Conductor, recording producer and Artistic Director of the Hertfordshire Festival of Music Tom Hammond interviews Stephen Hough CBE, who this year is the Festival’s Principal Artist and Featured Living Composer – plus a cycle of his oil paintings will be on display at Hertford Theatre during the duration of the Festival (June 10-16).
Who or what inspired you to take up conducting, and pursue a career in music?
My journey into conducting was slightly unusual: I became interested in music ‘accidentally ‘ aged around 10, thanks to some Sibelius and Beethoven on vinyl, and the only classic music in my parents’ collection. No music was made at home, no family member encouraged it, I was just fascinated. A neighbour heard I was interested and offered me free trombone lessons as he had been a professional, so that instrument became my first outlet. I just knew I wanted to conduct too, and put on a charity concert aged 16 (Fauré Requiem), then gained a place to study trombone at the RAM. I played in orchestras, early music ensembles, theatre and chamber groups until my early 30’s when conducting took over, thanks to a Junior Fellowship at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, funded and appointed by Sir Charles Mackerras. This is the short version! But perhaps differently to a number of others in my profession, I didn’t formally study conducting, and I didn’t do an undergrad at Oxbridge. That would have been nice.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
People who have supported me over the years include Sir Charles Mackerras, and the composers Matthew Taylor and James Francis Brown. Each have done so in very different ways, but each have inspired me through their all-consuming passion for music, their artistic integrity, and (perhaps more important than anything else) simple ‘gestures of friendship’. Also, outside of the purely music world the theatre director Peter Avery, who has opened my eyes to so many things about performance, art and life in general.
In terms of musical influences, I feel I am still discovering them day by day. In terms of interpretation I have been fascinated by many involved with ‘historically informed practices’, such as Harnoncourt, Mackerras, Herreweghe etc. More recently I have observed fascinating work being done by Sakari Oramo and Ivan Fischer, who seem to have no fear about introducing imagination and experimentation into their work with the exceptional musicians they lead: The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s appearance at the Southbank centre earlier this year may just have been the best concert-going experience of my life – despite my not agreeing with some of the interpretation! The sense of engagement in their performance, and the generosity with which they delivered the music, was just exceptional.
In the recorded sphere, I have noticed how many times I listen to Sir Neville Marriner and feel he has hit tempi spot-on. Also listening and watching online, Andrew Manze seems to offer fascinating perspectives: I want to get to one of his live performances now.
I have also been hugely inspired by people I have seen combining what I loosely call ‘theatre pratices’ with stunning all-round musicianship: I have watched them work utter magic on younger people at the Ingenium Academy Summer School (an International Summer School for musicians held in Winchester). There have been many, but those I have worked with more closely include Matthew Sharp and Dominic Peckham. I think their styles are the future of music education, frankly.
An unexpected inspiration has also come through my work in Palestine with the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music and Palestine Youth Orchestra: My eyes have been opened not only to the reality of the Palestine – Israel conflict, but also how much we can assume here in the West that we ‘own’ classical music. Wait until you hear these guys play….
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Trying to swap from one genre (playing) to another (conducting) in a profession where people pigeon-hole each other mercilessly. What on earth would I know about string playing, for example?! And working with non-professionals and youth orchestras as often as I do, I know that others will assume that my approach wouldn’t transfer into working with established professional ensembles.
Also something I have only realised relatively recently , which is that conducting appears to be quite an upper/upper-middle class business. I’m state educated, from the West Midlands and don’t have family connections in music, arts management or banking. People talk a lot about how being female is a barrier to becoming a conductor, but actually I think there’s a much greater demographic/class barrier in the way.
Which performances are you most proud of?
A number with my ensemble sound collective: A performance of Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings in 2014 at the Little Missenden Festival with Robert Murray lingers in the memory, also world and London premières of music by Matthew Taylor – most recently his Concerto for Flute and Orchestra with Daniel Pailthorpe; a UK première of a super-funky overture by Carl Nielsen Amor øg Digteren (with Sinfonia Tamesa) and the first performances of a secular oratorio by Rachel Stott about William Blake, Companion of Angels.
I have been quite proud of performances of Sibelius Symphony No.7 with Sinfonia Tamesa, Beethoven’s Eroica with sound collective and the Fifth Symphony with the Palestine Youth Orchestra. Just a few weeks ago I was privileged to accompany cellist Matthew Sharp and the Hertford Symphony Orchestra in an extraordinary performance of the Dvorák concerto. I’m not sure the roof is back on the concert hall yet.
