Travel tales of the cultural shepherd

August 13, 2004

Adrian Mourby meets jack of all trades and tour leader Roderick Swanston as part of our intellectual tourism series.

"I am a jack of all trades," says Roderick Swanston. "And Master of Arts. My job is to know everything. It's no excuse to say, 'Sorry, not my period.'" The stories about Swanston are legion. This is a man who inspires devotion in the many ladies who follow "Dear Roderick" on the cultural tours he shepherds around the world.

The Bartoä incident is a typical Swanston story. "This was in 1994 when I was leading the first Martin Randall Austro-Hungarian Music Festival down the Danube. The local agent was supposed to have fixed the players and venues for the concerts we had planned, but almost every programme differed from what was expected. In one place, I found I was booked to introduce a wind quintet by a composer, Bartoä, of whom I had never heard, and I had certainly not heard of his wind quintet.

"I had only five minutes to prepare so I said, 'OK, let me have a look at the instrumental parts - especially the flute part.' From that I could tell that this was based on folk music, and by looking at the other parts I could tell enough about the music's style and structure to say at least something useful about it. So I talked for 20 minutes about the Hungarian tradition to which Bartoa belonged. And I don't think anyone guessed how little preparation I'd been able to do."

This ability to think on his feet is one of the reasons that Swanston is so admired. "I think I can say that I am one of the few people not to have auditioned for Martin," he says with a certain pride. Martin Randall Travel, an agency specialising in intellectual tourism, is famous for rejecting academics who fail to impress at audition. "Roderick has an authority about him," says Randall. "He'll say, 'Right we're going down here now' and everyone will follow."

On one occasion, Swanston used his considerable charm to cajole members of a trip to form an impromptu choir after the local agent failed to provide one to sing the Bruckner Motets at a concert in Austria to mark the composer's centenary celebrations. "I thought, 'Well, I'm sure any group of British travellers will contain plenty who sing in choirs or choral societies, so why don't we ask for volunteers to learn a Bruckner motet in a short, very short, rehearsal just after breakfast.' We copied the parts and I rehearsed them while most of the other passengers on the ship listened." The choir performed in the cathedral later that day, says Swanston. "Many people actually claimed it was the high point of their trip."

Swanston is a larger-than-life character. He talks with great enthusiasm and is as round as Father Christmas, although his bearing might be better described as that of a very energetic Renaissance pope. He also has a remarkable memory. And he hates wasting time. For this reason, he is seeing the positive side of being made redundant from the Royal College of Music at the end of the month. "I'll miss a good many things," he says, "but the one thing I can tell you I will not miss is students who don't turn up - such a waste of time. I'm looking forward to not wasting every minute of every day." He is planning to pack his days with teaching, at Birkbeck College, University of London, and Imperial College London (where he teaches music and Western civilisation to science undergraduates), lectures - at the Proms and the National Gallery and next year's Ring Cycle in Seattle - and some book-writing.

Although he writes and broadcasts prodigiously, Swanston considers himself primarily a teacher. "Teaching in lectures is an honourable profession but there are a lot of bad lecturers around. I've heard people go on for hours, with lots of footnotes, but not actually say anything. What is good about working in the commercial sector is that if Martin did not employ good lecturers as opposed to people who write learned books - the two are not always the same - he would go out of business."

One of the undoubted challenges of lecturing on the cultural circuit is finding yourself addressing other academics or amateurs with a lifelong passion for the subject under discussion. Swanston numbers judges, cabinet ministers and professors among his regular clientele. Do they ever disagree?

"Oh yes, it does happen, possibly unknown to me. More often I know, but I find, providing you're not too grand, good scholars will agree to disagree with me or be persuaded by my evidence and arguments. You may have a chat about it afterwards. There's only one lady I openly disagreed with, a distinguished professor - not of music, though - from a northern university. And she was wrong. What she said flew in the face of all the evidence."

These days he leads up to five tours a year. "I've been doing it since 1990 and it's given me a tremendous opportunity to travel. I'm never off duty."

Over the past 14 years, Swanston's trips have included some notable triumphs -for example, his introduction to Schoenberg's Second Quintet String Quartet at Church in the Steinhof mental asylum in a suburb of Vienna. "Just as I was about to try to explain what this difficult music was about, there was this distant, bloodcurdling scream from one of the inmates' buildings nearby that seemed to sum up everything Schoenberg was trying to say."

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