Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
After taking up the cello as a youngster I remember seeing a book cover with an intriguing image. It was about Sir John Barbirolli but it certainly wasn’t clear from the book cover that he was a conductor – he was actually holding a quill and writing in a big book. On opening it I saw lots of pictures of people playing instruments and he was leading them. In fact at this point I don’t think I’d ever seen an orchestra so didn’t even know what a conductor was. This certainly planted an early seed that it took me many years to come back to.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
Being away from home is a greater challenge than I ever thought it would be. Fulfillment comes by way of shaping an orchestral sound the way you want it. Even when guest conducting it’s important to me to try and coax the sonorities that I feel are ideal.
How exactly do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
I never enjoy hearing people talk too much about music, other than in the most general of terms. I find it a largely pointless exercise that detracts from the players’ capacity to use their own imaginations. If I can convey a telling visual image or emotional idea as succinctly as possible I think that is the way to do it. And then of course, there’s what you do with your hands. A great deal of it is intuitive but I shall be forever grateful to my teacher Ilya Musin for opening my eyes to the fundamental importance of meaningful gesture.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
All of these really. Conveying the vision of the composer is, of course, the ‘correct’ answer, but it’s a very dangerous game to play. When does an interpretation become merely a rendition and vice versa? I believe all great composers were eager for the personal input and inspirations of those who chose to perform their works. You also have to be careful as a conductor not to corrupt the text. Nuancing in orchestral performance is so much more difficult than chamber music. That’s why, in my opinion, we have so much blandness in orchestral performances, blandness that’s rescued for the listener by the huge number of sonorities and colors available from the orchestra.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
My latest recording of Elgar and Chadwick is the one I’m most proud of, as much for the coupling as the music making.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
As a music director you have a myriad of options and constituents to consider: when was a piece last performed, how can I create a programme that draws the audience in from beginning to end and, by extension, from concert to concert to create a compelling season for subscribers? How much does the audience trust me to bring them music they’ve never heard of without feeling put-off? All of this comes way before ‘Oh, I’d love to conduct this or that piece’ or ‘I really want to work with X as soloist again’. Personal desires have to come last.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
There are two halls I really love working in, the Philharmonie in St. Petersburg, and the Dvorak Hall in the Rudolfinum in Prague. Each has different qualities that amount to personalities all of their own, but the one great similarity they have is that the sound just seems to ooze up from the floor in the richest way imaginable and grab your whole body as you conduct.
What is one piece that you’ve always wanted to conduct? And have you had that chance yet?
I think that by now I’ve probably conducted everything that I’ve ever had a burning desire to conduct. However, there are certainly pieces I want to ‘revisit’ let’s say. Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony are two that spring to mind. I was far too young when I thought I could conduct these great works. There are so many pieces whose inner core really eludes you until you have been through many of life’s experiences.
Tell us more about the connection between George Chadwick and Edward Elgar, and Chadwick’s contribution to musical life in New England.
It’s both simple and complicated. Elgar was everything Chadwick wanted to be but wasn’t, a world renowned composer. Being held in high regard in the US at the end of the nineteenth century wasn’t enough for him. Both composers made numerous visits across the Atlantic – Chadwick to encourage performances of his music, Elgar to receive honorary degree – yet, bearing in mind they both were their country’s leaders in their field and they had ample opportunity to meet, contact was remarkably minimal. I feel from the correspondence and diaries I’ve read that Chadwick would have loved to have had an ongoing relationship with Elgar. He wrote lengthily to Elgar on a good number of occasions, but Elgar’s responses were always polite but brief. Often suspicious and dismissive of those who came from academic backgrounds, Elgar was also fiercely protective of what he had achieved. Whilst Chadwick had had the good fortune to study in Germany and frolic around Europe, Elgar had only managed to finance a couple of weeks there when younger. Now, whilst this all seems a degree trivial I believe it set an unfortunate tone between the two. A greater friendship between the two would certainly have benefitted George Chadwick and helped bring sooner and wider recognition of what a fine composer he was.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I suppose the obvious answer these days is remaining gainfully employed. Looking beyond this it’s actually a question I’ve wrestled with all my career, particularly recently. I’m someone who finds it difficult to accept compliments or praise and I admire performers who take compliments after concerts graciously – I’m getting better at it though! At the end of the day the audiences experience is what is paramount. Have they felt transported or uplifted by the performance? Have we given them some spiritual uplift that frees them even momentarily from their own daily life challenges? Finally, I’m now beginning to see this as being the real reason as to why we do what we do.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians and conductors?
Be sure in your mind that this is what you absolutely have to do. Otherwise choose a career that is less fickle. If you must be a musician don’t be afraid of opening up your soul every time you step in front of an audience.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
On the bench at St. James’ Park waiting for Rafa to call me onto the pitch. The chances are receding…..
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My present state of mind.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have a postcard sent by Elgar to Jaeger (Nimrod) from Constantinople in 1905. To touch it, even to look at it brings you in direct contact with heroes and history.
What is your present state of mind?
Elgar: The New England Connection, the latest release from Andrew Constantine and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, is available on the Orchid Classics label. On this recording, Andrew Constantine explores the dynamic between these two composers through two of their most substantial works: Chadwick’s ‘Symphonic Sketches’ with Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’. Further information here