As well as the above, projects that stand out for different reasons include a production of Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper in London and Berlin with a cast of over 60’s who had never sung before in public, and an outreach project with sound collective in Somerset, where teenagers composed companion pieces to Stravinsky’s The Soldiers Tale.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I think my main strength lies in conducting symphonic repertoire. Sibelius, Beethoven, Brahms, Nielsen and Dvorák – with Schumann in development at the moment – are all composers with whom I feel a great affinity. I try very hard to get close to what they intended, and pray I can spend the rest of my life doing so. I also love tone poems with a solid narrative; Tschaik Romeo & Juliet, Sibelius Pohjola’s Daughter… That sort of dramatic, fantastical stuff!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
There are so many variables in the business of programming, from soloists you want to work with through to acknowledging composer anniversaries. I find myself now working two years ahead to ensure I have enough time to properly think, and properly research new ideas.Sadly, money comes into it too: Late Romantic and 20th century works are often expensive, with music hire and PRS to consider but also all those wonderful colourful instruments that cost a bomb, such as percussion, harp, celeste, vibraphone…and if that piece isn’t some form of guaranteed box office winner, you can be in real trouble. In a conversation with someone recently who was railing about the conservative programming that’s prevalent and the need for the classical music business to take up an alternative approach to programming, I felt it appropriate to (slightly misquote) Bill Clinton’s election campaign strategist in 1992: It’s the economy, stupid.One thing I try to do is ensure each season has a balance with music that is new to me, and if possible something brand-new. I also try to ensure that I have allowed nothing onto programmes that I don’t have huge enthusiasm for – it’s absolutely fatal for conductors to end up rehearsing and performing music that means nothing to them. It never goes well when that happens, believe me.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Symphony Hall in Birmingham is a fabulous space which, as huge as it is, feels intimate and warm to perform in. I’d also like to return to the Philharmomie in Luxembourg and Vienna’s Musikverein as a conductor, having loved playing in both halls.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
There isn’t much to beat a Beethoven Symphony in terms of energy, drive and sheer joy in performance. Also Sibelius. I would love to do more opera in the future, having got a huge emotional kick out of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Puccini’s La bohème and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress when I had chance to conduct them.To listen to….I really couldn’t choose a one single ‘Desert Island disc’, so as a cop out I think the music I no longer get the chance to perform: Bach, Monteverdi, Gabrieli.
Who are your favourite musicians?
The ones who genuinely care, and who genuinely put themselves last and the music first. You won’t that find many out there, but they do exist.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It’s hard to choose as performances come with so many different aspects – the music, the perfomers, the venue, and of course those rare ones where something magical occurs and everyone just feels it.But (also with a really driven and energetic Beethoven 5 during the concert as a part of the memory) I don’t think I will ever forget giving a concert with the Palestine Youth Orchestra in Amman, Jordan, during the Gaza conflict of 2014. The concert was given in aid of the Edward Said music school in Gaza, and afterwards I was interviewed by Gaza Television, who asked me to send a message to the people there who had watched the concert….I forget now what I actually said, but I do remember thinking any words could not have conveyed the humanity inside Beethoven’s music.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
- Read books around your subject, such as history and literature (conductors)
- Sing first, practice second (instrumentalists, conductors)
- Ignore the cynicism which is so prevalent and easy to join in with’ but be realistic about what you can achieve in non-commercial music, unless you have a private income
- Don’t work for less than you know you should – you devalue it for everyone else as well as yourself when you do
- Understand how harmony works
- Do some more singing
Tom Hammond is Co-Artistic Director of the Hertfordshire Festival of Music. Further details here
Appointed by Sir Charles Mackerras as the first Junior Fellow in conducting at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, Tom Hammond has developed a rich and musically diverse career that encompasses working with top-flight professionals, youth orchestras, non-professionals, and devising and leading education and outreach projects.
Winning awards and critical acclaim en route, Tom has built a reputation for developing ensembles musically and artistically, whilst encouraging thoughtful programming, championing new music and developing relationships with outstanding soloists. In 2011 Tom was appointed an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, in recognition of his achievements in conducting.
Tom Hammond is Artistic Director of sound collective, Music Director of Sinfonia Tamesa, the Essex Symphony Orchestra and the Hertford Symphony Orchestra, a Principal Conductor at the Ingenium Academy International Summer School, Guest Conductor of the Palestine Youth Orchestra, and Principal Conductor and Music Director of the Yorkshire Young Sinfonia.
Soloists with whom Tom has collaborated include Øystein Baadsvik, Philippa Barton, Dimi Bawab, Richard Birchall, Jonathan Byers, Simon Callaghan, Jonathan Dormand, Sadie Fields, Susana Gaspar, Christopher Guild, Amy Green, Emma Halnan, Pamela Hay, Anna Harvey, Fenella Humphreys, Boyan Ivanov, Matthew Jones, Amanda Lake, David le Page, James Mainwaring, Elisabeth Meister, Robert Murray, Mohamed Najem, Daniel Pailthorpe, Olivia Ray, Catriona Scott, Alicja Smietana, Veronika Shoot, William Stafford, Matthew Sharp, Reem Talhami and Andrew Zolinsky.
Twitter : @tomhammond music