Interview with Gerard Mcburney, Creative Consultant for Die Walküre and The Firebird

Behind the scenes at the San Diego Symphony, there are many talented individuals, less visible, but nonetheless essential to the process of creating some of the most exciting and enthralling classical music programs. One of these individuals is Gerard McBurney who is creative consultant to the San Diego Symphony. Gerard is a renown composer, writer and director who has worked with some of the top music organizations in the world  Lincoln Center in New York City, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Academy of Music in London to name a few.  

This month, Gerard is helping to reimagine several pieces of repertoire for the San Diego Symphony, including Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre (May 18) and Stravinsky's The Firebird (May 25), both being performed at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park™. These productions will incorporate exciting elements like pyrotechnics and elaborate set designs to evoke a dramatic theatrical experience. Read on below to learn more about Gerard and discover what's in store for these last classical performances of the 2023-2024 Jacobs Masterworks season. 

1. Hello, Gerard. Please kindly introduce yourself for our audiences, who you are, where you’re from, your artistic background and how you came to work with the San Diego Symphony.  

I am a composer, writer, deviser and concert-performance director, working in radio and television, with orchestras, classical soloists, theater and opera companies, scholars, popular audiences and in the world of online presentation.  

I was born and raised in Cambridge, UK. My father was a prehistorian and archaeologist, who originally came from Stockbridge, Massachusetts but spent much of his life in Switzerland and France, before moving to the UK in 1933, a time of great upheaval all over the world.   

Our parents’ home in Cambridge was always a place of international visitors, of artists and thinkers, and of a great love of music, literature and painting. So, it was not surprising that my siblings and I all went into the arts. My brother Simon is one of the UK’s most well-known actors and theater directors, working all over the world including, in Hollywood. My sister Henrietta is a wonderful art historian, who was for many years Deputy Curator of the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, and has published many books on art including, most recently, a beautiful study of the early 18th century English painter and naturalist Mark Catesby, one of the first European artists to visit North America, where he famously painted the flora and fauna of the Carolinas.   

As a teenager I sang in the choir of the 14th century chapel in my mediaeval boarding school, which gave me a great grounding in composers like Byrd, Tallis and Palestrina, as well as a special fascination with the acoustic dimension of music. At Cambridge University I studied in the English Literature department while at the same time embarking on private musical studies in London. It was while I was at university that I first encountered Wagner, through the lectures and teaching of the late Dr Michael Tanner.   

In 1984 I went to Moscow, USSR, to pursue post-graduate studies at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire. There I was lucky enough to meet and study with some of the greatest Soviet composers of the post-Shostakovich generation. My time in that difficult but intoxicatingly interesting country changed my life, and Russian and Soviet music became of special and absorbing interest to me.  

When Martha Gilmer arrived in San Diego, she almost immediately invited me to come visit your beautiful city, with the idea that she and I could continue our work together as we had with her previous orchestra in Chicago. Although my family and I now live in the UK, I am in San Diego usually three times a year and for the rest of the time I do as much work as I can for this terrific orchestra, working from home in London or traveling to meet and do planning and devising work with Rafael Payare, as his amazing career takes him around the world.   

2. Do you have a favorite production you worked on with the San Diego Symphony? Why was this of such significance for you?  

My favorite production is usually the one I am working on or maybe even the next one I am planning to work on with the San Diego Symphony. It is always a pleasure to work with such an admirable and talented group of individuals here!  

All art is about collaboration  above all between the performers and the audience  and there is no greater joy than the feeling of everyone being involved together in a partnership.  

3. Tne upcoming production you are currently involved in is the Symphony’s performance of Wagner’s Act 1 of Die Walküre. What is one significant aspect of this piece that makes it such an iconic part of the opera repertoire? How will you interpret this in your artistic direction?  

Wagner’s vast cycle of four operas, The Ring of the Nibelung, is famous for its passionate retelling of ancient German and Norse myths. But in fact, that’s only part of the story.  

Many years ago, with a close friend, I attended a Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. At the end, shocked and moved by the intense humanity of this story, I turned to my friend, who had tears streaming down her face.  Quietly she said, "These operas are not really about gods and monsters at all. They are about family life!"  And it’s true. In a way, The Ring is one of the deepest and most beautiful soap-operas ever imagined, a series of dramas about parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. In these operas, it is not so much the heroic events that matter, as the private and personal feelings of the different characters as they struggle to make sense of their lives and of their feelings for one another.  

In Act 1 of The Valkyrie, there is not a god or a hero to be seen. What we have instead is something very simple: the story of how a lonely woman, living in poverty and isolation in a hut in the wilderness with her brutal husband, encounters and saves the life of a man, poor and lonely like herself. In helping him, she falls in love with him. Above all, what makes this opera so moving, is its glorious music. Not only the blazing power of the writing for the three voices, but the revolutionary grandeur of the orchestral score, in which orchestral sounds become the set, the lighting and the emotional backcloth of the plot.  

Our job is to support the emotion, the humanity and the beauty of the music that is being poured out for us in a torrent by the singers and musicians. In short… to help as best we can to make the story clear.  

4. Another epic production you are involved in with the San Diego Symphony is Stravinsky’s The Firebird. How would you describe The Firebird to someone who’s never experienced it before? 

The Firebird is an utterly gorgeous, golden and bejeweled children’s fairytale. The artistic spirits  all of them Russian  gathered around Serge Diaghilev and his famous Ballets russes seasons of Russian opera and dance in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. Diaghilev had noticed that French audiences of that time loved Russian art when it was full of elaborate decoration and childlike fantasy. So, Diaghilev and his company determined to make a piece specially for those French ears and eyes. They wanted a success (and they got it!). It was a sensation. 

Regarding the music, Diaghilev found that the several composers he had expected to work on the score were not available. So, he asked a young and untried composer, Igor Stravinsky, to write the score for him. And with only a few months to go before the first performance! In an incredibly short time, Stravinsky created this masterpiece, and the first performance not only made his name and set him on an international career but was one of the greatest moments of Diaghilev’s career. This also helped to shape the evolution of classical ballet into the form we know it today.  But as it happens, Stravinsky’s score works wonderfully as a concert piece too, even without dancers and Michel Fokine's ingenious choreography.  

Why? Because Stravinsky was following, in almost superhuman detail, a plot which had been laid out by the writers and devisers before he even thought of writing the musicThis ballet is essentially a mime show. Every note of the music describes something that is happening on stage.  And what is happening on stage is so charming, thrilling and delightful, that we cannot help listening to this music with a HUGE smile on our faces.  

5. What is a future musical dream or aspiration for you and why?  

During the pandemic, living with my family in London, I sketched a largescale piece of music, something I had always wanted to do.  This music is inspired by the Highlands of Scotland, an area that I know well and adore. And it makes use of some very strange aspects of the ancient traditional music of the Highlanders, or “piobaireachd,” pronounced “pee-brock,” the music of their famous bagpipe tradition which goes back at least 500 years.  

So far, this composition exists only in hundreds of pages of silent pencil sketches on my desk at home. No sounds at all!  My dream is to find the time to turn it at last into a full orchestral score, a job which will take several years. I hope I manage to get to the end!  


Gerard in the Highlands of Scotland 


Get tickets to Wagner's Act I of Die Walküre here: 

Get tickets to Stravinsky's The Firebird here: 


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