interviews with conductors

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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Your father, Masaaki Suzuki, must have had a major impact on your musical development as a child. Can you tell us about this, and what else inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My father had a lot of influence on me as a musician, though I never actually studied with him properly apart from at the Tokyo University for Fine Arts and Music, when I was a student in Masaaki’s class. This was quite special in a way, as I was able to see the way he works, as every other student in the class. Whilst Masaaki introduced me to the world of Baroque music, I became inspired whilst studying composition at the University of Tokyo, where I became familiar with many fascinating contemporary composers. This is especially interesting to me as the composers are still living, so I am able to see the inspiration of their compositions, relating to the world I live in now.

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

Becoming Principal Conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan was a great challenge, as I was formerly the organist, and therefore my relationship with those I work with in the orchestra changed considerably. Every day presents new and exciting challenges that I look forward to tackling. Conducting an orchestra is pure fun for me!

You feature on numerous recordings with Bach Collegium Japan, and have recently been appointed their Principal Conductor. Which performances/recordings with Bach Collegium Japan are you most proud of?

The first would be ‘Bach: Cantata’s, Volume 28’ (BIS) my first recording as harpsichordist of the Bach Collegium Japan! I’m also proud of our Cantata’s Volume 44, where I played the solo part in Bach’s Organ Concerto.

Your new recording project with Antoine Tamestit sees you perform JS Bach’s three sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord. What inspired you to take on this project?

Antoine and I have been very good friends for years, and share a love of sushi which always brings us together, and of course music. We have been talking about making a recording for a while, and it has been the greatest joy to finally work with him on this. The result has been so fruitful and I look forward to sharing this with people.

You will be making your debut at Edinburgh International Festival this season. What are you looking forward to about performing there?

I’m very happy to be returning to Edinburgh to make my debut at the International Festival. The press were very kind about my harpsichord playing last time I was here, and I’m of course looking forward to sampling Scotland’s famous whisky!

You seem to have a very busy workload! How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I believe you have to enjoy making the music you choose to perform. I have always chosen music I love, and I’m happy with the results so far.

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

The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is special to me as I used to live in this area. I always love visiting Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, and Wigmore Hall for its warm atmosphere.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I don’t have a definition of success, as such. I’m happy with the way my career is growing and developing, and believe musicians should always take a humble stance on their career. Acknowledging success might encourage you to stop striving as much, and there is always better music to be made!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? What advice would you give to a younger artist?

I once attended a masterclass given by the great Yo-Yo Ma who explained the three steps to becoming a musician. The first evolved around being confident and proud of what you are making. The second focused on overcoming your insecurities and inexperience as a young musician, and the third encouraged us to continue making music against all odds! I think this third step is the most important but also the most difficult.

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

After 10 more years I hope I am still making music and still happy!

Masato Suzuki’s recording with Antoine Tamestit of J S Bach’s three sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord is released on 23 August 2019 on the Harmonia Mundi label

Masato Suzuki joins the Dunedin Consort in a performance of keyboard concertos by J S Bach at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Further information


A multifaceted musician, Masato Suzuki appears on the concert platform as conductor, organist, harpsichordist and composer. His conducting engagements have seen him work with orchestras such as the Bach Collegium Japan (as Principal conductor), Hiroshima Symphony, Kyushu Symphony, NHK Symphony, Tokyo Philharmonic, and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestras, with repertoire from Haydn and Mozart to Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Schnittke. As organist and harpsichordist Suzuki’s relationships with ensembles such as Bach Collegium Japan as well as chamber music have taken him to major concert venues and festivals across Europe and the US. In the capacity of composer, Suzuki is published by Schott Japan and has recently received commissions from Sette Voci, Tokyo Musik Kreis and Yokohama Minato Mirai Hall among others.

 

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

Listening to a concert of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto at the Menton Festival in the ‘70s. It really was a shock and it provided the turning point. Pursuing a career in music came about due to a number of circumstances.  As I finished secondary school in 1989, the Russians decided to enter Afghanistan, which strangely affected me deeply.  Dreading a looming third world war, I decided to choose what I loved the most in life: music!

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

I would love to say Gustav Leonhardt or John Eliot Gardiner… but actually I am not someone to hero worship or adore gods. The influences on me are multiple: add to the two names above –  Harnoncourt, Mitropoulos, Christie and Gruberova.

