Duncan Ward

Author: Clemency Burton-Hill

We’re delighted to announce our representation of the exciting young conductor Duncan Ward.

You’re having a very impressive year! How does it feel to be so young, just 22, and already in such demand?
It’s very exciting! I feel quite lucky really. People always say you create your own luck through a combination of hard work and entrepreneurialism but I do feel lucky. The truth is that it’s very early days and I’m wary that I’ve got a long way to go. But the amazing thing about music is that you can still be learning, improving and mucking things up until the day you die.

Is there a long term plan?
I’ve always had dreams about where I might go, but I do take things as they come. Part of what I’ve done is openly embrace things that might seem quite unexpected, in quite diverse circumstances, which have led to other things…

Such as?
The way I got involved in working in India for example. I was 17 and my piano teacher had just come back from there. She was talking about me going at some time in the future, in my twenties, but I thought, why not now? A month later I was teaching in Kerala, in South India, and subsequently founded this music education charity [the WAM Foundation]. It was a bit of a gamble; I had no idea what would come of it, but it’s led to my relationship with Ravi Shankar and introduced me to so many inspirational people, whether diplomats, businessmen, teachers or philosophers.

What are those dreams you mention?
Having had a taste of working with some of the great orchestras and conductors around the world makes me hope one day to be a regular or even a Music Director somewhere. And I love opera. I once hitchhiked to the Verona Opera Festival when I didn’t have enough money. I think the epitome for me would be to write my own opera and conduct it at a major house.

You are also a former BBC Young Composer of the Year. How do you juggle the demands of writing music with your conducting career?
They’re both so important to me in different ways, and of course they both take up a lot of time so it can be stressful, depending on the commissions! But they really do help each other and so long as people want me to do both I’m thrilled to do so.

Both conducting and composing are notoriously tough careers to break into; how are you finding it?
I think a conducting career can actually take off slightly faster because as a young composer your voice takes longer to develop and for people to take you seriously. But the experience of conducting; the impact those musicians and singers have on you as a person, and the intimacy with whatever particular masterpiece you’re doing, really filter through to your work as a composer.

What’s on the horizon that you’re most excited about?
I’ve got a new piece for the LSO and James Macmillan that I’m just finishing – it’s a short piece, 4 minutes, called P-Paranoia which will be performed at LSO St Luke’s in January. That came about as part of the Panufnik Scheme, which is a brilliant opportunity for emerging composers. In terms of conducting, I’m very much looking forward to returning to New York and the International Contemporary Ensemble who I had the most wonderful experience working with in the summer – they really are extraordinary.

What makes them special?
Their passion and absolute determination that their concerts at Mostly Mozart were not just going to be impressive but absolutely unforgettable. The rehearsal process was very dynamic, very inquisitive and invigorating: these are phenomenal players, with fantastic solo and chamber careers, and they had such strong opinions to fire at me and just so much energy and spirit, the like of which I haven’t seen anywhere else yet.

You’re passionate about a wide range of repertoire…
At this stage I’m extremely curious. I endlessly find that whatever piece it is that I’ve picked up, from any end of the spectrum, by the time I’ve spent some time studying it, it will be my favourite piece of the moment! It could be Corelli, Haydn or a brand new work from a contemporary – I love the diversity of the challenges. At the moment I feel particularly at home and comfortable with twentieth-century and early classical periods. Much as I adore Brahms symphonies, for me to bring a real seriousness and depth to that sort of music I think will take a few more years.

You’ve already worked with some of the world’s most eminent maestri – Barenboim, Gergiev, Boulez. Who are your greatest inspirations?
One of the things about conducting I really feel is that essentially you’re lumped with your body and your mind as your instrument. There is nothing to hide behind. Nearly all conductors are so different; they have such a different approach and style, and I admire so many of them. But most recently, working with Daniel Barenboim was just amazing – he’s a conductor and a man I have so much respect for. He was working on Barber of Seville for the first time and in that room with the Staatskapelle you simply could not deny the passion and absolute belief behind the way he wanted to do it. He was utterly convincing and very inspiring.

The world’s about to end – what’s your ultimate musical dream?
I’m torn. [Thinks a long time.] Either conducting Mahler 9 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Or Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne.

You began at such a young age. Why were you drawn to conducting?
It may have had something to do with my experience as a French Horn player – stuck at the back of the orchestra I always found it far more interesting to think about what the rest of the orchestra were doing, or what I wished they were doing! I was also drawn to the physical part of it, I think, because I used to be a ballet dancer and was then an artistic roller-skater for a long time.

Sorry, a what?
[Chuckles]. It’s basically figure skating, but not on ice. When I was about four I went to see a pantomime on skates, and in the car on the way home I announced to my family that we had to learn how to do it; in fact my brother still does. I loved the movement, the choreography – it was some of my earliest exposure to music and thinking about how I wanted to respond to it.

I’m willing to bet you’re the first conductor-composer-charity-director to have also competed internationally as an artistic roller-skater.
Um, quite probably!

Tell me more about your WAM Foundation?
It’s about exchange of cultures between the UK and India and a response to their demand for the teaching of western classical music. Schools are springing up all over India and we provide volunteer teachers to give them a wider repertoire and transform their lives. The musicians we send also do workshops in orphanages and take music to the truly underprivileged.

What’s on your iPod?
A whole range of stuff! I was just listening to a tango album that I picked up from a German tango violinist who I happened to be jamming with late night at a party. [Ward is also a fine jazz pianist.] He produced this CD, El Farabute, and it’s astonishing. I also have a lot of Indian classical music, a good range of pop, Latin American stuff, a lot of jazz. Some strange contemporary things, early baroque choral stuff… everything, really!

Where’s home?
I’m flitting around more and more, which is hard. I spend a lot of time between London and Manchester, and right this second I’m back at my parent’s house in Kent, which will always feel a bit like home. But in terms of where I feel most spiritually at home, it’s got to be London.

Best advice received?
“Rules are there to be broken”. My headmaster at school. That philosophy is something I have stuck to all my life: if there’s something you want to do for a good reason and something petty is standing in your way, find a way to get around it.

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