Please tell us about some of your earliest musical memories…
One of my first memories was of being aged four or five, wearing an enormous pair of headphones and listening to my dad’s LPs. I remember listening to Michael Jackson’s album Thriller again and again, as well Mozart piano trios, some of Kubelik’s Beethoven symphony recordings, and a lot of Sonny Boy Williamson. There was never any line drawn between genres, and that always made everything totally accessible. I spent most of my teenage years alternating between being lead guitarist of a West London punk band and principal second violin of a youth orchestra. Both my parents are actors, and I spent our childhood inventing plays and theatrical performances (which I would write and direct). I remember taking aside my school music teacher at seven years old and saying, ‘I want to learn the violin’.
Please tell us lots about your latest project?
I am really excited to be setting out on a tour of Germany for the whole of February with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, a Herford-based orchestra (just outside Hannover). We are playing Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony to audiences of 10-15 year olds across the region: the idea is to arrive in each new town, pack the theatre with children and perform the symphony. I think that the orchestra has chosen the repertoire perfectly, and the project has challenged me on how to prepare a score for this type of series; the process is suddenly influenced by thoughts like, ‘are the sforzati during the fourth movement violent enough to make the children see the storm’s thunder and lightening?’. I think children have a special imagination that fits the abstract nature of music. I am particularly excited about working with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie because they have a famous tradition of supporting young conductors: this is where the 28-year old Andris Nelsons became music director, for example. I cannot wait to start rehearsals.
What made you switch from playing to conducting? Do you still play your violin? If so, what kind of violin do you have and where did you get it?
I reached a point with my violin playing where I knew that my musical intentions had outgrown my technical abilities. My initial decision to study musicology in Dublin was a switch from focusing on the violin: I had already decided that conservatoire training was not for me, and my main priority in wanting to conduct was to immerse myself in as many non-playing aspects of music as possible: harmony, counterpoint, history, theory, etc.
I still love playing the violin, and part of my Fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival each summer has involved sitting in the orchestra – usually at the back of the seconds – when not conducting. I play both violin and piano for enjoyment, particularly Bach and Händel. I still play the only violin I have ever owned, purchased when I was 10 for a modest fee from my first violin teacher – a 1975 model by Conrad A. Götz, a German maker based in Markneukirchen originally known for strings, rosin and pegs.
What three or four pieces and/or composers would be at the top of your wish-list of repertoire?
In no particular order:
Verdi’s La Traviata. I would love to conduct this in collaboration with an interesting and creative stage director. The music is full of youth – a perfect choice for a young conductor and cast to match. It also has a special significance for me, because it was the first opera I assisted on in a big house, at the beginning of my time as Yves Abel’s musical assistant (the London Richard Eyre production).
Beethoven’s symphonies. They are an amazing example of “pocket watch” aesthetics: beneath the surface expression, many minute details are all perfectly in place, contributing to the musical whole. Most young conductors perform them early on, which is why watching the older generation performing Beethoven is even more special: they have been with them since the beginning too. I remember fondly Claudio Abbado’s last ‘Eroica’ in Lucerne, where I was able to attend all of the rehearsals whilst a student at the Festival Academy.
Benjamin Britten: I’m English, but have spent most of the past decade abroad, so I identify in Britten certain feelings of “Englishness” that inspire nostalgia and homesickness. This is often something as simple as the way he orchestrates a chord, or even an eccentric rhythmic motif that repeats throughout a piece. My dream is to conduct his operas in companies across the world that may present them for the first time, and above all, to new audiences.
Mozart operas: the three Da Ponte collaborations, The Magic Flute, and La Clemenza di Tito. Mozart provides a canvas whereby successful productions rely on stage directors being musical and conductors being dramatic. This reversal of roles seems to be the only way to find coherence in performance.
What do you find most difficult about being a musician?
One thing I find challenging is the extreme contrast between working with a large group of people and working on your own. Another is the stratospherically high level of rejection. I did about 12 auditions at conservatoires throughout Europe before receiving anything close to an acceptance. The positive aspect of this is that musicians are forced to learn to be humble. The whole system is still one of ‘casting’, and I remind myself of that constantly. I think young musicians have to consider that the music world is ‘full’ – the difficulty of the early stage of a career is finding the rare instance of space, and being ready to fill it as required.
What have been your happiest and/or proudest moments so far and which events have made most difference to your progress?
My proudest moment was stepping in with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at short notice to give the Austrian premiere of a Michael Jarrell piece. The call came with a door-to-door journey of one week, from picking up the score at the orchestra’s library to taking the last shower in the Musikverein conductor’s room. I spent some time with the composer, and it was so exciting to go from not knowing a work even exists, to being responsible for its ‘birth’. It also made me realise my passion for contemporary music.
As a student, I was fortunate to win a prize in a conducting competition run by the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra in Bucharest. This led to a lot of guest conducting with them and other orchestras in Romania. It was ideal to be given the chance to expand my repertoire and work in professional situations while still a student: the lessons you can’t learn in the confined space of a music conservatoire are taught every minute on the podium.
What concerts and/or other projects are you most looking forward to in the next year or so?
I have exciting plans for the 2015-16 season, including debuts with an important Italian orchestra and a large German opera festival. I am excited to return to the Aspen Music Festival – I am fortunate to work with Robert Spano during my Fellowship there, and even breathing the same air as him for two months is enough to make me a better musician and human being. I go back to Romania in the spring to conduct a concert in Sibiu, Transylvania, including the Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto with the talented Romanian pianist Adela Licelescu, who coincidentally was a student colleague from Vienna. There is nothing more exciting – and dangerous – than a young conductor and young soloist taking on a challenging concerto like this one.
Do you think classical music needs to be “saved”? What would you do to save it?
No! “Saving” would imply its current status as “drowning”, and I think this isn’t the case. Imagine telling Mozart in 1791 that in 2015 his Magic Flute will be the most performed opera across the world – I think he would have been shocked. Maybe musicologists could challenge me on that, but surely there is some kind of miracle in the continued reception of these great masterpieces. I remember queuing for a standing place at the Proms a few years ago for a Berliner Philharmoniker performance; I was one of hundred unable to get in because it was completely sold out. How great that live music still attracts so many followers.
I agree with Christian Thielemann when he says the ‘saving’ that is needed is in music-making outside cultural capitals: the network of smaller German opera houses is a great example of keeping performances alive in the ‘provinces’, which should continue to be a priority for us in the UK. Companies like Glyndebourne Touring Opera and English Touring Opera are doing a fantastic job, and I hope this type of activity will never be threatened. The media often talks about classical music and opera as ‘elitist’ and representative of a small portion of society – but just try spending a lunchtime at an opera house’s staff canteen. I can’t think of an environment that is more diverse, bringing together a wide range of people with different skills, working towards a common goal.
My interest is creating the most accessible environment within which live performance can flourish, particularly in the age of YouTube and the MET in HD. One ambition is to convince London to take a leaf out of Berlin, Vienna, and Amsterdam’s book, where concert and opera tickets function as travelcards valid on all public transport three hours before and after the performance. Imagine TFL collaborating with London’s venues and working out a travel subsidy! Let’s make it as easy as possible for our public to get from front door to concert hall, so that everybody can focus completely on the music.