does not fully respect him (allegedly).

  • John Daszak says:

    Oh dear Norman… I really think you should change the title of this “article”. I don’t think ENO have “appointed a makeshift Music Director”, that is very clearly your interpretation! They announced, as you have yourself stated here,
    “British conductor Martyn Brabbins will become Music Director of the Company with immediate effect.”
    So…. no makeshift about it! He’s the Music Director. And…he is a very good one! Martyn is not one to blow his own trumpet, he is far too good a person to do that. But I can guarantee that there is no shortage of opera singers, musicians, instrumentalists, orchestral players and chorus singers who would be very happy to come forward and blow his trumpet for him!!
    He is a brilliant and innovative musical talent. he has technique and control without the tantrums and demands of other high profile conductors. Not only is he liked and loved by anyone who has ever worked with him, but he is also a very good and decent person. The sort of guy you can rely on and trust to help you out when you are in difficulty. You see, this is the sort of person ENO needs.. and this is the sort of person we can all learn so much from. If he can survive the attacks of much less qualified and talented people, perhaps he will be allowed to drag ENO back to where they should be… Lets give him a chance huh??

    • David Nice says:

      Spot on, John (and Sue, whose indignation is fully justified). A crucial point to make is that even those who despair at Mark Wigglesworth departing when he has conducted four of the best things musically speaking EVER at ENO could not fault Martyn Brabbins as a successor. A nice man, but essentially tough too. Why should it be makeshift? Though who knows what the future holds for an ENO which has now been abandoned by our best director, Richard Jones, as well as by our best opera conductor (not even Pappano is quite as hands-on or available as MW, though he has done equally good work at the Royal Opera).

  • Charles Edwards says:

    ‘Abscheulicher!’ I think Christa Ludwig says it better than I can. Not a good moment Mr. Lebrecht.

  • Peter Hoare says:

    “The search for a new music director was neither wide nor well-informed.” Ok, and your evidence? I think it’s your comments that are not well-informed. Martyn is a superb musician. I know that because I AM well-informed with a plethora of first hand experience and not just second hand gossip.

  • James says:

    Unamazing demonstration of the usual lack of any intellectual substance from anyone in the arts. Martyn’s a good bloke so he can’t be makeshift… er. Let’s just use it as a stick to beat old Norm – whose website we all read, but we still hate him. And Dave, don’t write late in the evening. Surely there’s another translation you can do before bedtime, from a language you don’t speak, for one of the companies who seem to be administering your retirement fund.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      Just a minute, James. My comment that Martyn is a lovely bloke and wonderful conductor relates to my being pleased for him, nothing else. Whatever Mr. Lebrecht may perceive as being makeshift in this equation couldn’t, in my oh-so-humble opinion, relate to Martyn’s talent or abilities. That’s as far as it goes.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Martyn is an excellent conductor. I remember watching him, as young thing myself, at the finals of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition at the glamorous Fairfield Hall in Croydon about 25 years ago. He was clearly a great British conducting hope for the future.

    Maybe not the most charismatic of individuals but he’s exactly what ENO needs right now to stabilise its appalling woes- mostly of their own doing- with bitter, toddler like infighting over many years. What would an international search for a conductor really achieve Norman? Probably hiring another Prima Donna who’d ruffle a few feathers and then walk out in a huff after a few seasons. In any case- I think I’m right in saying that London currently has no home grown conductors in prominent positions. Should be lauded for this alone.

    • David Nice says:

      No one on the musical side of the company thought Mark Wigglesworth was a Prima Donna, since you seem to be referring to him. To clarify for the thousandth time, he laid out long before the debacle his insistence on a full-time company. That pledge was broken with insufficient seeking of alternatives, and so he stayed true to his word. I think the ENO musicians, singers and players, are the ones to judge how he behaved. They are devastated, but remain loyal to him.

      • David Nice says:

        PS – Antonio Pappano was born in Epping, so he’s home-grown too. There was a real chance for Wigglesworth to rival his success, and that has happened in the last season in a half. What a thing to throw away, ENO management.

      • Mark Mortimer says:

        You’ve misintrepreted what I said David. I’m not calling MW a Prima Donna. No one would doubt his dedication to ENO and that his resignation was in the best intentions (he isn’t the easiest of people however). No- I’m referring to Norman’s criticism that the search was not international in scope. The point is- ENO- with its current woes- could probably live without an Italian or Russian State/Mafia sponsored Music Director.

        • David Nice says:

          OK, I apologise if I jumped to conclusions. But ENO is not the kind of company to have the dosh for an ‘Italian or Russian State/Mafia sponsored Music Director’. And, I underline, there should be nothing ‘makeshift’ about Martyn Brabbins’ appointment, though everything is provisional with the company at this current stage in its history. We have to wish him well, though.

          The musicians who acquire the reputation of being not ‘the easiest of people’ are usually, in my experience, the ones with integrity. I’ve known talented pianists – one especially – whom agents wouldn’t touch because of their high standards in insisting on proper circumstances for performance and recording. It’s a rare breed and one to be celebrated.

  • David Maxwell Anderson says:

    Norman, you are a shameless journalistic speculator and do enormous damage. Martyn may not be ‘glamorous’ but he is a very fine conductor and much loved and admired by his colleagues. He certainly deserves a chance to bring ENO the stability it so severely needs. And I seem to remember your constant public advocacy of John Berry who was almost singularly responsible for the destruction of ENO. Why don’t you us all a favour and just shut up?!