As the Royal Choral Society prepares to sing Handel’s Messiah on Good Friday, one of London’s great Easter traditions, I spoke to conductor Richard Cooke about his influences and inspirations, and how one keeps a work like Messiah fresh and exciting after conducting it for over 25 years.


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

I was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral from the age of 8 to 13. Some pieces we sang as anthems really inspired me, especially Recordare from Mozart’s Requiem, (which we sang in English to a truly terrible translation – *see below). This became my favourite piece of music from the age of 8, and it still is one of them. Also movements from Brahms’ Requiem, which I used to ‘conduct’ whilst listening to my mother’s record player. Seemed like fun.

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

Those five years at St. Paul’s were massively formative, though the choir was really not good! I could sight-sing music from the age of 11. I then had 4 years in Cambridge singing in King’s under David Willcocks, and after that I was teaching at Tiffin School for seven years. My colleague David Nield who was Director of Music (I was Director of Choral Music) made a huge and transformative impact on my life.

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

My musical life has been choral conducting. The great challenge is to be an orchestral conductor when choirs sing concerts with orchestras. I try to conduct choirs ‘orchestrally’ so that they think that way when it all comes together. The most fulfilling thing is to come away from conducting a great work and feel good. Rare! There is usually something I would wish to have done better – it can be only a moment, but it’s there.

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

Talk as little as possible. Show them what you want and be faithful to what one considers were the composer’s intentions.

Tell us more about the experience of conducting Handel’s Messiah…..

How do you keep such a well-known, well-loved work fresh for both performers and audience, especially in a large venue like the Royal Albert Hall?

This is the same for any professional. I saw an actor being interviewed about how he felt performing Hamlet 25 times and that was the same. You have to make each performance as unique as it is for the audience. This is easy. I have been fortunate to conduct this concert every year for about 27 years and I tell myself and the choir that it has to reach the audience as if it were brand new each time. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is wonderful in this respect too. I feel it has become bigger for me with the passing years.

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of conducting Messiah?

One has different soloists to engage with which is (nearly) always a pleasure, and the work slowly rises to its climactic end – particularly so in the Royal Albert Hall. That final 30 minutes is an inspirational and uplifting experience every time.

The main challenge is the choral writing in Part 1 where the choir is exposed to fast semiquaver ‘runs’ without orchestral support. From the beginning of Part 2 to the very end of Part 3, the strings play these demanding passages with the choir, and the support they provide is always reassuring. Mozart ‘solved’ this problem in his re-harmonised version of Messiah by giving all the fast-running sections in Part 1 to the soloists, with the choir joining only at the very end of each chorus. The only real challenge after that is never to coast along on ‘automatic pilot’.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

There are several I would like to return to, all of which are hugely expensive, including Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts and Damnation of Faust. A work which I wished I had been able to do is Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), but promoters just smile when they see how much it would cost!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I love conducting in the Royal Albert Hall and Canterbury Cathedral, though each has its challenges with the acoustic. I have other favourites – Birmingham, Bridgewater Hall, Liverpool, Gothenburg. A very beautiful venue for concerts is Lund Domkyrkan (Cathedral) in Sweden. I conduct a concert there each summer.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

The direct reply to that has to be preparing the music and how one is going to interpret it, assuming you are not looking for an answer like ‘take a cold shower’ or ‘walk up a Scottish Munro’.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

A massive and prolonged revolution in schools. I work with children and it is the most inspirational thing to see how they engage when challenged. Schools are very under-nourished in music, and children are underestimated. Music provision has been declining for decades and there is a misconception that classical music is elitist. Becoming an elite performer does not make it ‘elitist’. There are elite sportspeople. I don’t think Joe Root or Marcus Rashford are elitist but they are elite.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Um…..I’m enjoying still being able to do what I do and have done for my whole life. My hobby is my career and whether I am successful or not is for others to judge.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring conductors/musicians?

I don’t presume to advise other than to say that you have always to prepare and work as much as is needed to master in detail whatever you aspire to.

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you feel we should be?

