Meet the Artist – Robert Emery, conductor

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

For my tenth birthday I was taken to London for the first time to see ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ at the London Palladium, I loved the experience so much that in the programme I circled the name ‘Mike Reed – Musical Supervisor’ and ‘Mike Dixon – Musical Director’ and in my dodgy ten year old hand writing I wrote ‘this is what I want to be when I grow up’.

Cut to eight years later I was lucky enough to get a place at the Royal College of Music as a pianist, which was until that point my main passion in life. To support myself through college I got a job as a church organist in Chiswick, the first Sunday I played the Vicar said to me I like to introduce you to somebody who I think you might find useful, and in walked Mike Dixon. At that moment I thought it was the most incredible coincidence, until the following week once again after the church service the Vicar said to me there’s somebody else I’d like you to meet, and in walked Mike Reed. At that moment I realised coincidences wasn’t a part of this, the stars had aligned and I knew that as a ten year old child I had wished for something and it was going to come true.

Mike Dixon and Mike Reed were then generous enough over the next few years to introduce me to the world of musical theatre, and their inspiration is what turned me into the musician I am today.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

Beside the two Mikes, I was lucky enough to work for many years with Russell Watson, who not only inspired me to bring classical music to a wider audience, but was also a guiding light on the complicated side of business in the music industry.

I’m a firm believer that music is something that grows deep inside and the earlier it can start the stronger the music is. I was also lucky to have this from an early age with my first music teacher at primary school, June Davenhill. Because of Mrs Davenhill’s approach to music education, I had a ‘duvet’ of music surrounding me from an early age, I strongly believe that was what sparked my musical journey, and without that education I’m sure that today I would simply be a business man.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

The most challenging part is the divide between the orchestral musicians and the conductor; due to its nature, a conductor has to lead, and as I started conducting when I was 18 years old, I found many of the older orchestra players had an attitude with a leader who was considerably younger than them. This is slowly easing as I get older, but it’s still one of the factors of my profession.

However, when I conduct wonderful orchestras, who also have wonderfully accepting players, these are easily the most fulfilling aspects of my career.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

Like all difficult things in life I find the key to being successful is in its preparation: if I’m well prepared and confident when I communicate this to the orchestra they tend to follow me very well.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

For me music is all about energy, music played technically well but with boredom in the eyes of the players, equals a bad performance. I wouldn’t dare try to tell experienced players who are infinitely more capable of making music on their instrument than I am, how to improve their playing. I see my role as the source of the energy in the music, and I’m the ringmaster trying to combine all the talents in front of me to make a harmonious sound.

Of course the composer’s writing has a lot to do with that, but nobody wants to hear the same performance of Beethoven’s 9th again and again and again, therefore for me it’s more about the interpretation and creating a special performance which the audience will remember.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

As I’m still a pianist as well, I sometimes get the opportunity to conduct from the piano, one of the pieces I’ve always wanted to do this with but haven’t had the chance yet, is Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No 2

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I’m lucky enough that I’ve conducted in some of the great venues in the world, namely Sydney Opera House, Singapore Esplanade and all of the major venues in the UK. My favourite however is still a joint tie with the Birmingham Symphony Hall (this is where I grew up and the venue has a special place in my heart) and of course the awe inspiring Royal Albert Hall. Admittedly the acoustics at the RAH are possibly some of the worst in the world but the atmosphere is second to none.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I love the piano playing of Stephen Hough, the conducting and outreach work of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the music of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Eric Whitacre and Fauré to name but a few.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

This is the easiest question of all; players who are enjoying their work equals audiences who enjoy their playing

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

Always think big. Always trust your gut instinct. Work hard but not at the expense of gaining life experience. Dive into the deep end and learn on the job. Be gracious to everyone you meet. And above all, realise that if you’re not enjoying the thing you’re doing, the people you are trying to please will never be satisfied.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

For the past ten years I’ve been extremely grateful that I’ve never had a moment with no work, if I can say the same in ten years time I’ll be a happy man.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being on a beach in Maldives whilst preparing some music for a concert, or composing/orchestrating for a forthcoming project (and probably with a g&t in my hand, with my wife next to me moaning I’m working, and my son tugging on me to play…!)

Robert Emery is a conductor, pianist, record producer and serial entrepreneur. He is lucky enough to travel the world; ranging from performances in London’s Royal Albert Hall, through to the Sydney Opera House. The Times called him ‘the eccentric barefooted maestro’ and the Mail quoted that ‘the assured baton was controlled by the rather energetic and brilliant conductor’.

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