An Interview with Alexander Shelley

Shelley, Alexander 2 Mar 13 (c) Thorsten Hoenig

Conductor Alexander Shelley directs concerts with the Orchestra and guitarist John Williams this June. Hannah Nepil gets the lowdown on this talented British conductor.

Alexander Shelley is sounding animated. The 34-year-old British conductor has recently returned from a month-long tour of Germany with the German National Youth Orchestra, and he wastes no time in describing one of the trip’s highlights: a football match against the Berlin Philharmonic. ‘They hired out the local football stadium, and the orchestra members’ friends and family all came, so there was a really good atmosphere,’ he says. ‘But we lost 12-1, which was annoying.’

That aside, Shelley has been consistently scoring highly, ever since winning the Leeds Conducting Competition back in 2005. He is currently Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra; he has conducted ensembles including the City of Birmingham Symphony and the Simón Bolívar Symphony orchestras; this season he makes his conducting debut with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. And, closer to home, this month brings three concerts with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring performances from guitarist John Williams.

Shelley’s first instruments, however, were the piano and the cello. He is the son of pianists Howard Shelley and Hilary Macnamara ‘and we had four or five grand pianos in the house when I was a baby,’ he tells me. ‘There’s a picture of me in nappies, sitting on the composer Herbert Howells’s lap, playing the piano, so I think it’s something I had contact with before I could speak.’ His parents, he insists, never pushed him into the music profession. ‘Quite the opposite. They were very pragmatic.’

Nevertheless, after leaving Westminster School in London, Shelley went on to study the cello at the Royal College of Music and in Germany; for a while, a career as a cellist seemed likely. He warmly recalls masterclasses with Mstislav Rostropovich, János Starker and Aldo Parisot during his studies. And in 2000, at the age of 20, he was invited to perform under Valery Gergiev with the World Orchestra for Peace – an ensemble of musicians hand-picked from the best orchestras of 24 different countries. ‘I was probably the youngest member of the Orchestra and in awe of everybody there.’

Yet, after founding his own chamber orchestra, the Schumann Camerata, he found the lure of conducting impossible to resist. And it remains his main love. ‘As a cellist, you immediately have a physical connection with a piece of music. As a conductor, you sit in silence at a table and analyse a score. But that allows you to become very acquainted with the way that the composer was thinking and working,’ he says. ‘And how many people can say that they spend every day communing with geniuses?’

Alexander Shelley conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in three concerts featuring guitarist John Williams at The Hexagon, Reading (6 June); Royal and Derngate, Northampton (8 June); and Royal Festival Hall, London (11 June).

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An Interview with Adam McGinlay

Adam McGinlay, general manager of the Cadogan Hall, London

Hannah Nepil interviews Adam McGinlay, General Manager of Cadogan Hall – the Orchestra’s London residence.

Cadogan Hall celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. ‘But rather than just having one party for one night of the year and all waking up with headaches the next day,’ says its General Manager Adam McGinlay, ‘we’ll be having several parties.’ So, for starters, there’s a recital from the tenor Rolando Villazón; a complete Beethoven sonata cycle from pianist John Lill; and a series of concerts from the violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

It’s also a time for nostalgia. McGinlay recalls the excitement when, in 2004, the Hall first became home to the annual BBC Chamber Proms – raising its profile in the process. ‘It went from opening its doors with only a very few staff to being live on air within weeks. From the front of house it appeared to go very smoothly, like a gliding swan, but I can assure you there was some frantic paddling underneath,’ says McGinlay.

By now, Cadogan’s schedule also includes a choral series, a Royal Philharmonic Residency and a Zurich International Concert series, which profiles international orchestras rarely heard at other London venues, such as the Brussels Philharmonic. As McGinlay says, ‘Our aim is that if something is already being presented by another venue, we would only do it if we felt we could offer something different.’ He recently programmed a St John Passion by C.P.E. Bach that probably hadn’t been heard in over two hundred years. ‘It wasn’t an easy sell,’ says McGinlay. ‘We have to be very careful because the narrower the repertoire, the more difficult it is to get audiences. But you can’t just keep doing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto every day.’

And his plans for the future? ‘We’d like to widen the types of performance that we do – particularly Baroque and Renaissance music,’ he says. But the main aim ‘is to stand alone and present something in the best possible way. We believe a concert here should be more like the experience of a five-star retreat, so when you arrive you’re treated well, the seats are comfortable, the food is of quality, there’s nice champagne. Our aspiration is that if you were to hear a concert at one venue and come and hear the same concert at Cadogan Hall, then you would have the better experience here.’


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An Interview with Jeremy Backhouse

Backhouse, Jeremy Feb 10 (c) Sim Cannetty-Clarke Hannah Nepil interviews conductor Jeremy Backhouse ahead of Verdi’s Requiem with the Vivace Chorus at the Royal Albert Hall.

For the choral conductor Jeremy Backhouse, one vivid memory is watching the first ever Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition on television in 1984. ‘I said to my parents “I’m going to win that one day”,’ he recalls. ‘Then in 1988, we did win it.’ Then there was the time that he conducted Parry’s I was Glad in Westminster Abbey for the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations. And that performance in Liverpool Cathedral, on the evening of Pope John Paul II’s death in 2005: ‘We were doing Górecki’s Totus Tuus, which was actually written for Pope John Paul II. It’s a piece that dies down to nothing, and it was around that moment that the Pope breathed his last.’

Next month, the list of memories gets a little longer: Backhouse conducts the Vivace Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, Wimbledon Choral Society, Twickenham Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall. But after many years of conducting amateur choirs, Backhouse will happily admit: ‘I never set out to be a conductor. I’ve never had a conducting lesson in my life.’

