Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I was most inspired as a conductor by Tim Brown, who directed the Cambridge University Chamber Choir, in which I sang when I was at college. A friend once paid me a great compliment when he saw Tim conducting and remarked to me that “he conducts just like you”. In reality, of course, it was the other way around and my style was heavily influenced by him.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
My background is as a pianist and organist, so many of my musical heroes come from those disciplines. First off, I have to mention the late, great David Sanger, who taught me organ and was one of the most amazing teachers I ever had. Then there’s a long list of pianists, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Krystian Zimmerman and Stephen Hough, whose extraordinary technique and musicianship have been a great source of joy and inspiration to me over the years. As a conductor, it would have to be Sir John Eliot Gardiner, whose many sensational recordings have amazed and inspired me since I first heard them as a teenager.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
The most fulfilling part for me is being able to realise a vision for a piece and hear it come to life as I imagined it in my head. This is harder to achieve than it sounds and reflects the many challenges of being a conductor: first, you need to find something interesting, and ideally something new, to say about the piece. Then, of course, you need to be able to communicate that to the performers. And then it all needs to come together on the day of the performance. There are times when conducting can be stressful – after a difficult rehearsal, say, or when there is limited time to prepare – but those times are always cancelled out by occasions in performance when the stars align and, perhaps only briefly, everything comes perfectly together to create a truly magical moment.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the choir?
That’s definitely a challenge. The fact that I have some training as a singer helps, because it means that I can usually demonstrate what I want, and I can also make technical suggestions where necessary. I try to focus on communicating the image or mood that I want to convey, and my scores are littered with notes written in flowery language. Because I’ve worked with the same choir for 25 years that usually works, but if the singers aren’t following my ideas then I will resort to more technical language.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
I think my role is definitely to inspire the performers and to convey the composer’s vision, but I try to bring something additional to every performance that is true to what the composer wrote, but presents it in a thought-provoking way. The wonderful thing about music is that there is always an infinite number of ways to perform any given piece, and (though we are all in danger of getting dogmatic about the merits of our own interpretation) never a “right” or “wrong” way.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
I have been very fortunate to have been able to conduct almost all of the repertoire that I have wanted to perform over the last 25 years, but there are two large works that I haven’t yet tackled as a conductor, though I have performed both as a singer: Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Verdi’s Requiem. One day…
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Of our regular performance venues, St Martin-in-the-Fields is probably my favourite because it feels quite intimate as a venue, but backstage there is loads of space and good facilities.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I mentioned some of my favourite pianists earlier. My list of favourite composers would have to start with Johann Sebastian Bach: for me, he is simply the master. More broadly, I tend to gravitate towards the Romantic end of the spectrum, and I adore Sergei Rachmaninov’s music. As an organist, my favourite composer is Louis Vierne, and as a pianist it is Frédéric Chopin (the latter by a very considerable margin). It’s hard to single out a particular choral composer, but Georg Schumann (no relation to Robert) springs to mind. He is not well-known now, but I have made premiere recordings of his choral music and some of his songs and I really believe that he deserves to be better known, so please look him up!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I once saw a documentary about Vladimir Ashkenazy, who said that he had only a few times in his life achieved what he wanted to achieve, and that at those moments he didn’t feel as though he was playing any longer – rather, the music felt as though it was playing itself. I can’t say that I have ever achieved that myself, but that’s what I’m aiming for. In musical interpretation and performance, there is always something that you could have done better, so I don’t see “success” as a particular goal – rather, I just try to do the very best I possibly can, and to make each performance better than the last.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
As a conductor, I have often felt that I have learned as much from watching, and singing for, poor conductors as I have from watching great ones. So my advice would be to use every rehearsal and performance as a learning experience. If you see something that inspires you, that’s great: use it. If you see something that you don’t like, remember it and make sure you never do the same thing yourself.
Mark Ford is conductor of London-based choir The Purcell Singers who celebrate their 25th anniversary this year with a performance of Brahms’ Requiem at St John’s Smith Square on 28 September and an album launch at St George’s Cathedral Southwark. Further information
Mark Ford was born in Bromley and educated at St Dunstan’s College, Catford, where he studied the organ with the international recitalist David Sanger. He continued his academic and musical studies at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he held an Organ Scholarship and read law. Whilst at Cambridge, Mark directed the Chapel Choir (whom he accompanied on tours to Bavaria and Ireland), as well as the college Choir and Orchestra, and sang in the University Chamber Choir under Timothy Brown.
He founded The Purcell Singers in 1994 and has directed them in concerts of wide-ranging music from the fifteenth century to the present day. With the choir he has also made four classical CD recordings, as well as ten commercial recordings of music for film and television. He has conducted sessions at all the major London recording studios.
Mark has carried out extensive research into the music of the late romantic composer Georg Schumann, and has recorded all of Schumann’s choral works with The Purcell Singers. He plans to release recordings of some of his other works in the future, including the composer’s piano music and songs.