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 classical 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 Royal Academy of Music. 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 practices’ 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 particular works do you think you perform best?
I think my main strength lies in conducting symphonic repertoire. Sibelius, Beethoven, Brahms, Nielsen and Dvorák 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; Tchaikovsky 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 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.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
The most challenging aspect sounds simple but really isn’t, which is really listening in rehearsal whilst multitasking the physical gestures, time-management and keeping people motivated. Also, depending on acoustic, the podium isn’t always the best place to hear the overall balance. Every conductor needs an assistant for this reason, but not everyone can afford it…
The most fulfilling thing for me is the performance itself, and being in a totally different world for it; each concert is a unique occasion, and trying not to walk out on stage the same person you were in the rehearsals, or having food before the gig, or that you will be again once the final applause has faded, is one of my aims.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
It can depend a lot on the orchestra, as some groups love to hear a mini-lecture on a work, then others won’t tolerate much talking at all! Knowing the group dynamic or quickly judging the ‘mood’ of the room is crucial. I try to combine some form of musical/emotional point with a practical/technical suggestion. Where I can, adding a little context for the musicians about the composer, the history of the work, other cultural references…and just hope they’re interested. Often they are, but often conductors don’t think to do this and just talk about note-lengths, bowings, phrase direction…but with no context.
In the performance it’s then about eye-contact and willing people on to what’s been discussed in rehearsal, but I always think it’s good to do something just a tiny bit different and unexpected, to create a sense of ‘in the moment’ music-making.
If I’m lucky enough to get a longer period of time working with an ensemble I also like to introduce people to composers and/or works they may well not know, but I think they’ll be pleased to get to know.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
If I’m asked by people who don’t participate in music what my job is, I often equate it to that of a theatre director; if you just threw 20 copies of Hamlet on the floor to a bunch of actors and said ‘go’, it would probably be carnage! I think my role – which really is only actually needed when there are more musicians than could comfortably work as a chamber ensemble – is to passionately interpret the composer’s intentions by having a considered and researched view of the music, then organising and motivating the performers to achieve that. It’s endlessly fascinating because in a large group only a few voices can be heard for practical reasons, so trying to evaluate whether or not you’ve got everyone on-board and convinced, and also feeling that each individual has the possibility to perform to her/his best ability. I’m naturally a combination of indecisive (I’m a Libran!) and shy, so every single time this is a huge effort for me and I have to be, to an extent, an actor to overcome these things.
Is there one work which you would really love to conduct?
Just one?! In terms of something I doubt I’ll ever get to do for a variety of reasons, it would be Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges, which is simply one of the most magical works of any art I know. But something I suspect is much more likely to actually happen at some point but I’m terrified of, its Sibelius Symphony No.4. The very definition of brooding, dark, deep and disturbing in music, but I think possibly his masterpiece.
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 performers, 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
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
An audience that’s totally captured and entranced by a performance, and performers who feel they’ve done something special and of their best.
Tom Hammond is a conductor and producer, and co-Artistic Director of Hertfordshire Festival of Music