The inadequacy of classical music provision in state schools and the value and enhancement it brings to children’s lives and well-being.

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

Where I am now. Maybe optimistic!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Not sure but I’m perfectly happy

What is your most treasured possession?

Apart from family and friends I don’t really have one, but it feels special when I dig out a great score like Beethoven Missa Solemnis to prepare for another performance.

What is your present state of mind?

Sober

*Final stanza of Recordare from Mozart’s Requiem, early Novello edition:

“In thy favor’d sheep’s position

Keep me from the goat’s condition,

On thy right complete fruition”.

(I’m quite sure that if I had sung these words as an adult, the last word by many around me would have been change to ‘coition’.)

Richard Cooke conducts the Royal Choral Society in Handel’s Messiah on Good Friday, 7th April, at the Royal Albert Hall. The choir, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, has performed Messiah every Good Friday since 1876. Only the 1940 Blitz and the 2020 Covid pandemic have prevented the performance of one of the UK’s favourite choral works.

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Richard Cooke was appointed Conductor of the Royal Choral Society in 1995, becoming Music Director in 1998, and has appeared with us in many concerts in the Royal Festival and Royal Albert Halls. Most notable of these have been their annual Good Friday performances of Handel’s Messiah, and spectacular Christmas Carol concerts. He has directed concerts with the RCS in the cathedrals of Peterborough, Winchester, Salisbury and Southwark. He has also recorded Orff’s Carmina Burana with the RCS together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Image credit: Kevin Day

One Sunday afternoon I was idly leafing through a copy of Vanity Fair, which I found lying around at the country home of my parents-in-law. On the back page was a revealing interview with A Famous Person, based on the Proust Questionnaire, a set of questions which the French author Marcel Proust answered at different times in his life. Later that day, I thought this might make an interesting addition to my blog – a weekly interview where each respondent answers the same questions. And thus, in April 2012 the Meet the Artist interview series was born.

At this time, I’d been writing this blog for nearly two years. Originally intended as a place where I could record my thoughts about returning to the piano after an absence of some 20-odd years, it had quickly become a kind of online classical music ‘magazine’ with varied content: concert reviews interspersed with articles on piano technique, teaching, and repertoire, and more esoteric ‘think pieces’ on music. More importantly, it now had the beginnings of an established, regular readership, albeit still quite small (today it enjoys c30,000 visitors per month). A series of interviews with musicians seemed a good addition. Classical musicians have an aura of mystique (usually created by audiences and others, rather than the musicians themselves) and there is, I find, a great curiosity about what classical musicians do; not just the exigencies of life on the concert platform – the visible, public aspect of the profession – but, in effect, ‘what musicians do all day’. The Meet the Artist interviews offer a snapshot of other facets of the profession, giving readers a chance to get “beyond the notes”, as it were, and in doing so reveal some fascinating insights.

The willingness and openness with which people respond is refreshing, often unexpected, and largely free of ego. In addition, the interviewees give advice and inspiration for those considering a career in music, and attempt to define “success” in a profession where one’s ability to communicate with and move an audience is placed considerably higher than monetary returns.

Tamara Stefanovich

I never sought out the “big name” international performers like Angela Hewitt, Ivo Pogorelich, Tamara Stefanovich or Marc-André Hamelin (or indeed prog rock legend Rick Wakeman!), but as the series grew in reputation, so I found these people were happy to be interviewed, either directly (usually by email, occasionally in person) or via their publicists and agents. The series has become not only a valuable compendium of surprising, insightful, honest, humorous and inspiring thoughts from a wide range of artists, but also a platform for young and lesser-known artists in particular to gain exposure in an industry which is highly competitive. Others use the series as a means to promote upcoming concerts, recordings or other events, while also leaving an enduring contribution to audience’s and others’ understanding of how the music industry “works” and what makes musicians tick. It has received praise from the likes of pianists Stephen Hough and Peter Donohoe, both of whom are featured in the series.

