You are the son of two well-known pianists, Howard Shelley and Hilary MacNamara – was a career in music inevitable?
Music was always around me and it was my first language, but my parents were always keen that I had the opportunity to spread my wings in other directions. They were adamant that I received as broad an education as possible, so I didn’t go to a specialist music school. And I’m really grateful for that. It’s because they know that music is a profession you can only do if it is your complete and utter passion. You know if you try other things but you keep getting drawn back into music because you have a fire in your belly to do it. So yes, there were moments where I could have chosen a different career but I never really wanted to do anything else.
When did you realise you wanted to pursue conducting?
Conducting has always been there, from early on. My first instrument was the piano, but my grandmother played the cello and I always wanted to play it myself. I was a music scholar at Westminster School where I played a lot of cello and sang in the choir and composed, but I always loved orchestral music, so one day when I was about 14 or 15 I asked if I could conduct the school orchestra. They gave me half a concert to do and it was clear to me then that it would be my life. Later I went to study cello in Germany where I immediately founded my chamber orchestra, the Schumann Camerata, so I knew conducting would be my path.
How did winning the Leeds Conductors Competition aged 25 change things?
It was my mother’s suggestion to apply for Leeds – I thought it was still too early in my career, but I sent off an application partly to appease her and ended up winning it. Perhaps in part because I didn’t have any expectations; I just loved the music and having the opportunity to conduct it, so I felt quite relaxed. But of course winning did open the initial doors to many opportunities. One of the things that came out of Leeds were invitations to conduct various UK orchestras, including the BBC Philharmonic and Philharmonia, which gave me some wonderful experiences.
These days you conduct a lot of different music – but where does your heart lie?
I’m most at home with the Austro-German line, from Bach through to Haydn, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Strauss and Mahler, but I revel in doing an abundance of repertoire. I find it very fulfilling doing modern repertoire and I adore opera. Opera is also an entirely different way of life. When you work with an orchestra you can be in a different city for every concert but with opera you stay in one place for a few weeks, it’s like time stops for a while. It’s a challenging switch between concert life and opera life.
You recently played your first official concert as Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Of course I’d grown up hearing the RPO all my life as they are a big part of London cultural life, but my professional relationship with them started a few years ago. Our first few projects were very successful – we got on. It is very exciting to work with them. The challenge for any conductor is the brief time you have in rehearsal to create the conditions where everyone in the orchestra feels excited, energised and able to give their all. If you can create those circumstances then they are among the best in the world. I love the fact that they are so quick, so hugely responsive to gesture, and they have a brilliant way of finding the textures and colours in the music.
Tell us about the concert series at the Cadogan Hall you are curating with the RPO.
The fact that I get to curate concert series is one of my favourite things about this role. This season we are exploring the relationship between New York and Paris, which of course means a lot of French and American music, but also Prokofiev, Stravinsky, those influenced by the Ballets Russes in Paris, as well as the link between Ravel and Gershwin, the influence of jazz. Next season we will be concentrating on Sibelius symphonies and Prokofiev concerti.
It’s very rewarding to do because anyone who comes to the series over the course of the year goes on a musical journey, exploring a particular area of literature. I greatly enjoy the fact that I can talk to the audience from the stage sometimes, and do pre-concert talks. I’m a very vocal advocate for classical music, for talking about what role it plays in our lives. The last thing I want to be is didactic; what interests me is sharing why I love it, because as a conductor or interpreter, you have a responsibility to drill down to the core of the work and understand it. And when I speak to an audience, I find if I can put what is perceived as a ‘difficult’ work in context – when and why it was created, what the challenges the composer was trying to address – then they will always ‘get’ it and find it compelling.
You have also just been appointed Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, succeeding Pinchas Zukerman.
I started working with the orchestra in 2008/09 and loved them from day one – I did various concerts and a run of ‘La bohème’ with them. Pinchas Zukerman had been there 16 years and they were looking to begin a new chapter so I was delighted to be approached.
The NAC Orchestra is exceptional because, as part of the National Arts Centre which was built in 1969 as a gift to the nation by the government; it receives central funding, rather than from the arts council. It’s a very interesting role; not just leading a first-class orchestra, because due to the national role of the institution we have the means and the remit to be at the forefront of the conversation around classical music and the arts in Canada. So as well as core repertoire this season, we are doing an incredibly ambitious set of four new commissions by Canadian composers which are all multi-disciplinary, in connection with other stories and artists – fiction, photojournalism, film. We will combine them to culminate in a completely immersive multi-disciplinary show which we then plan to take on tour in Canada and internationally. It’s a really exciting and unique project – no other symphony orchestra does anything like it.
What are your future plans?
I will remain music director of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra until 2017. We have just come back from Prague and Milan as well as completing the latest in a very successful subscription series that always sells out. It will have been nine years in 2017 so the plan for the next two seasons is to finish on a high while at the same time beginning my work in Canada in earnest. Meanwhile the RPO and I are taking our Cadogan concert series on tour to Korea in autumn 2016, and then to France. I’m really looking forward to the next two years when I have these three major posts running alongside each other.
I’m also revisiting some lovely guest conducting relationships, such as the Gewandhaus Orchestra, the DSO Berlin for a New Year’s concert and subscription concert, the Gothenberg Symphony and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. All these relationships have become more than one-offs and I’m now a regular guest. As a conductor the better you know an orchestra, the more you can demand of them, and them of you – and that makes life very rewarding.
Alexander Shelley spoke to Emma Baker in November 2015