Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
When I was 14 my violin teacher gave me the chance to conduct a string orchestra I was playing in. I remember vividly the experience standing there with the music flowing around and through me as I tried to communicate with the players. I didn’t have any technique at all and it was probably terrible! But in that moment I had a very strong sense that this was an extraordinary feeling and something I wanted to explore deeply.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
I’m not sure I can judge this myself fully. However, without a doubt conductor Sian Edwards who is the most wonderful human being and has taught me a huge amount about the relation between music and conducting technique. Michael Dussek, my piano teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, was also a strong influence in helping me develop my own artistic ethos in service of the music. Working as an assistant to several conductors provided opportunities to see at first hand what works, what doesn’t and what kind of musical leader I would like to be.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
Mastering a huge range of repertoire in the depth required is a never-ending challenge, particularly as a young conductor starting out. There is almost no amount of preparation that will enable you to feel fully confident with a symphony when standing in front of a great orchestra that has played it hundreds of times before. How to deal with this is an important milestone. The most fulfilling thing is when everything clicks within the orchestra, and the music seems to unfold naturally. When I feel as if I have to do very little on the podium this is wonderfully satisfying.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
I try to show everything with my baton, and occasionally where appropriate use a mental image or piece of historical context to frame a particular sound world or effect. It’s important to realise quickly what works best with a certain orchestra: some players prefer to avoid verbal communication, others are drawn in by a bit more context or personal imagery.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
The position of the conductor is often anachronistic – it is only from the time of Beethoven onwards that musicians would have expected someone to direct the performance this way. In Mozart you need to get out of the way; in Mahler it almost seems as if the music was written for a single music interpreter to shape; in much contemporary repertoire you are akin to a sophisticated metronome. So the role varies, but the conductor must always bring his/her personal energy to the ensemble and a love for the letter and spirit of the music.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
Elgar Symphony no. 2. I find Elgar’s English character combined with his Austro-Germanic style of composition irresistible.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I’ve only performed there once but the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre has the most exceptional acoustic: crystal clear yet warm enough to create any sound world you could possibly want.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
My all-time No. 1 conductor would be Claudio Abbado, whose flair, intellectual rigour and versatility across all repertoire seem unparalleled to me. If I had to choose one composer it would be Beethoven. At the moment I’m realising what a limited picture we get of him as orchestral musicians if we don’t explore the piano sonatas and chamber music. His symphonies and concerti alone give a misleading sense of his musical personality.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Very, very rarely we feel we have done justice to the music. It is gratifying when this feeling is shared by respected colleagues and listeners, and of course sometimes this can lead to career progression which plays a part in ‘success’ too.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
An ethos of constant self-sacrificing exploration. And a passion to learn why and in what situation a piece was composed as this can really help recapture its spirit in the present moment.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To maintain a fulfilling balance between desire and satisfaction over a lifetime.
Mark Austin’s performances of orchestral and operatic repertoire have been praised for their “eloquent intensity” (Guardian).
Recent highlights include Mark’s debut at Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre, and the final of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Solti Conducting Competition. He has been shortlisted for the ENO Mackerras Conducting Fellowship 2020-22. In 2019 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music and worked in masterclass with Riccardo Muti. He collaborated with soloists including Guy Johnston, Kristine Balanas, Julien van Mellaerts and Siobhan Stagg. As assistant conductor he worked at Garsington Opera and with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. 2020 includes work at Folkoperan in Sweden, a return to Garsington and concerts at Oundle International Music Festival and Cambridge Summer Music Festival.
Other projects have included ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ (Dartington International Festival), ‘Goyescas’ (The Grange Festival), ‘Tosca’ (Musique Cordiale International Festival) and a two-concert Brahms residency with Guy Johnston and Faust Chamber Orchestra at Hatfield House. Mark was assistant conductor for the world première production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Coraline’ (Royal Opera). He has worked with figures including Vasily Petrenko, Sian Edwards, Marin Alsop, David Parry, David Hill, Steuart Bedford, and the late Sir Colin Davis, and conducted orchestras including Aurora, Britten Sinfonia, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Orchestra of St John’s and the Hangzhou Philharmonic, China. Mark was awarded a Bayreuth Festival Young Artist Bursary in 2018 and recorded the world première of Alex Woolf’s ‘NHS Symphony’ for BBC Radio 3, which won a Prix Europa. He studies with Sian Edwards and was awarded an International Opera Awards Bursary in 2017.
An accomplished pianist, Mark has performed at venues including Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, St John’s Smith Square, Holywell Music Room, Opera Bastille (Paris) and the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre. He is musical assistant to The Bach Choir and regularly conducts the choir in concert and the recording studio, including live on BBC1 for the Andrew Marr Show.
Born in London, Mark had lessons in violin and piano from an early age. He played in the National Youth Orchestra, and studied at Cambridge University and Royal Academy of Music, where he received numerous prizes and was appointed a Junior Fellow. Mark contributed a chapter on Wagner, Beethoven and Faust to the recently published ‘Music in Goethe’s Faust’. You can read more about Mark on http://www.mark-austin.net and follow him on Twitter @mark_aus_tin.