An Interview with Matthew Freeman, Composer and Conductor

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By @Roger Crow

Platinum and gold disc award-winning conductor and arranger Matthew Freeman has worked on some of the biggest stage shows of recent years. He talks about getting projects like Blue Planet II from TV to stage, and adapting the work of ABBA and Queen for arena shows.

Hi Matthew. How have you been coping with the pandemic’s enforced hiatus?
All my work involves performing to large numbers of people. So it’s all been postponed to May ’21 onwards, even though some projects have been ear marked to late March, so it’s been a big adjustment putting the brakes on everything

How would you describe your job to a layperson?
It’s a creative job. I like to have a vision about what I want to do. That vision encompasses the music we’re going to play. How we’re going to play it. I’m often the arranger. A lot of the big concerts, like the ABBA concert at the Albert Hall, I’ve arranged every piece of music. So I’m very clear in my head how I want each piece to go and how I want the whole programme to hold together; to take the audience on a journey that not only are they going to enjoy but one which will lift them up into an experience that they’re going to remember. So there’s all that thinking goes into what I call my job: choosing the people we work with; orchestras… So many complications and conversations about the end product and how we want to tailor it.

An Interview with Matthew Freeman conductor

“The party element has to be there”

What’s the biggest challenge getting a show like Blue Planet II from page to stage?
Well there are various stages of development. We’ve got a TV show, and that’s the first thing to be mindful of. TV is a very different medium from a big arena with 12,000 people, and the effect in the arena has to be on a bigger scale. With TV the music is often quite tight and the endings are often quite abrupt because they go straight into something else, into the credits or the commercials, and you don’t want people ‘grabbing for that remote’ (laughs). So there’s a pace to the TV stuff that you need to pull back on in the arenas because it’s a different experience. Often I find myself extending the endings, just to really land the emotion to perfection. I work very close with the sound guy to get the sound in the arena how we want. There’s lots of little details and conversations to be had to make sure we can get it better than last time.

I’m looking forward to the ABBAphonic gig at the Albert Hall in 2021. Tell us about that.
It’s with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. All the arrangements I’ve written. Again it’s a great musical journey. And ultimately that has to be a party. With a great classical orchestra like the RPO, the music… there’s an integrity that has to be there in the way that we do it all. It’s got to be fun because it’s upbeat and fun music, which everybody knows, so the party element has to be there. We’ve done this ABBAphonic concert at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic on about five occasions, so it has been very popular, and we’ve also done a symphonic Queen.

“We can deliver the full sound potential”

An Interview with Matthew Freeman composerTell us about the logistics of adapting such a wonderfully bombastic sound like Queen for the stage.
Well there are these catalogues of these great songs. There’s ABBA, Queen, George Michael, Whitney, and I have arranged and orchestrated those four, and each time you feel that it’s meant to happen. If Freddie (Mercury) were here now and we said “What do you think of the idea of your music being performed with an orchestra playing all the songs?” it’s easy to think what he might say. “Hell yes!” It’s a very natural thing to add the symphonic sound. People want an experience. And if you’re going to ask people to go to an arena, you’ve got to give them a show. And just seeing the stage filled with musicians, and the sound that emanates from them is just fantastic. And of course the arena is the one place where we can deliver the full sound potential. Because you can’t with a TV you can’t on your Earbuds. You can’t in the car. Only in a live arena can you give that full harmonic spectrum of sound.

Do you only work on big arena shows?
Well, my Rat Pack shows, which has been in the West End several times, I’ve done that in Leeds, at the Alhambra. The Crucible, and in York. In fact we opened that show, which has been a hit for 20 years, at the New Theatre in Hull. That was before anybody else did that show, because a lot of people went off and did their own Rat Pack shows.

A great beta test for these massive shows, because if it’s going to work anywhere it’s on that grass roots level.
Absolutely.

Finally, what’s been your favourite project?
Any project you can commit to and have that creative input and you’re able to realise your vision in doing it, that’s a big motivator for me.

Matthew Freeman conducts BBC Blue Planet II – Seven Worlds One Planet is at the O2 in London on December 5th 2021 and the European Tour is February to March 2022.
ABBAphonic can be seen at the Royal Albert Hall, 1st October, 2021
The Leeds leg of Queen Machine Symphonic with Kerry Ellis tour arrives at First Direct Arena on October 8, 2021

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