Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
A series of unfortunate accidents! As a fairly straightforwardly academic child I stumbled into an open evening given by the brass teachers of the local peripatetic service. I really can’t remember why I thought it was a good idea, but there was a tuba lying on a classroom table and it chose me there and then.
As a tuba player in youth orchestra I had a lot of bars rest – often whole movements or pieces. To relieve the boredom (and if I’m honest to try to stop myself being a nuisance to people with actual notes to play), I started bringing the scores to rehearsals and following those. It didn’t take long for me to start wanting to hear more of different sections of the orchestra, or wonder how it would work at a different tempo, it was then a short step to formal study, though I don’t think even then that I had any thought of doing it for a living.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
The two most significant early experiences were that of my youth orchestra, but possibly more importantly playing in a very high-level brass band. The culture of dedication, discipline and excellence there was something I shall never forget. Punctuality, alertness and concentration were taken absolutely for granted, and the precision of ensemble and intonation was astonishing. It set standards for me.
After that, three teachers had an enormous influence. My first conducting teacher was Michael Trowski, who was also the conductor of my youth orchestra. He is a wonderful all-round musician, and a very supportive friend who I learnt from as much playing under him as in our lessons. After university I studied with Alan Hazeldine, who pushed me hard to keep focused and to treat conducting as an all-round set of skills that encompassed not only physical technique and score-reading but also mastery of the psychology of orchestras and managements. He also arranged for me to watch and meet Sir Colin Davies who offered several gems of insight that I will always treasure.
But by far the most profound influence on my career in the past decade has been working with David Parry. As his assistant and colleague at Garsington, I was given the most incredible insights into the wonderful world of opera where I have spent much of the last decade. In particular, his peerless facility in the bel canto repertoire has led that to become something of a specialism for me, although I undoubtedly conduct it very differently from him and this ability to nurture conductors without turning out carbon copies of himself is what makes him such a great colleague and mentor.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
As the question implies, this is often the same thing. Every room is different and every person in that room is different. They all want and need something different from you and that will vary ensemble to ensemble, piece to piece and week to week. One of Colin Davis’ brilliant insights was that our job is not to conduct the piece, but to conduct the people who are playing the piece. The fact that the same gestures, explanations, ideas will communicate in one setting but not another is an endless challenge, but the satisfaction of finding a way to let a group of brilliant and talented people make music together to their maximum potential is one of the most fulfilling experiences imaginable.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
Very simply! A wonderful colleague once advised me never to say anything in rehearsal that I couldn’t express in my third language. If I couldn’t say it in German or Italian it was probably too complicated. I think this is wonderful advice. Whilst I have complicated poetic and metaphysical ideas in my head, they are only allowed out through my hands, eyes and body. If you heard me speaking to an orchestra, 99% of the time it would be about the practicalities of note-lengths, balance, intonation, and tempo.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
I am definitely the composer’s representative in the room, and I feel very strongly that it’s my job to bring not only the composer’s ideas but their historical context, assumptions, faith, politics and personality to the rehearsal (though as per above, this generally stays in my head unless really interesting to anyone else!).
Following from that, I think that it is my job to have the whole picture in my mind, whether that be an opera or a symphony, and to be responsibility for the integrity of that. Each singer in an opera needs to be focused on their character, motivations, and emotional arc. My job is to make sure that these knit together into a story. This is why it is often a good sign if we disagree, or at the least have different emphases. Likewise in an orchestra, any given player (or section) has to concentrate on phrasing, articulation, intonation. To let them do that, and to mesh all of those individual lines into a coherent whole, I take charge of the balance, tempo and ensemble so that they focus on making music.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
Too many! I’ve been very very lucky and been allowed to conduct a huge range of repertoire from the 13th century to the present so have no complaints. But having gained a reputation for English music and the Italian bel canto I wouldn’t protest if someone booked me to do Walküre…. or Boris….
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I am a huge fan of the various Frank Matcham theatres around the country. The Hackney Empire is my home turf and I feel a special affection for that space, but Buxton, Cheltenham and Wolverhampton are all glorious venues to make music in. That said, I’m looking forward to making my Bridgewater Hall debut next year which may change that…
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
No favourites! Verboten!
Though more seriously I have never failed to fall in love with a piece I’m working on.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Cynically, it’s the moment when you’re spending more time and energy on doing the work that looking for it.
But fortunately success comes daily when we bring music off the page and through our performance into people’s lives. Every single audience member whose soul goes home lighter after a show is the reason that we’re here.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
They need to have an absolute clarity of purpose. They need to have addressed the big questions: Why do we do what we do, who is it for? Why is it important? They need to have this core of confidence in order to develop resilience to the thousand natural shocks that anyone in the performing arts faces daily.
I think they need to come to these conclusions for themselves and we don’t need to agree. In fact for the continued development and evolution of our profession it’s better if we don’t! It’s very unclear to me what our world and profession will look like in ten years’ time, let alone twenty. Anyone entering now needs to know why and bring with them a readiness to make music in different ways and in different places, so that we continue to touch audiences.
Arthur Sullivan’s complete incidental music to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Tempest with his concert overture, Marmion, performed by sopranos Mary Bevan and Fllur Wyn, Simon Callow (speaker), the BBC Singer and BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by John Andrews, is available now on the Dutton Epoch label
John Andrews is Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, Conductor-in-Assocation with the English Symphony Orchestra, whom he conducts regularly at the English Music Festival. He has conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and concerts in 2018-19 include the 2018 International Composers Festival, the Bridgewater Hall with the Manchester Concert Orchestra, and the London Handel Festival with the Brook Street Band, the Malcolm Arnold Festival and Baroquestock.
His performances of Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei for English Touring Opera, were praised for his ‘highly cultured, shapely and pressing direction… ’ whilst Bachtrack described his interpretation of Lucia di Lammermoor as ‘faultless’. Recent credits include Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel with the Young Artists of Garsington Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Rostock Volkstheater, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Opera Holland Park. In 2018 and 2019 he returns to English Touring Opera for Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, and Il segreto di Susanna for Opera Holland Park.
John is currently making a series of world-premiere recordings with the BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and The Brook Street Band for Dutton Epoch and EM-Records. The first of these – Sullivan’s Music for Macbeth and The Tempest – was named a Disc of the Year in The Sunday Times, described by Hugh Canning as ‘pure delight’. Future releases include Arne’s The Judgment of Paris, and Sullivan’s Haddon Hall and The Martyr of Antioch.
His gift for combining empathy and feel for both music and musicians with an ability to directly and powerfully communicate his ideas, together with his passion for locating music in its social and historical context, brings dynamism and warmth to his interpretations of both rare and classic repertoire.