In his youth, Backhouse was head chorister of the Canterbury Cathedral Choir. After studying Music at university, he moved to London and joined various chamber choirs. ‘I sat in the back row of the basses thinking ‘that’s not the way to do it, this is how you should do it’ and moaned with the other guys in the pub afterwards.’ Around the same time, he joined an ensemble of eight people called the Vasari Singers and became its conductor, gradually moulding it into the well-respected choir it is today. A full-time career in conducting only came later, however, by which time Backhouse had worked as literary editor at EMI and had held a position at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, transcribing music into Braille: ‘In those days of pre-computerised Braille, I would dictate music in a given style and a blind person would bash it into a Perkins Brailler, which was like a Braille typewriter.’

He calls himself a man of hidden ambition: ‘Ostensibly I’m not hugely ambitious. But I always have plans. I always have ideas. I like to think that I bring people with me rather than steam-roller them.’ That also goes for his rehearsal technique. ‘People have said to me in the past, “why don’t you shout at us more?” But it’s not my way and I can’t put it on.’ So what is his way? ‘To encourage and enthuse. In my view that gets far superior results,’ he says. ‘I can’t be Mr Jolly all the time, but once you get into the music you can get beyond the notes and inspire your performers through your own passion or feeling.’

And luckily, with a piece like Verdi’s Requiem, that shouldn’t be too difficult, as Backhouse says: ‘If the Dies irae doesn’t fire you up, then not much will.’

Jeremy Backhouse conducts Verdi’s Requiem on the evening of Sunday 18th May at the Royal Albert Hall.

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Symphonic Rock – 10th Anniversary

SympRock_2011_A5 Poster_Albert Hall

Proving to be one of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s most popular concerts, Symphonic Rock is celebrating its 10th year on Thursday 1st May with more thrilling rock anthems (with a colourful, orchestral twist) at the Royal Albert Hall.

The RPO has a strong tradition when it comes to performing rock music, renowned for orchestral recordings of many pop and rock CDs from Madonna to REM and Deep Purple. Our ‘symphonic rock’ collection celebrates such rock icons as The Verve, Bon Jovi, Meatloaf, Queen, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton, whose music will be featured in our 10th anniversary concert.

Each year, the Orchestra pays a special tribute to some of the greatest and most iconic rock bands and artists of the last seven decades. These tributes have featured Queen, U2 and The Beatles, amongst many other music legends. Following the release of their album Symphonic Coldplay last July, this year the Orchestra will pay homage to Coldplay – one of today’s highest grossing British bands – with some of their most recognised and chart-topping songs, including Viva la Vida, Trouble and Fix You.

Along with the propulsive rock energy of a full amplified rhythm section, the colourful timbres of the Orchestra and the powerful voices of Metro Voices, “lights will guide you” (to use Coldplay’s words) through this rockin’ concert as the performance is accompanied by a spectacular lightshow.

Symphonic Rock 2012, taken by Bill Hiskett.

Symphonic Rock 2012 – photo taken by Bill Hiskett.

Nick Davies, Ken Bruce and Metro Voices join the Orchestra for Symphonic Rock on Thursday 1st May at the Royal Albert Hall.

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An Interview with Kirill Karabits


Karabits, Kirill 1 Jan 13 (c) Sasha Gusov smaller

Hannah Nepil interviews conductor Kirill Karabits ahead of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert at Southbank Centre in April.

When I call Kirill Karabits, he has just arrived in his native Ukraine, and is taking in the aftermath of recent bloody confrontations. ‘At the moment I am standing and looking at the main square where the main fights were happening four days ago,’  he says. The conductor has his own views on the conflict. ‘The only major problem of Ukraine is that it is geographically located between two huge powers: Russia and Europe, so the western part shouts ‘we are with Europeans’ and the eastern part shouts ‘we want to be with the Russians.’ He himself is from the centre of the country and believes that ‘Ukraine should be accepted as it is. Everybody here speaks Ukrainian and Russian. I don’t want to choose between the two: I like both. And Ukraine is both.’

Though still only 37, Karabits is well-established on the international circuit. He is Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and has worked with ensembles ranging from the Budapest Festival Orchestra, of which he was Assistant Conductor, to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But as he vehemently insists, ‘I still consider Ukraine as my home.’ Born in Kiev, he decided in his childhood to pursue music as a career. His father was the conductor and composer Ivan Karabyts. ‘He was an important figure and I was always considered to be my father’s son,’ says Karabits. ‘But I also felt that this started to have an impact on me that I didn’t like: whatever I tried to do on my own was always perceived as an achievement of my father.’

With the fall of communism, travel restrictions in Ukraine were relaxed, allowing the teenage Karabits to study in Vienna. It also allowed him to forge his reputation in his own right, in a part of the world where his father was relatively unknown. Karabits laughs as he recalls that, after recording a CD featuring his father’s works, the initial critical reaction went something like: ‘We all know the conductor Kirill Karabits, but did you know that his dad was a famous composer?’ As Karabits says, ‘it happens sometimes in life that things turn around. Black becomes white.’

Along with his father’s works, Karabits has occasionally conducted repertoire by other Ukrainian composers (‘I think it’s interesting for people here to hear this music’) and he speaks with particular admiration of his countryman, the composer Borys Lyatoshynsky. Another interest is exploring neglected works from the distant past: in April, Karabits conducts his own transcription of CPE Bach’s long forgotten St John Passion. Much of his time, however, is committed to the core classical canon. He is soon to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme including Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Steven Isserlis as soloist, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and his enthusiasm for these works is unmistakeable: ‘You could compare Scheherazade to one of those Strauss tone poems or a ballet in which you listen to the music and can visualise exactly what you hear,’ he says. ‘It’s a joy to conduct.’

Kirill Karabits conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme of Prokofiev, Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 22 April, 7.30pm.

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