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