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

Winning the international harpsichord competition in Bruges in 1983… this was very unlikely, considering the programme and how severe the jury was. My other greatest challenge as a conductor came last year conducting Gounod’s Faust with forces I have never had before in répertoire totally new to me and my ensemble Les Talens Lyriques… but I loved it.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

In terms of pure prestige and distinction –  definitely Mitridate by Mozart with a flashy label and a flashy cast: Bartoli, Florez, Dessay, Piau etc.  In terms of my own personal conviction, Les Nations by Couperin, because he is the composer who speaks most directly to my heart and because the recording just released a few months ago is 99% what I dreamt it would be – refined in spirit and execution.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Hmmm! Difficult question… let’s be general and answer opera. I love giving life to human drama. Music, especially sung, can bring an extraordinary intensity to a text. That’s what I love most.

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

I try to balance my career between solo harpsichord, chamber music (because I love to play with my own ensemble), opera for the reasosn above and possibly some sacred music for my soul

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

Not really. I am of course very sensitive to acoustics. Wigmore hall in London, Victoria Hall in Geneva, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or even the brand new Paris Philharmonie are quite inspiring.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Krystian Zimerman, Isabelle Faust, Christian Gerhaher. Wonderful artists. Very inspiring and very honest (I hate the new tendency of showing off!)

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Bach D minor harpsichord concerto in 1985 during the Bach anniversary with La Petite Bande, the baroque orchestra I loved most at that point. I was 24 and this was a dream!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Approach your ideal of sound as close as possible and coax the music you perform with all your soul and body. When it happens, say 80-85%, it’s a big success – people like it, or not!

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

Be honest, serve music with devotion, ignore your ego and remain curious, remain the child you were once. This pure attitude is perhaps what creates a true emotion for oneself and for other people through music

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

In front of my orchestra still performing and making people as happy as I can.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Harmony and serenity

What is your most treasured possession?

Love

What is your present state of mind?

Resigned and hoping for better!

Christophe Rousset is the renowned harpsichordist, conductor and founder of the baroque ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, who return to the Wigmore Hall on 21st February in a Venetian programme of music by Monteverdi, during a break from performances of La Divisione del Mondo by the little-known Venetian composer Legrenzi  in Strasbourg.   His latest recordings are Couperin’s Les Nations and Couperin & Moi, both on Aparte.  His next disc of keyboard music by Frescobaldi will be released at the end of March.


Christophe Rousset is a musician and conductor inspired by a passion for opera and the rediscovery of the European musical heritage.

His studies (harpsichord) with Huguette Dreyfus at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, then with Bob van Asperen at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague (winning the coveted First Prize in the Seventh Bruges International Harpsichord Competition at the age of twenty-two), followed by the creation of his own ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, in 1991, have enabled Christophe Rousset to obtain a perfect grasp of the richness and diversity of the Baroque, Classical and pre-Romantic repertoires.

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(Picture: Ignacio Barrios Martinez)

 

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.

johnkandrews.com

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

Music was a very gradual and natural progression for me. As a child I began to play more and more music until I was eventually spending every spare minute at school rushing off to a practice room, to a rehearsal, to a music tech studio, to a lesson, to a chamber group. I was filling my holidays and weekends with orchestra courses, jazz rehearsals in London, and on and on and on. Finally it dawned on me that music was clearly the focus in my life, and it would be a rather natural next step to try to make a living out of it.

Likewise the conducting was a transition. There came a point in my early twenties when I realised that I’d caught the conducting bug. I was playing in orchestras of such varying standards, from the flimsiest of amateur setups to the highest professional level, that I was constantly watching the whole spectrum of conductors in front of me. The lesser mortals gave me the confidence that I could do better than them, but more importantly the better conductors inspired me hugely, fascinated me, and got me hooked on the idea that a conducting profession could be a compelling journey.

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

In my earlier days the strongest influences were my teachers – and I was certainly lucky to have superb teachers, more than I can mention. I owe a lot to Neil Thomson, who first set me off on a path towards understanding the process of conducting, and understanding how to learn. From that point I had so many different conducting influences. Two names that stand out are Sir Mark Elder and Claudio Abbado. Mark gave me two years of astonishing support, guidance and inspiration whilst I was his assistant at the Hallé orchestra; Claudio gave me his mindblowingly high-class conducting to feed off whilst I was playing in the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.

Nowadays my primary influences are the scores in front of me, but my instincts are surely still heavily influenced by all the people who led me where I am today.

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

Perhaps the greatest challenge is wrestling with the question of what a composer intended at a certain point in a score when his or her vision is absolutely unclear on the page. If it’s a work that’s close to your heart, this struggle is intense and consuming, but always interesting. On a more mundane note, there is a huge organisational and logistical focus to my work as a conductor that wasn’t present when I was a player. This is especially true in my role as a Music Director. Fortunately I’m rather neurotic in terms of organisation, so I get by.

