Meet Alexander Shelley

Shelley, Alexander-13755_2014_06_28-555x405

He’s the son of celebrated concert pianists, the grandson of a talented cellist and the great grandson of an equally talented organist, but Alexander Shelley, the newly appointed Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is very much his own man – and poised to open a new chapter in the RPO’s glittering history.

He came to the world’s attention in 2005 when, aged just 25, he won first prize in the Leeds Conductors Competition. Even before then, however, he’d tasted success and demonstrated a passion for conducting and for musical collaboration that included being a cellist in the World Orchestra for Peace tour of 2003, and founding the Schumann Camerata, a chamber orchestra with whom he gave over 80 concerts. His success at Leeds, rather than encouraging him to take his foot off the accelerator and wait for the offers to roll in, simply spurred the young Shelley to even greater efforts.

BBC Proms engagements and numerous concerts as guest conductor of this country’s great orchestras followed until, in 2009, he was appointed the youngest ever Principal Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, a position he holds to this day and which he has maintained despite numerous appearances around the world at the helm of many of its greatest orchestras. This year, in addition to his appointment as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Associate Conductor, he becomes the Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra.

So what drives Alexander Shelley to devote himself so wholeheartedly to music? ‘There are no certainties in this life,’ he says. ‘You may be the most brilliant musician but it’s no guarantee you’ll get lots of concerts, and the less you perform, the more challenging each performance becomes.’

It’s an attitude instilled in him by his parents, both successful musicians, who were happy to let the young Shelley pursue his cello studies at school, but only to consider a musical career if, as he recalls, ‘it was absolutely all I wanted to do; if it was my passion.’

‘To get up every day and strive to improve in music, it needs to be the love of your life,’ he says. ‘My parents were acutely conscious of that, and wanted to be sure it was my decision and wasn’t being forced on me. I’m very grateful for that.’

At the root of his passion for conducting lies a clear understanding of the purpose of his job: to be, as he says, a ‘conduit’ for the composer’s music. ‘My modus operandi is to connect with the essence of every work I conduct. I break down the piece to its constituent parts and then reassemble it in my mind, so that while I have an understanding of the trees, so to speak, I can also see the forest.

‘And then it’s about trying to find that thread, the aspect of the music that speaks most eloquently and, through my conducting and the orchestra’s playing, present it to the audience. So if my job is about anything, it’s being the right representative for the piece, and bringing the orchestra with me.’

On that subject, he’s looking forward to conducting the members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Someone outside the Orchestra may be a little surprised to hear that for Shelley, one of its players’ many strengths is an exceptional sight-reading ability. Such a skill means that they can quickly move on in rehearsal from mastering the music’s technical challenges, to the essential business of interpretation. This leads to a sense of confidence, which in turn generates a musical energy both in rehearsal and in concert.

‘There’s a sense of urgency and excitement which is very productive, and gives a special edge to everything the Orchestra does,’ he says.

Clearly, Alexander Shelley is a huge admirer of the Orchestra, but the task of any conductor wishing to inspire his colleagues’ respect – especially one bearing the title Associate Principal – is to have that feeling reciprocated. Years spent working with some of the world’s greatest orchestras have given Shelley clear insights in how best to achieve this.

‘A position like mine is about making the relationship with the RPO official and a step towards saying “Let’s take this journey together, and see where it leads us.” It’s a little like dating. The relationship will develop and it may falter at times, but eventually you begin to feel there’s something there, a trust that you think could be mutually beneficial and interesting.

‘To be embarking on this phase where we say, “let’s see each other more regularly” is really special, because the more trust there is between a conductor and an orchestra, the more you can achieve. But like any relationship, it’s also important to keep the magic there; to not let things become routine. It is my job always to be challenging them, to be interesting and to respect them.’

On that score, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and, importantly, its audience, need have no concerns.

Written by John Evans

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Ria Jones talks Musical Theatre

Jones, Ria Oct 12

West End star Ria Jones speaks to Hannah Nepil about her musical theatre background and the advantages of performing Broadway hits in concert performances, ahead of ‘Best of Broadway’ in March.

Ria Jones – Welsh singer and actress – finds it irritating when people say ‘musical theatre singers can’t act.’ In fact, she points out, they have to act twice as hard in order to convey the character while singing. ‘What’s more, they have to be able to run seamlessly into each song, so that it enhances the story, rather than stopping it. I like to think of musical theatre as a string of pearls: the pearls are the songs, the string in between is the story, and if you break it, all the pearls fall off.’

She should know. She has been starring in musical theatre since the age of sixteen and her credits range from Les Misérables to Sunset Boulevard, for which she created the role of Norma Desmond. ‘I still have a lovely letter from Andrew Lloyd Webber thanking me for it,’ Jones reminisces.