James MacMillan, composer & conductor

From strictly classical artists such as harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani or composer and conductor James MacMillan, two of the earliest interviewees, the series has broadened in its scope over the years and now includes musicians from the world of crossover classical music, folk and jazz. Yet regardless of genre, what these interviews often reveal is how one’s chosen instrument and its literature exert a strong attraction, seducing would-be professionals from a young age and continuing to bewitch and delight, frustrate and excite.

To date, the series features over 1600 interviews from some of our greatest living musicians to young artists poised on the cusp of a professional career. Every single interview has value, and I am immensely grateful to the many musicians who have freely offered their insights, reflections and advice in their interviews.

To all of you who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series to date, THANK YOU.

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, April 2022


The Meet the Artist series is ongoing – if you would like to take part, please click here for more information

Karen Gibson, MBE, director of The Kingdom Choir

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Ultimately, I have to say that it was my mother who inspired me to pursue a career in music. It was her idea for my sister and I to start piano lessons, as a means of us staying out of trouble when she wasn’t around!

I doubt if we knew then that both my sister and I would go on to pursue various musical ventures throughout our youth and then end up as choir directors for our careers!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I would have to say that the biggest influences on my musical life and career would be the church that I grew up in, as well as the classical influences that I learned from my teachers of oboe and piano, and my music teachers at school.

What drew you to singing and conducting?

The Pentecostal church, in which I grew up, had a strong musical culture where singing accompanied everything. It would have been very hard not to have developed a love of music and singing in such an environment.

Whilst I loved the singing, I never wanted to be a performer intentionally. I think it is fair to say that I fell into it, alongside my sister and friends. We would gather around the piano at church, where my sister would play and the rest of us would stand her around singing in harmony. It all came about so naturally. After doing this for a while, we decided one day that we would perform at an upcoming concert, and that’s how I started singing.

Our particular denomination had choirs up and down the country – and they were very competitive! Soon, my singing extended to one of these choirs that was London wide. It wasn’t too long before I graduated from being a choir member, to helping out with the conducting, and finally to being a main conductor. My classical training meant that I had extra tools with which to teach and impart to others.

What are the special pleasures and challenges of conducting a gospel choir?

There is nothing like the sound of voices joined in singing to me. It’s a very spiritual experience in the broader sense of the word. The best choirs will always say that they are like family, and I believe that it is togetherness and connection that actually impacts the sound a choir makes.

What did it mean to you and the choir to perform at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle?

It was a wonderful honour, and hugely exciting to be asked. It was completely unexpected, seemingly coming out of the blue. We knew that we would be setting a precedent, however, as there has been no other black Gospel choir that has sung at a royal wedding.

We didn’t understand at the time how much this would change things for us. It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride, thrilling, dizzying, and sometimes challenging. I don’t think we would have it any other way.

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

I think surviving through the lockdown and the pandemic has been the greatest challenge for the choir, and for the whole industry. It hasn’t just been a matter of being locked away in your house; I believe that so much was also locked away – creativity, connection, and the list goes on. I must say, though, we had some wonderful opportunities during the lockdown which helped to keep us hopeful, and connected.

I think it’s always important to remember your ‘why,’ and this is what we try to do. As people of faith this is quite important and we back that up with prayer and times of worship.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience has got to be the whole of our US Tour in 2019. It was incredible as a gospel choir to be singing in the land where gospel music first came into being. We were so well received, it was an amazing and unforgettable time. 

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Personally, success is always about the impact that one’s art has on other people. When I’m teaching my choirs I will often say to them that people should come to your performance one way and leave another. It’s about transformation that makes things better. I have been privileged to see the power of music do this so many times over my singing career. It’s always thrilling to me. This is what I call success.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

I think it’s important to love what you’re doing, but more, love the people that you are doing it with and doing it for. It makes all the difference. Fame will only last for so long, but real love is solid and true. I know that this sounds like a real cliché, but I believe it.

What is your present state of mind?

Anticipatory! I am hopeful and looking forward to great things coming to pass!

