Dan Ludford-Thomas conductor

Dan Ludford-Thomas, composer & conductor

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

From as far back as I can remember, I just wanted to sing. As a young man, I wanted nothing more than to make a career as a classical singer. I did not set out to be a conductor. Coming from a family of teachers, I have always had a passion for facilitating the music making of others. So, once I was established in my career as a professional singer, it was natural to combine this with teaching singing, which led to directing choirs. Nevertheless, I was keen to study conducting properly, not just fall into it. Pursuing my schooling in conducting eventually took me away from my singing career. Composing is something I have always done quietly, writing songs and pieces for the forces I work with. This continues to be an exploration, something that I’m never the master of, always the student.

I have been lucky to sing with some of the very best choirs in the UK, so I have seen and absorbed a lot. It has also been my good fortune to have been been mentored by generous, patient teachers. Whilst I have also lived and worked alongside composers who have given me their time and helped me grow

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

My first Director of Music, Derek Gillard at St Matthew’s, Northampton, made a massive impression on me. He had a choir packed into the stalls. Committed singers from all sorts of backgrounds all pulling together, laughing, singing. The Scottish tenor, my singing teacher, Peter Wilson continues to be an inspiring example of someone committed to their craft. Still as passionate today about teaching the art of singing as he was when he taught me. The conductor Mark Shanahan, who gave me so much time and input, to shape me as a musical director. And my wife Helen, who is a fine singer and musician, and my fiercest critic.

What, for you, are the most challenging and most fulfilling aspects of your job?

As a conductor, these days, managing energy in the right way. Keeping physically fit and emotionally grounded are important as it can be draining to conduct, collaborate and bring the room together. I do a lot of yoga.

As a composer, it’s finding time to compose. Once I start it’s like a nagging puzzle that won’t rest in the mind until it’s done. With both: doubt – that what I have done is good enough.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

The challenge is to pitch my language, pace and the detail to the particular ensemble in front of me. I am at home with singers, young, old, amateur or professional. More recently, I have learnt to be comfortable with orchestras. My starting point is not one of superiority: I have my job to, I am there to draw it all together, to chair the meeting and sometimes to know when to get out of the way.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I am essentially a tonal composer, but bitonality and rhythm are key aspects to the way I think. I tend to infuse my music with these elements.

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

A large part of any conductor’s communication is non verbal – to be clear, and to use my body to project my interpretation, or the intentions of the music. In rehearsal it is obviously necessary to talk through ideas, but it is critical to get players or singers to see what you mean physically.

As a composer, how do you work?

I am a manuscript, pencil and piano person. I try things out by improvising with my voice. I record snippets of my ideas on my phone – and often retrospectively discover weird vocal and piano experiments that either didn’t work, are really funny (so get binned) or lead on to be developed. Once I am in a piece I stick with it, one composition on the go at any one time. I am getting better at not judging an idea from the outset, but this can sometimes be a struggle. My background is in traditional classical music, however I also strive always to write to my brief, with appropriate musical language to the task. An example of this is below – the song was written for children, in a pop idiom, which was entirely appropriate in this case.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

There is not one specific work left, more that there are various favorites I like to come back to. I love Bach and Mozart, Poulenc and Walton. I am also intrigued by composers who have may have been overlooked in the past. I conducted several works by Lili Boulanger recently and found the process so stimulating and refreshing.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The UK is full of amazing venues. I love the major concert halls, specifically the Royal Festival Hall, because I have had so many great musical experiences there. I also love the architecture and feel around the venue. Having said that, I grew up in churches and cathedrals. I will always hold a candle for Durham Cathedral. Equally, the off-grid, whacky spaces which have personality and an unusual energy can be the best. As long as there is a suitable acoustic for the forces I am working with.

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

I love a classical music concert, but I am more likely to go to see something that is not my area of specialism like a piano recital or the ballet. I can also be drawn to the odd pop concert (usually some heros from my past). I am always listening to classical music to hear an old interpretation and compare this with a recent recording. My wife finally got me to use Spotify and I am hooked. If something is good, from whatever genre, I will be inspired. Live music making when committed and full throttle is one of the best things I can think of.

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

Society needs to care more for its arts and this to me means classical musicians. Investment in the arts is investment in people. Everyone. There needs to be state support for all children and adults to be able to be immersed in classical music. Representation for all is vital in classical music, so that audiences feel engaged and inspired by what they see and hear. This is why I have co-founded Vox Urbane together with my wife, Helen Meyerhoff. Vox Urbane is a professional vocal ensemble which exists to challenge all barriers leading to exclusion from classical music, for performers and audiences alike. It is our mission to challenge preconceived ideas about what classical music is and who it is for. We are striving to achieve this by working with singers of every background – ethnicity, gender, socio-economic – and through innovative programming. Additionally, we have established a young artist training programme – Vox Next Gen – to inspire and train classical singers of the future. In this video clip there are members of Vox Urbane and Next Gen singing together in ‘One’, a piece that I wrote to articulate this message.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That you are still enjoy what you do when you are doing a piece for the 100th time.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring conductors/composers?

Continue to work on yourself and your music making, keep exploring, don’t think you’ve ever finished learning…

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you feel we should be?

Continual discussion on diversity, and change. We need to bring people from more diverse backgrounds into the industry. It is essential that all people, not only those from more privileged backgrounds, should be exposed to and see a pathway for themselves into classical music – this means funding.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still getting the world to sing…

Vox Urbane’s inaugural concert is on Sunday 16 April at Asylum Chapel, Peckham, conducted by Dan Lydford-Thomas. Info/tickets

Dedicating his life to choral music from an early age, Daniel Ludford-Thomas is a renowned choirmaster, conductor, and educator. A former Choirboy of the Year, he has performed with The Sixteen, The King’s Consort, and many other major international ensembles. He is co-founder/principal conductor of Vox Urbane, an outstanding professional vocal ensemble established  in response to the lack of diversity in classical music. 

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