Music has always been important to Jones. Her mother trained as an opera-singer and her father was a cabaret-singer in his spare time. Aged three, she was given tap-dancing shoes, along with singing and dancing lessons. Twelve years later, she won a major talent competition that eventually led to roles in Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Evita, in which she became the youngest actress ever to play Eva Peron. Yet, as a child, she rarely saw live musical theatre: there wasn’t much of it in Swansea, her home town. So how did she develop a passion for it? ‘My Mum was a huge film buff, so if there was ever a good musical on TV, she would say, “you have to see this one.” She would have loved to do lighter musical theatre work, as well as opera, so when I went into it, that was great for her.’

What Jones particularly loves about her job is the chance to do ‘a bit of everything: you get to sing, to act and to dance, while telling a story. And for even more variety, she likes to complement stage work with concert performances: next month, she will take part in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Best of Broadway – a Gala evening at the Royal Albert Hall, with hits from West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Cats, Les Misérables, Chicago, Mamma Mia! and Wicked, to name a few.

She believes that some songs are better suited to concert performance than others. ‘Anything Goes, for example, probably works better as part of a production, accompanied by tap-dancing and a spectacular set. But Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns works well in concert, because it’s so simple, emotive and well-known.’ As she admits, ‘it’s easy to become Ria Jones in concert, rather than the character you’re trying to portray, as you only have three minutes to convince an audience that you are that character.’ But concerts have one major advantage over theatre productions: ‘they allow musical theatre lovers to hear the scores played as they’re meant to be: with a full orchestra.’

Ria Jones performs in ‘Best of Broadway’ at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 18 March at 7.30pm.

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Meet the Management: Rosemary Anthony (Tours Manager)

R Anthony 3

Tell us a bit about your working history and how you came about this role at the RPO.     

After studying a music degree at King’s College, London, and deciding performing wasn’t for me, I had a short stint working as a Recruitment Consultant, which I hated! After that, I was lucky enough to win an internship in the concerts department of another orchestra in London, and I’ve never looked back. I made the shift to tour managing about eight years ago and joined the RPO three years ago. The combination of working with the wonderful RPO, the travelling, and the huge variety of artists, cultures and venues is a constant source of fascination and interest for me.

What’s the best thing about being a Tours Manager?

Working with such a huge variety of artists in many different venues across the world is enthralling and gives one an appreciation for different cultures, as well as our own. But, most importantly, it is a real privilege to tour the globe with the RPO. 

And the worst?

The early mornings can be difficult, particularly on a long tour. We often start our journey to the next concert venue very early in the morning in order to check-in for a flight, or to ensure that our coaches don’t get stuck in traffic. And, of course, I am (almost!) always the first one up checking everything is in order for the day ahead.

Describe a typical working day for you (if there is such a thing!).

There is no such thing!! We travel to all corners of the world with all different kinds of programmes, conductors, soloists and often with over 100 musicians. When I am in London, I might spend the first part of the morning queuing at an Embassy with a bag full of passports to lodge visa applications. Once back in the office, I might be drafting a contract for a tour in eighteen months’ time, discussing flight or accommodation arrangements for a tour later in the year or discussing rehearsal requirements with a conductor and their agent. When we are on tour, then my job is to keep track of all the details of the schedule and to ensure that everything runs as smoothly as possible – for example, ensuring the buses arrive on time; the hotel rooms are ready and prepared ahead of our arrival in each new city; ensuring the group is successfully checked-in to flights and arrive at concert venues on time. 

Has the current financial climate affected the way you do your job and if so, how?

Absolutely; it has had an effect on every aspect of orchestral life. In the touring department, we find ourselves finalising and confirming projects much later into the season than in previous years, which puts pressure on us to put all the arrangements and logistics in place in a short amount of time.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I love taking long walks around where I live in Surrey with my husband and my SLR camera, especially if there is a nice pub for lunch halfway around! When I get the time, I enjoy knitting and travelling to new countries, exploring new places and cultures, as well as photographing new landscapes and wildlife.

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Alexander Shelley appointed as Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Shelley, Alexander 3 Mar 13 (c) Thorsten Hoenig small

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is proud to announce the appointment of Alexander Shelley, ‘a conductor of superlative gifts’, as its new Principal Associate Conductor. Already appointed as Music Director-designate of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, he will join the select list of esteemed artists who currently conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

British born in 1979 and the son of professional musicians, Alexander first gained widespread acclaim when he was unanimously awarded first prize at the 2005 Leeds Conductors Competition. Since then, his career has flourished with demands from orchestras around the world, including Stockholm Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, DSO Berlin, Simon Bolivar, Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Melbourne, Seattle and Houston Symphony Orchestras, to name but a few.

