Meet the Artist……Tom Greenleaves, timpanist

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 Who or what inspired you to take up the timpani and make it your career? 

Going to BSO concerts (THANK YOU dear Mum & Dad!) in the Wessex Hall in Poole as a teenager (while I was actually attempting to realise my earliest childhood dream of becoming a horn player), being inspired by the (now former) timpanists of the Orchestra, Peter Hill (just retired from the CBSO) and Paul Turner (BBC Phil).

Who were the most important influences on your playing? 

In early years certainly Paul Turner in Bournemouth, who imbued me with musical and professional valuesfor which I’ll always be very, very grateful. Two genuine titans of the timpani in London over the last few decades, John Chimes of the BBCSO and Kurt-Hans Goedicke, formerly of the LSO, were, despite their in many respects irreconcilable approaches, two players who heavily “coloured” my development. During my studies in London, however, I increasingly came under the influence (voluntarily!) of Rainer Seegers of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Simply as a player, he had the deepest, most fundamental effect on me; as a teacher (my lottery win), he was interested only in one thing (and this is NOT a given): pulling the musician, who I am, out of me and allowing me simply to be it – enough said!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Upping sticks after graduating from the RAM and trying to establish myself in Germany, a land and culture with no mean pride in its timpani tradition!

Which recordings are you most proud of? 

Beethoven 9 is the zenith of the repertoire for pretty well all timpanists, so recording it as part of our cycle with Riccardo Chailly for Decca is certainly a highlight. Bruckner 5 with Herbert Blomstedt shows the Gewandhausorchester in good form and really playing to its strengths, I think, and I’m proud of the Mahler DVDs with Chailly on which I’m playing (4, 6 and 8 so far)

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Apart from all the predictable answers….Gewandhaus, Berliner Philharmonie, Wiener Musikverein, etc., it absolutely has to be the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms. Which other hall in the world are musicians so willing to forgive so much?! There’s no atmosphere or audience that comes close to it, anywhere, and I know my colleagues in the Gewandhausorchester feel exactly the same – the Orchestra just adores it! Next stop Mahler 3 and Beethoven 9 at the climax of this season.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I’m sure I’ll never get enough of playing the ‘Ring’! Many of Wagner’s, Strauss’, Mozart’s and Rameau’s operas are a drug for me and just gems to play. It’s also hard to top playing Bruckner’s symphonies. As for listening, 90% baroque, 90% of that JSB!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I’ll make it easier for myself and stick to those alive now! It’s a joy accompanying both Maria João Pires and Frank Peter Zimmermann – two musicians who make magic with incredible selflessness and honesty, I always feel.

However, no instrument touches me like the voice can – the finest singers are certainly the musicians of whom I’m most capable of being genuinely in awe. I can always “hide” to a certain extent behind my girls (timpani are so powerful, they can only be female); what singers have to do in order to make music, how naked they make themselves, is, in comparison, barbaric, and the best never cease to amaze me. To name a few who touch me the most….John Tomlinson, Nina Stemme, Evelyn Herlitzius, Julia Doyle and Christina Landshamer are singers who can whisk me away to their world in an instant!

On that note, as a colossal singer fan (pertinent ambiguity there this week…), it’s fascinating and very heartening to watch the upward spiral of home-grown wonders, Jennifer Johnston, Iain Paterson and Opera Cabbie.

On the conducting side, the musical partnership between my orchestra and Riccardo Chailly is something which I can, at the moment, hardly imagine being without – working with him regularly over a long period of time is an enormous privilege and I’m sure I’ll always treasure these years of my life in Leipzig.I have never experienced such gut-wrenching beauty AND pain as in performances of JS Bach under Sir John Eliot Gardiner and performances of Wagner under Christian Thielemann – I revere them both for their phenomenal gifts.

Okay, one, sadly passed…I can still dream that Carlos Kleiber will one day turn up in Leipzig…

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Impossible to single out! Many performances of Bach in the Thomaskirche here in Leipzig with his Thomanerchor, playing in front of his grave; Proms with NYO, EUYO and Gewandhausorchester with family in the audience; many opera performances at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, a house that I love; Rameau with Gardiner, EBS and Monties in Santiago – all special memories.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Remember that the city in which you study is only a small part of a big world!

– Be assured that there’s always room at the top of the profession.

– Always be mindful of the fact that no musician will ever convince anyone by trying to play/perform in the way that he/she presumes an audience (or, pertinently, audition panel!) is hoping to hear; when you walk out on stage, be 100% you! 

Similar to the last point, but so important: it’s fantastically hard for many young (and older!) musicians to grasp and practically realise, but try to gradually assimilate and apply the fact that it’s really not possible to please everyone! And it’s okay like that.

What are you working on at the moment? 

My first ‘Frau ohne Schatten’! I’ve been pining for this opera for years – now we’re rehearsing for a new production for the Strauss Festival here at the Oper Leipzig.

What is your present state of mind?

A constant state of enormous happiness and considerable awe at the birth of my first child eleven months ago. No explanation needed, I’m sure!

Tom Greenleaves was born and grew up in Swanage in Dorset. 

Having been a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as a teenager, Tom went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London with Kurt-Hans Goedicke and Simon Carrington, timpanists of the London Symphony Orchestra. During this time he was a member of the European Union Youth Orchestra, an experience which contributed significantly to his growing passion for the German orchestral culture. 

After graduation in 1999, Tom moved to Germany in order to continue his studies with Rainer Seegers of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Tom was appointed to the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig by Riccardo Chailly in 2006. 

A great interest in historically informed performance practice has led to Tom playing with several of Europe’s leading specialist ensembles, including Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists, Trevor Pinnock’s European Baroque Ensemble and Concerto Köln. 

Tom gives frequent masterclasses at Conservatoires across Germany and Great Britain. In addition, he is regular guest timpanist of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. 

In his free time, Tom is a passionate rower, happily devoting much of his energy to holding on to his seat in the Leipzig Eight.

Twitter: @TomGreenleaves

Interview date: 19th May 2014