Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I started working as a cellist when I left university which seemed to be the natural thing to do! I then became interested in early music and played the baroque cello professionally and when I met William Christie at Glyndebourne I started assisting him with conducting with his group Les Arts Florissants in France. I always had played the piano, from an earlier age than the cello so at this point it seemed natural to work out how to play figured bass and transfer those keyboard schools and learn the harpsichord properly. Watching and learning from Bill was a great experience for me and this inspired me to become a conductor.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
To be a good conductor you need to be quite planned. To be able to have an idea of how you would break down the piece into rehearsals and who you would call to rehearse. This takes experience and a lot of time to think through. The most fulfilling aspect is working on the music, and in a concentrated forum like a concert, this can be very rewarding.
How exactly do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
As a conductor you have to use the time in rehearsal well, and then through the medium of your body, hands, face in real time. This is interesting, as so much can be said with non verbal communication. I heard that only a small part of a conversation between two people is the words they use.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
You have to consider many things. Conducting is essentially a group leader role. You have to create the space for talented individuals to be able to do their finest work. Sometimes just allowing them the space for their own inspiration is the best course of action. Casting, enabling, and then solving problems when needed I’d say. Certainly my vision of the music is central but like everything, a good concert is the marriage of those ideas with the personalities that are involved in the creative process together.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I really enjoyed working on the recent recording of John Blow’s Odes with Arcangelo. The music is really interesting and I knew none of it before the project. Also I’m very proud of our collaboration with Nicolas Altstaedt on the CPE Bach cello concertos. I thought we had a very passionate and virtuosic sound.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It’s a mixture between opportunities that arise, artists that I want to collaborate with, and my own interests and desires to programme certain works.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I’ve always felt very privileged to be able to play frequently at Wigmore Hall. The audience is very attentive and interested in the details of the music and the acoustics are wonderful for chamber music. Also I’ve grown very close to our Tetbury audience. I love the acoustics of St Mary’s Tetbury and the community there is extremely enthusiastic and generous. Other great halls purely for their marvellous acoustics where I’ve enjoyed to play include Zurich’s Tonhalle with Vilde Frang and Arcangelo and in Quebec in the Palais Montcalm, where I am thrilled to be music director from next year of the orchestra Les Violons du Roy.
What is one piece that you’ve always wanted to conduct? And have you had that chance yet?
Haydn’s Creation. I spent many years in the London Haydn Quartet and I feel very close to Haydn. I’m itching to do this great work! I havent had the chance yet but constantly plotting to find an opportunity.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Each concert is a creative construction. Bringing a shared pleasure and joy between the musicians and the audience I would say is my definition of a successful concert.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians and conductors?
I think to have a mission something like this: To be devoted to making good quality music whilst forgetting the self. Don’t focus too much on career or outward success as judged by others. Focus on making meaningful music. The rest happens if it is meant to be.
Jonathan Cohen is Artistic Director of Tetbury Music Festival which runs from 28 September to 1 October 2017. Full details here
Jonathan Cohen is one of Britain’s finest young musicians. He has forged a remarkable career as a conductor, cellist and keyboardist. Well known for his passion and commitment to chamber music Jonathan is equally at home in such diverse activities as baroque opera and the classical symphonic repertoire. He is Artistic Director of Arcangelo, Associate Conductor of Les Arts Florissants, Artistic Director of Tetbury Festival and Artistic Partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Jonny becomes Music Director of Les Violons du Roy from the 2018/19 season and in the interim he is Music Director Designate.
(picture Marco Borggreve/Askonas Holt)