In conversation with Finnegan Downie Dear following Mahler Competition win

After winning the 2020 Mahler Competition, Finnegan Downie Dear spoke with us about his competition experience, programming ideas, work as Music Director of the Shadwell Opera, and more.

This great honour at the Competition comes after a week of conducting rounds with the Bamberger Symphoniker, exploring Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, Mozart’s Symphony No. 26, Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, Lachenmann’s Tableau, and a new work by Miroslav Srnka. In the competition’s closing concert, Finnegan led the orchestra in the world premiere of Srnka’s move 04 “Memory Full” and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with soloist Barbara Hannigan.

Finnegan’s first prize win at the Mahler Competition furthers recognition of his exceptional musicianship, celebrated by symphonic institutions and opera houses around the world. This past season saw him make debuts with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Resonanz, Klangforum Wien, and RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, and his recent operatic highlights include engagements with the Royal Opera House, Polish National Opera, Scottish Opera, and Korea National Opera.

He is set for first appearances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Luxembourg Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Royal Swedish Opera, Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, Oper Frankfurt, and at the Tiroler Festival Erl, and he has been immediately re-invited to conduct subscription concerts with the Bamberger Symphoniker.

Working to bring twentieth-century and contemporary works to new audiences, Finnegan is Music Director of Shadwell Opera. “The Shadwell Ensemble played with terrific fervour under Finnegan Downie Dear,” wrote Neil Fisher (The Times) of their Alexandra Palace performance last year. He lauded a “lovely performance by the orchestra of Ravel’s fairytale ballet score, Mother Goose, the silky sonorities beautifully balanced by Downie Dear.” Another highlight of 2019 was the company’s appearance at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, where they gave the Russian premiere of Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are.

We had a chat with Finnegan in the days following his Mahler Competition win.

Congratulations on this most recent success! What were some of the highlights of the competition?

Thank you! To have the opportunity to work with such wonderful musicians after the last few months of lockdown was in itself the biggest joy. I was really happy to conduct the Webern Variations for Orchestra for the first time, as well as fantastic works by Lachenmann and Srnka. Ultimately, however, I felt very lucky just to spend a week making music with the musicians of the Bamberger Symphoniker – they play with such unbelievable beauty and generosity of spirit.

Have you always felt a close connection with the music of Mahler?

Yes, very much so. One of my most important experiences as a young musician was playing his First Symphony as a horn player in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra; later, during my time studying piano at the Royal Academy of Music, I had the opportunity to help prepare the chorus for the Second Symphony, which was completely thrilling. In some ways it is his vocal music that I have the closest connection to – I’ve explored the lieder a lot in recital, and there is something about the Knaben Wunderhorn settings in particular which is so wild, so magical and so human. Maybe that is why the Fourth Symphony is my favourite – to perform it last week with Barbara Hannigan and the orchestra felt very special, a culmination of lots of different parts of my musical life so far.

As a programmer, how do you personally approach putting pieces of music in dialogue?

Having worked closely with some of today’s most important composers, I’ve never thought there to be some imaginary cut off where ‘old’ music ends and ‘new’ music begins. Context is important, as are thematic connections, as well as a strong sense of who a particular programme is trying to reach. To that end, Shadwell Opera’s recent project of Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are and Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye for audiences of all ages stands out – it took two years to pull off, and included taking our ensemble and orchestra to St. Petersburg. Both the Mariinsky Concert Hall and Alexandra Palace Theatre were full of children and adults together, everyone totally engaged with these extraordinary pieces. It was very special.

You lead Shadwell Opera as Music Director alongside Artistic Director Jack Furness. Can you share with us your ongoing vision for the company?

Fundamentally we believe in the power of contemporary music to tell stories. This power belongs to everyone, of every age and from every background. We are building lasting partnerships to reach more people with the music we champion – be it schools, community groups, venues, technology companies. It goes without saying that these times bring unprecedented challenges but we are really trying to use them as an opportunity to bring about positive changes going forward.

What are you listening to right now? Is there a particular piece of music or composer speaking to you during this time?

The most extraordinary piece I’ve heard in lockdown is Honey Siren, for 12 string players, by Oliver Leith – it is achingly beautiful and sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard. I have untold admiration for the 12 Ensemble, who have recorded it with a quiet virtuosity which is spellbinding. Other than that, the Beethoven piano trios.

What projects are you most looking forward to in the coming seasons? What about them excites you?

Having had a production of The Turn of the Screw at the Royal Opera House postponed this summer, I’m very much looking forward to conducting the piece for the Staatsoper Berlin in the autumn. It will also be exhilarating to conduct an opera in Russian for the first time – Eugene Onegin in Frankfurt. I am delighted that the orchestra in Bamberg have invited me to return for concerts over the coming seasons. And Shadwell is commissioning its first opera, which is a huge opportunity for us to really show who we are.


Watch Finnegan conduct Mahler’s Fourth

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