 

The Kingdom Choir’s new EP, Together Again, featuring Jake Isaac, is out now

 


Karen Gibson MBE is a choir conductor and workshop leader with London’s The Kingdom Choir, which she founded. She led the Kingdom Choir’s gospel performance of “Stand by Me” at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018, after which she was described as “Britain’s godmother of gospel”.Gibson has previously provided backing vocals for acts such as Grace Kennedy and The Beautiful South. She has been involved with vocal groups and choirs since 1993, conducting gospel workshops all over the UK and Europe as well as Nigeria, Japan, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and the United States.She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to music.

 

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.

mark-austin.net

 

 

 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

JOO: I was in love with music from the moment I was born. At least, according to my parents. I loved all kinds of music. As a baby, I couldn’t stop listening to music and used to drive my parents crazy listening over and over to the same thing. When I was able to walk, I used to stop in my tracks when walking past a music store. So immovable was I, that my parents had no choice but to ask the shopkeeper if they could keep an eye on me while they went ahead and did their shopping. In those days, people trusted strangers to look after their kids! I was super happy just staying for hours listening to whatever was playing in the store. I started piano lessons at age eight, and two years later, by fluke, I entered the Yehudi Menuhin School. From that point on, there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to become a musician.

IGUDESMAN: I started to play the violin before I was born. Or so it seemed. I was born in St Petersburg – back then it was called Leningrad. And before that Petrograd. And before that Hetrograd, Metrograd, Sexograd, Retorgrad and Rome. But that was a long time ago. I come from a very musical family. My mother played the piano, my father the violin, my grandmother the cello, my uncle the oboe, my sister the banjo, my cousin the ukulele and his wife the didgeridoo. So it was kind of inevitable I would go into music. Shortly after my birth, I said to my parents: “Mummy daddy, I think maybe one day some time when I am older, I might perhaps want to learn to play the violin, maybe.” I was immediately locked in a room and tied to a music stand with a violin taped to my neck. Every time I started to practice, the dog started to howl. After a while my dad screamed: “Damn it, can’t you play something that the dog DOESN’T know?”

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

JOO:Too many of them to list here. But from the musicians of the past:
Yehudi Menuhin. Glenn Gould. Leonard Bernstein.

All my teachers from Peter Norris, Seta Tanyel, Nina Svetlanova to teachers that I only had few a lessons with but gave me lifetimes of inspiration and knowledge such as Richard Goode, Oleg Maisenberg, and Ferenc Rados. My composition teachers Simon Parkin, Malcolm Singer, Nils Vigeland, and my English and Drama teacher, Kevin Jones. Kevin was a huge influence on what I do with my duo Igudesman & Joo, and when Aleksey and I recently wrote a book together about creativity, we asked Kevin Jones to write the “Afterword”. It was clear to us from the start that Kevin should have the final word about creativity.
Then, I must add people such as Monty Python, Spike Jones, Chaplin, Oscar Wilde, Ionesco as other major influences. And don’t get me started on the composers…

IGUDESMAN: For me it is basically the same as Hyung-ki. I should also include Prokofiev, who was my favourite composer when I was young. In fact as a composer I have often been compared to Prokofiev. Okay, to be fair, I was the one who made the comparison. Frank Zappawas also a strong influence as well as Queen and Pink Floyd. And from the violinists, I would have to say that my biggest idol was Gidon Kremer who we had the great pleasure and honour of working with for a few years earlier in our career. In fact, it felt quite sardonically satisfying to give Gidon a violin lesson on stage in a show we did together! Also, I do have to mention my oldest and besides Hyung-ki, my best friend Julian Rachlin who I grew up next to and who is now not only one of the greatest violinists and viola players alive, but also a brilliant conductor.

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

JOO: To refresh the minds of some people in the world of classical music.

IGUDESMAN: There are daily challenges literally daily. For example having to do this interview, while I have to finish writing a harp concerto for Magdalena Hoffmann, the wonderful harp player of the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra, who has been pestering me about receiving the part for weeks! But seriously, I am actually extremely thankful for having the ability to give interviews and having people interested in all the madness that we do as individuals and together.

Of which performances are you most proud?

