Alexander Shelley, conductor

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

I was always fascinated by, and drawn to, the sound of the orchestra. As a young child I would listen to cassette recordings of Mahler, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov and many others as I was going to sleep. The images and stories that the music evoked in my young brain were vivid and meaningful to me and the sound of the orchestra was the language of my imagination. So in a way I think my path was already laid out in front of me when I was in single digits!

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

As a young boy my parents, who were both concert pianists, were without doubt my greatest influence. I studied piano and cello with my grandmother, then piano with my mother, played chamber music with the family and attended many, many concerts around the world. In my teens I fell under the spell of Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Chucho Valdes and started experimenting with jazz, which turned out to be a huge boon to my thinking as a classical musician. In my life as a conductor I am constantly being influenced not only by the intimate relationship that I develop with the music of each and every composer that I study, but of course through my work with orchestras around the world. I am constantly inspired by the sound, phrasing and musicianship of the great orchestral players.

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

A great challenge and a vital aspect of conducting is to remain constantly self-critical. You must always ask: am I giving the orchestra what is needed for us to produce a truly great performance? You have this responsibility to the players, to the composer and, of course, to the audience. One must never fall into routine. Sometimes you must work on technique, sometimes ensemble, sound, balance or discipline, sometimes you must provoke more freedom, sometimes evoke inspiration. You must listen and respond to the moment and to the needs of the group. If you achieve this you will enter into a symbioses which allows utter freedom and trust and that is the most fulfilling moment,

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

You communicate, quite simply, with all the tools at your disposal. The first tool is of course physical. Clear body language and stick technique is extraordinarily helpful as it communicates so much that must then not be said. Much of our work is of course done in rehearsal and having an efficient command of how to structure that time is also very useful. Generally, giving clear, succinct ideas with as few words as possible is a good idea, leaving, as it does, more time to actually play. There are however moments where story-telling, be it about the music, about emotional content or biographical questions, can be really helpful in stepping beyond the routine aspects of work and into a more philosophical or metaphysical realm.

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

First and foremost I feel a responsibility to serve the composer. The time spent at a desk, studying every gesture and idea that the composer conceives, deconstructing their method and their intent, is wonderfully intimate and fulfilling. It is the steel core of any interpretation and therefore, for me, the jumping off point. It is then my duty, in the brief time that we have together before the performance, to conjure up in the musicians of the orchestra that sense of intimacy with the composer and with the piece so that, in turn, the audience enjoys the same fulfilment.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

I like to joke that we conductors are the most polygamous of musicians – it is our job to fall head of heels in love with several new works a week. As such it is hard to narrow it down. That said there are a handful of pieces which offer a uniquely transformative experience. Mahler’s 2nd Symphony would be an example. Whenever it is on my schedule I look forward to it with an almost feverish anticipation.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna has an acoustic with a quite extraordinary personality and a history of inspirational and meaningful performances. Alongside the Philharmonie and Konzerthaus halls in Berlin it would be among my very favourites. I might add Sydney Opera House for the sheer thrill of its iconic architecture. However Southam Hall, the home of my beloved ensemble, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, is my arena of choice. We have built and continue to grow such a body of happy and important memories, that it would be top of my list!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I read a great deal, particularly in and around philosophy, behavioural psychology and socio-economics. I am an avid runner and tennis player and my wife is a personal trainer, so sport is a big part of my life. I also love the visual arts. At the moment however my greatest inspiration probably comes from my two year old son. Watching him grow has been the most extraordinary experience of my life.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Let in the oxygen! Engage in big conversations and throw open the doors to new impulses and ideas. It physically pains me when I hear the world of classical music described as anything other than universally accessible. Wherever we see barriers we must break them down, confident that the more diverse and open we are, the greater the music will be that we create and perform.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Internalising and then communicating the music of others with honesty, fidelity and empathy in order that it moves the hearts and minds of audiences.

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

Study hard, explore all perspectives, invest yourself in every work, know enough to abandon dogma, respect your colleagues and your audience, be in such command of the technical that you can fully escape it and, ultimately, remember that music is a reflection of the human experience, so think about what it means to be.

‘Clara Robert Johannes’ is the first of four albums in a recording cycle that explores the closely intertwined personal and artistic connections between three musical giants: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Robert Schumann’s and Johannes Brahms’ symphonies will be paired and combined with Clara Schumann’s chamber works and orchestral pieces, including some special gems. Alexander Shelley conducts the National Arts Centre Orchestra with pianist Gabriela Montero. Further information

Alexander Shelley succeeded Pinchas Zukerman as Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra in September 2015. The ensemble has since been praised as “an orchestra transformed … hungry, bold, and unleashed”(Ottawa Citizen) and Alexander’s programming credited for turning the orchestra “almost overnight … into one of the more audacious orchestras in North America.” (Maclean’s Magazine).

Born in London in October 1979, Alexander, the son of celebrated concert pianists, studied cello and conducting in Germany and first gained widespread attention when he was unanimously awarded first prize at the 2005 Leeds Conductors’ Competition, with the press describing him as “the most exciting and gifted young conductor to have taken this highly prestigious award. His conducting technique is immaculate, everything crystal clear and a tool to his inborn musicality”. In August 2017 Alexander concluded his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Nürnberger Symphoniker, a position he held since September 2009. The partnership was hailed by press and audience alike as a golden era for the orchestra, where he transformed the ensemble’s playing, education work and international touring activities. These have included concerts in Italy, Belgium, China and a re-invitation to the Musikverein in Vienna.

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