Putting aside all the challenges, though, at the very heart is the fact that I feel totally at home on a podium in front of an orchestra. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than the concert experience of performing music that you have rehearsed intensely and spent months preparing for. When things are going well, it’s the most satisfying possible way to conclude a project.

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

Any player will tell you that the holy grail is for conductors to communicate everything in gestures. That’s certainly the dream. Of course it’s not possible 100% of the time. Some things need to be said, but perhaps the secret is knowing when to stop… Players don’t need to know all your ideas. There’s often a great deal of extra contingency preparation or historical context that doesn’t need to be shared. In the case of, say, Also Sprach Zarathustra, there’s even a gigantic layer of philosophy. The players don’t need to know everything you’re thinking, but having all these extra layers as a base can add so much to the conviction with which you’re conducting.

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

Absolutely the latter. Surely that has to be the primary role of a conductor, to take on full responsibility to enable the audience to experience what the composer intended. If you happen to inspire the musicians along the way, that’s a bonus – an orchestra is more likely to play well and work hard if they’re inspired.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

Although I’m lucky to be able to programme and perform orchestral music of my choosing a lot of the time, there are a few sacred cows… The piece that most comes to mind is Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande. I have unusually powerful memories of rehearsing and performing it under Claudio Abbado, so the music means a lot to me and I feel as though I know it inside out. But I’m wary of experiencing it from the podium, in case those memories are affected.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

There are so many tremendous buildings devoted to classical music! I’m so fortunate to be Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León – we both rehearse and perform in the spectacular concert hall of the Auditorio Miguel Delibes. It’s hard to beat the Royal Albert Hall – what a space – plus I used to walk past it every day so it feels like coming home. As a player I adored the glamour of the Musikverein, and was totally blown away by the concert hall in São Paolo with its mix of wood§ and stone. I’m particularly fond of Snape Maltings – apart from the beautiful concert hall there’s that wonderful view across the marshes. And now I’m in danger of opening up the entire genre of concert halls with views-to-die-for from the conductor’s dressing room….. Gran Canaria with its sweeping view of the beach, Granada looking out over the Sierra Nevada from its hilltop position next to the Alhambra… Perhaps there’s a coffee table book in this.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

In general terms, my favourite musicians are those who respect the music on the page and the intentions of the composer. Obviously it helps if they can transmit it to the audience with jaw-dropping skill and style… but I’m never a fan of style over substance.

As for composers, in order to connect with me they need to have something to say in their music, rather than just searching for the next note for composing’s sake. This probably isn’t tangible and might translate into different things depending on the era in which the composer was writing, but there’s always a depth supporting it, which keeps me interested when looking deeper and deeper into a score. You might have guessed I’m trying to remain generic instead of naming names(!)

It’s worth adding, though, that I listen to very little classical music for pleasure. I feel the need to escape it to make sure that it stays fresh. Many of my favourite musicians are in other genres; pop (in every sense), jazz, and so on.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To earn the respect of both musicians and non-musicians over the longterm course of a career.

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

If only I had something of value to offer! It’s tricky to pin these things down when you’re continuously searching for the answers yourself. I’ll try to suggest a few…

Garner and absorb as many influences as possible. Otherwise you’ll never acquire the broad view with which to find out if you’ve been heading down the wrong track.



It’s important to have occasional bouts of fanaticism and all-consuming obsession in your music- making. It can take you to the next level.

Those in music who achieve the most are, more often than not, those who put in the most work. Yes there are exceptions, but you’re taking a gamble if you test the norm.

Remember there’s more to life than your chosen profession. Despite all the hard work, keep it in context and maintain a balance in your life – you’ll be a healthier person.

There will be ups and downs. Enjoy the ride.


Andrew Gourlay is Music Director of the The Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León, which has just announced the launch of its own record label. The first recording will be released on 9 January 2019, and feature Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony.

Watch the album trailer:

Born in Jamaica, with Russian ancestry, Andrew Gourlay grew up in the Bahamas, Philippines, Japan and England. A trombonist and pianist by training, he studied conducting at the Royal College of Music, where he prepared Bruckner symphonies for Bernard Haitink and Mozart symphonies for Sir Roger Norrington. He was selected by Gramophone magazine as their ‘One to Watch’, and by BBC Music Magazine as their ‘Rising Star: great artists of tomorrow’.

Andrew Gourlay won First Prize at the 2010 Cadaques International Conducting Competition, securing concerts with 29 orchestras around the world. For the next two years he was Assistant Conductor to Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra. In January 2016 Gourlay took up the position of Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León (OSCYL), having been their Principal Guest Conductor since the 2014/15 season, and celebrated the orchestra’s 25th anniversary in 2016/17.

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