JOO: Playing at the Hollywood Bowl- but not because of what you might think. It’s certainly not the history nor the prestige of the place, in fact, I never had any idea what the Hollywood Bowl was. My only reference to this place was a video I had of “Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl” which I watched several times. The fact that the Pythons had performed there made this place the Holy Grail for me so being on that same stage as my Gods of comedy, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, meant more to me than anyone could imagine.

IGUDESMAN: I have to say, it may even have been our last performance at the RFH in London with the LPO. Not just because of the special venue but the audience.We had almost the entire Yehudi Menuhin School come to it, the school we studied in. And then our dear friends Sir Roger Moore and Terry Jones, who have meanwhile both sadly passed away.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

JOO:“Narcissus” by E. Gocomplex.

IGUDESMAN: I have to admit, that I have become an expert at interpreting my own music. That may sound like a bit of a joke but it really is not. I am very lucky to have published a multitude of works for violin, 2 violins, piano and violin, as well as chamber music and orchestral works on Universal Edition. And although I may be the composer of those works, I still have to discover them. I truly believe that often as a composer one has no idea of how to interpret ones own works. But after some years of playing them in concert, I believe I have cracked some of them. Although I absolutely love discovering young talent playing my music on YouTube.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

JOO: Consult a crystal ball and try to foresee what I might want to be playing in 2 years time. Jokes aside, I’m very lucky that I am able to conjure up different types of programs, and my interests are so diverse, that almost everything works at anytime. I also love playing the same thing over and over again as one can get deeper into the piece, and I love the process and challenge to make a piece you’ve played so often make it sound like the first time you’re playing it.

IGUDESMAN: Together as Igudesman & Joo, we are very blessed to be able to chose our own repertoire. People (mostly) trust in our choice and programming. So we tend to give show titles with the description and maybe a few videos of some of the piece we will probably play, but the rest is up to us. Often we would decide Orchestra programs only a month or so ahead, while we are preparing parts. And when we have duo shows, we can even decide on the day. This is a great luxury that most people who perform in the classical music world do not get and we are extremely thankful for it. It gives us a way greater spontaneity. We have talked about this problem with many friends and colleagues. How on earth are we supposed to know if we feel like playing the Beethoven Spring Sonata in two and a half years time?

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

JOO: I’ve only performed there once, but I think it’s the most beautiful concert hall in the world – the Palau de la Musicà Catalana in Barcelona. In a way, I wish I hadn’t been playing so that I could have taken in the full experience of being a listener. I can’t wait to return there, either as a performer or as an audience member.

IGUDESMAN: I may have to chose the Vienna Konzerthaus, Vienna being the city we are based. It’s basically in our backyard. And it takes literally 4 minutes for me to cycle from my home to the Konzerthaus Vienna. Which is also a little dangerous, since at times when my concert is at 19:30, at 19:20 I may still be in the shower!

Who are your favourite musicians?

JOO: Most of them are dead! But from those alive today, I’m a big fan of Ebene Quartet, Barbara Hannigan, Tord Gustavsen, Leszek Mozdzer, Stefano Bollani, Gilles Apap.

I had a piano trio for seven years with Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne and Thomas Carroll, and they were some of the best seven years of my life.
I have also been really lucky to have shared the stage making music with special musicians such as Joshua Bell, Renaud Capuçon, Michael Collins, Martin Fröst, Janine Jansen, Gidon Kremer, Dame Felicity Lott, Viktoria Mullova, Lawrence Power, Julian Rachlin, Radovan Vlatkovic, Yuja Wang, the Belcea Quartet and members from the Alban Berg, Artis, and Ebène String Quartets, and many more!- and every one of those collaborations and performances are among my most treasured musical experiences.

IGUDESMAN: I think Hyung-ki has pretty much named a lot of my favourite musicians! From the dead ones, I would have to add Frank Zappa, Glenn Gould and Freddie Mercury fo sure.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

JOO: Playing as soloist in Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin conducting the Warsaw Sinfonia. It was his 80th Birthday Concert at the Barbican Hall, and after having had gone through a few rough years, where I even contemplated giving up music, this concert reminded me why I could never have a life without music.

