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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About Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) enjoys an international reputation for bringing audiences worldwide first-class performances and the highest possible standards of music-making across a diverse range of musical repertoire. This was the vision of the Orchestra’s flamboyant founder Sir Thomas Beecham, whose legacy is maintained today as the Orchestra thrives under the exceptional direction of its new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Maestro Charles Dutoit.
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