Full of enthusiasm, versatility and panache, Shelley will commence his role from January 2015, as he conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a series of concerts around the UK,   visiting some of the Orchestra’s key resident venues in programmes to include music by Shostakovich, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Vaughan Williams; alongside pianist Alessio Bax.

Future programmes will include a series of concerts titled The Roaring 20s – a diverse programme selected and conducted by Alexander Shelley, devoted to one of the most creative times in music-making, including works by Ibert, Cole Porter, Prokofiev, Milhaud and Ravel.

Alexander Shelley says…

‘Since our very first meeting I have been inspired by the musicianship, dedication and passion of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and impressed by their strong commitment to their faithful audiences both at home and abroad. I am very proud and privileged to have the opportunity to contribute to this fine orchestra’s tradition of excellence and I look forward to many exciting collaborations over the coming years.’

Ian Maclay (Managing Director, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) says…

‘This is an exciting time for the Orchestra. Alexander Shelley is an exhilarating prospect and the musicians of the Orchestra are looking forward to developing their relationship with him. His enthusiasm and charisma onstage is certainly something to watch out for and we anticipate this being a very exciting musical partnership.’

Notes to Editor

Alexander Shelley is available for comment.

For interviews, further information, press tickets and high-res photos, please contact Chris Evans (Director of Press and Marketing, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra).

Telephone: 020 7608 8836

Forthcoming Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concerts conducted by Alexander Shelley:

Thursday 29 January, Hull City Hall, Hull
Sunday 1 February, Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Tuesday 3 February, Cadogan Hall, London
Wednesday 4 February, Fairfield Halls, Croydon
Sunday 8 February, Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on Sea

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Encountering Bartók’s Sole Opera for the First Time

Charles Dutoit conducting Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé last February at the Royal Festival Hall.

Charles Dutoit conducting Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé last February at the Royal Festival Hall.

John Evans is the former editor of Classic FM magazine and launch editor of classical music website, He is a conservatoire-trained pianist who became hooked on Bartók the second he heard the composer’s piano concertos. Here, John writes about a work by the Hungarian composer that he has never encountered before…

It may only be an hour long, but Duke Bluebeard’s Castle contains some of the darkest and most passionate music ever composed. It skirts the edges of tonality, seducing you one moment, straining your nerves the next – just as the Duke torments Judith, his infatuated but fatally curious young bride who insists on seeing behind his seven, barred doors.

The work’s composer, Béla Bartók (1881–1945), knew it was this tension, this tug of war between light and darkness that would draw his audience like moths to the flame, as it still does to this day.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a thriller worthy of Hitchcock; its score the equal of anything composed by that director’s composer-of-choice, Bernard Herrmann. No – superior, since Bartók composed Duke Bluebeard’s Castle half a century before Herrmann penned his music for Psycho. In 1911, in fact: the year the great Hollywood composer was born.

To ponder any musical connection between the two composers one single word more would be to take fantasy to the level of Duke Bluebeard’s macabre castle itself. However, surrender your imagination to Bartók’s sinister opera and you’ll feel you’ve witnessed enough shower scenes to last a lifetime.

For the best of the many best bits (come on – we’re at the movies after all) in the opera, cut straight to the fifth of the Duke’s locked doors. Only one word describes Bartók’s score at this point: epic. Hollywood is born right here in the composer’s vivid recreation of the Duke’s vast, sun-soaked estates. Judith can only gaze in astonishment. Like Norman Bates, Bluebeard has her in the palm of his hand…

It follows the horrors revealed at the outset of the drama by doors one (a torture chamber) and two (the Duke’s armoury). It’s only with door three and Bluebeard’s treasure, depicted by the gentle twinkling of a celesta as the light dances upon it, that we dare imagine this story might, after all, have a happy ending. Stabbing, discordant flutes tell us otherwise: the gems are dripping with blood.

Surely, the sweet and fragrant garden, revealed by door four, will herald an end to Judith’s torment? The music is lush and rhapsodic, but with each passing second, it grows darker and more angular as blood stains the flowers and with it, the young wife’s hopes for a happy outcome.

We’ve already peered behind the fifth door, but now shiver to the chilling slides in the basses that accompany the opening of the sixth. They give way to some of the most eerily beautiful music you’ll ever hear as once again, poor, tragic Judith attempts to make sense of the room’s secrets – in this case, the ‘mysterious water’ (a lake of tears) here depicted by the harp’s gentle glissandi.

For unbridled Hitchcockian terror, however, you must wait until the end of the work and the seventh, barred door. The tension builds unbearably as Judith accepts her fate and follows, head bowed, the beam of moonlight to her own ‘fatal attraction’. It’s not a happy ending. Bartók’s music may have anticipated the great film scores, but Duke Bluebeard’s Castle would never make it in Tinseltown.

Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ildikó Komlósi and Sir Willard White in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 27 January 2015 at 7.30pm.

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