IGUDESMAN: Perhaps it was our Carnegie Hall debut where we had Joshua Bell and then Billy Joel join us on stage for pieces. Strangely enough it did not feel scary but arm and welcoming to play on that legendary stage!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

JOO: Being able to understand what the music means. And then, if you’re lucky, and work hard, at some lucky points, you are able to transport that meaning.

IGUDEMAN: Being able to do what you want to do. Play the repertoire you want, with who you want. Write the music you want to write. And above all, live the life you want to live, always full of love and creativity.

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

JOO: Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

IGUDESMAN: Every musician is like an own company. And I don’t mean that in a pragmatic way. It means one has to be creative on many fronts. One has to love the music, live the music. But also one has to understand how to communicate with people, how to market oneself, how to promote yourself as a “product”. And to find out what your USP is – your unique selling point. Trust me, we all have one! To be a musical entrepreneur is the way forward for everyone.That is also why I am a co-founder of the online platform “Music Traveler”, where one can find rooms to play, practice or record online anywhere in the world. We started in Vienna where we have over 100 venues, but are coming to the UK soon. This enables professionals as well as amateurs to have a space to play anytime anywhere. And we are very lucky to be supported by great artists like Yuja Wang, John Malkovich, Billy Joel and Hans Zimmer who even invested in Music Traveler! Both Hyung-ki and I are actively promoting the wonderful platform which improves the world of music.

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

JOO: On a tennis court giving a teenager a tough time on the tennis court.

Other than that, working with youthful orchestras and musicians.
And continuing to explore and being creative with my long-standing collaborator and partner-in-crime, Aleksey Igudesman.

IGUDESMAN: I would love to explore the genre of making movies and documentaries more. I have already directed the Mockumentary “Noseland” featuring Roger Moore and John Malkovich, besides many music videos. There are numerous film ideas, especially linked to music and musicians that I want to produce, direct and enable. My pet peeve is seeing musicians being portrayed by actors who can not play the instrument. I certainly want to change that. So I plan to live in Los Angeles for a time, which may well be in 10 years. And a couple of Oscars would be quite nice. Our friend Vangelis likes to use his as a paper weight, so I would like at least two to prop up my books.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

JOO: No idea. But when everything is flowing and you only see and feel kindness everywhere, that’s a pretty happy state to experience.

IGUDESMAN: Happiness is not a constant. It is a temporary feeling of pleasure and contentment which has to be earned on a daily base. One can not chase it. It comes to you. And mostly when you are being true to yourself and maintain constant creativity in your life. With creativity even interviews can be enjoyable!

What is your most treasured possession?

JOO: I’m trying to get rid of possessions.

IGUDESMAN: My friendships and relationships in my life. Even though the people do not belong to me, my friendships and relationships do, as long as I nurture and cultivate them.

What is your present state of mind?

JOO: Thinking about what the next question is going to be…

IGUDESMAN: Excitement about our next performance in London on the 4th of March at the Royal Festival Hall. Having Erran Baron Cohen, the brother of Sasha [creator of Ali G and Borat] and composer of the Borat soundtrack will be super exciting. And to do the rather insane show “Clash of the Soloist” in London is something that is literally on my mind now, since I am about to rehearse it with Hyung-ki and Thomas Carroll, our dear friend and great musician, who will conduct the performance with the LPO at the RFH!

On Wednesday 4 March the London Philharmonic Orchestra play it for laughs with comedic duo Igudesman & Joo.

The pair are masters of the art of mashing up classical music masterpieces with their own unique twist.

They join the orchestra for an evening of creativity, madness and hilarity with their two acclaimed shows Clash of the Soloists and Big Nightmare Music.

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

I didn’t have any intention to do it early on. I was training as a ballet dancer, with the hopes of pursuing that professionally, but had also been studying the piano since I was very small, and composition at the local university since I was 14. So, when injuries and illness put an end to ballet, just after I started full-time training, I enrolled in a music degree, as I couldn’t face going back to complete high school. The wonderful professor who’d been teaching me composition was also head of conducting. He saw those two disciplines as complimentary threads, and knew I had a strong interest in harmony and analysis and had conducted a little at school, so encouraged me to add it to my degree. It just grew from there.

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

I am enormously, and endlessly, inspired by my husband, Jon Hargreaves – a contemporary music specialist, and my co-Artistic Director at Nevis Ensemble. Every project he creates is rigorously and creatively thought-out, and his ability to open up complex music to players of every experience level is second to none.

My grandmother Louise Carroll was a very important formative influence. She was a superb pianist as a young woman, but had to turn down a scholarship to study in London due to a pregnancy. She married my grandfather and channelled her musical energies into teaching and motherhood instead. I started harmony, piano and composition with her when I was about 4 years old, and fell asleep on many nights to the sound of her playing Medtner, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Nielsen. Any sense of musical style that I can claim to have comes from what I absorbed as I dropped off to sleep, I’m sure. The grounding she gave me in harmony is the foundation of everything that I do.

Lastly, when I first arrived in the UK, I worked for two years as the librarian at the Philharmonia. Happy, exhausting years. I learnt so much from watching and talking to Esa-Pekka, Maazel, Dohnanyi etc, but also through my discussions with the players, many of whom are now amongst my dearest friends. They were generous, insightful and caring teachers.

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

At the moment, the greatest challenge is the anxiety. It can be crippling, and some orchestras really enjoy making the conductor suffer! I do better work when I’m with ensembles that are healthy and happy in spirit, and don’t project so much negativity onto the podium, because I can be very sensitive to it. But even with the friendliest band, the first rehearsal can be terrifying. Imposter syndrome is widespread in the music world, especially among conductors I think, and we all cope with it differently.

On the flip side, when you find that wonderful working rhythm with a group, to the point you can throw ideas at each other in the performance, and play together in quite an improvisatory way, it is pure gold. That interaction and level of communal creative responsibility is a beautiful thing. Also, actually meeting audience members, going to chat with people and have a cuppa after the concert is great – a powerful reminder of who we do it all for, but also how significant connectedness is to the arts. Doing perfect music “at” people and then leaving without any personal connection is far less satisfying to me than making whatever adjustments and measures are necessary to actually involve people, and find out why music is significant to them. Live music is a far more potent social lubricant than alcohol, and it is the doing of it, the sharing of it as an experience, wherein lies the magic.

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

This is a tricky one… Of course, there is an ideal scenario that we’re all taught to speak of in hushed tones, in which we have weeks or even months to prepare a major score, and craft an analysis; enough rehearsal time to forge a gripping realisation of it; and divinely-inspired technique with which to communicate it. Utter b*ll*cks, really. A 19th-century fantasy. In reality, for 99% of working conductors, especially those of us in the early stages of our careers, we are tearing through scores with barely enough time to process them on even a basic level; spending much of our time working (happily!) with young people and non-professionals who require a totally different, and far from ideal, physical gesture to help them through; and when we are with a good professional band playing repertoire with a capital R, a significant portion of the rehearsal period involves allowing the orchestra to play you THEIR version of the piece. Hear the knowledge and experience of the piece that they bring to the room, listen to the sound they enjoy making, work out who in the room is central to their playing style, assess the relationship between the string principals, and work out whether the principal bass and timpanist listen to each other (hot tip: if not, the best conducting technique in the world can’t save you or them.) You can then add your contribution to the pot, and hopefully it will be a valuable one, but at the end of the day, this is their performance, their hard work and their energy being channelled.

As I was writing this, I thought “maybe it’s different for the elite conductors at the top of the food chain”? After all, the higher a conductor rises in the industry, the more specialised and narrow their repertoire tends to become, and the more easily they can turn down extra gigs, so of course they will know it in far greater depth. But also, I’ve watched many a 5-star maestro sight-read one of the pieces in the first rehearsal. By the second play, the really brilliant ones will have something helpful to say at every point of the piece. They think on their feet and ascertain immediately how to be of use. That is true virtuosity, in a weird kind of way!

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

Well, perhaps this is answered already above. But for a more pithy soundbite, I’d say our role is to be useful, in whatever way is needed in that specific situation. That might be helping the orchestra understand the piece, if it’s unfamiliar repertoire; but often it’s a far more practical role of knowing how to put out the fires when needed, and keeping the orchestra’s nose pointing in the right direction. With a really good orchestra, the most helpful thing you can do is get the jet off the ground, then let the engine (the players!) fly. 99% of the time, they really don’t need you – or, at least, your contribution is no better than anything they can do themselves, so do your best to keep it minimal and worthwhile. I always feel sad when really young conductors get thrown straight into the A-list orchestras, because they never really learn the skills required for those earlier scenarios – nor do they get to experience the genuine satisfaction of performing when you really are needed. The big bands will play brilliantly regardless of your posturing on the podium; but you can do serious damage in other situations, if you’ve not really learnt how to roll your sleeves up, listen deeply and rehearse effectively.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

The operas by Schreker and Korngold are at the top of my dream-list. Highly impractical. Utterly lush.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

We regularly take Nevis Ensemble to the Nan MacKay Memorial Hall – a lovely little community centre in South Glasgow with a full-time programme of activities and resources for anyone in the community in need of company; the elderly, people with social issues, recent newcomers from the refugee community come together to grow veggies, play mah-jong and do craft and exercise classes. There’s barely enough room for the orchestra to set up, and I need to stand on a coffee table in order for the brass and winds to see me. The audience sit around us with bowls of crisps, and there’s always a spread of food afterwards that would make your gran proud. But the energy in the room is like a carnival, and we always meet some really interesting people there. It’s impossible to go there and not come out beaming and full of hope for humanity.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My favourite musicians are the incredible amateur music-makers who are the backbone of musical life in this country. Composers…? Well, Schreker and Korngold are high on the list, obviously! I have pretty broad tastes, but some lurid late Romanticism, just on the brink of early Modernism, will always set me purring.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Not needing to do it – I don’t mean financially, but… spiritually. If my right arm fell off tomorrow and I had to change careers, I’d be quite excited about getting to choose something new and fresh. I take that as an indication that my relationship to my work is quite healthy. The day that balance shifts too far in the other direction is the day I should retire.

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

1. Perfection should not be the end we’re after; it’s far more satisfying to an audience to witness curious, brave musicians who are on a journey with a piece than virtuosity with no value beyond itself. You’ll also grow into a performer (and human) of greater depth and flexibility by challenging yourself in that way. So, don’t sweat the small stuff in a performance; your job is to invite the orchestra and audience into your process, not show them how clever you are.

2. Every single aspect of your life as a musician is a construct. Question it all!

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

Somewhere with mountains nearby, and a work-life balance that allows me to adopt a dog!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Waking up in a remote, wild part of the world, and peering out of the tent to find Jon brewing a cup of earl grey tea on the billy. Bliss, though I’m not sure he’d agree.

What is your most treasured possession?

I love my Xbox for evenings when I don’t need to study, and we have a beloved collection of tea mugs, all of which have a personal story behind them. So, basically, anything in the house, the function of which intersects with my slippers and the sofa…

What is your present state of mind?

Two things:

1. Exhausted. It’s been a long season and I only get 2 weeks off before it all starts again.

2. Content! I’m having a ball touring the Scottish Highlands and Islands with Scottish Chamber Orchestra this week. They’re lovely people and superb colleagues.


New Zealand-born Holly Mathieson is an award-winning conductor, regularly working with opera houses, ballet companies and orchestras in Europe, Australasia and North America. She frequently records for BBC Radio, and her first major commercial recording with Decca will be released in July 2019. Her work has seen her travel to nearly every continent on the planet, and perform for audiences spanning from the British Royal Family and Europe’s political elites, to Scotland’s homeless and refugee communities. She is the founder and artistic director of Rata Music Collective, and Co-Artistic Director of the Nevis Ensemble with Jon Hargreaves.

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