Onwards, ever upwards II

Alpesh Chauhan discusses performing at the 2016 Proms and with the CBSO, his inaugural US concerts, and looks forward to his highly anticipated debut with the London Symphony Orchestra.

You made your Proms debut this year with Ten Pieces II, a BBC project started in 2015 which aims to involve children both in listening to and making classical music. And it’s just won a BAFTA in the Secondary Learning category of 2016 Children’s Awards…

“Yeah, not for me but for the film production team – it was a very theatrical event. I think that it was one of the most important Proms of last season, we did two and they were packed out and it was clear how excited the kids were and how positive their response to the music was, with some even performing their own work at the Proms, inspired by the Ten Pieces. The buzz was there, with the children’s tv presenters taking part and the visuals playing in the Royal Albert Hall, so we need to make the bridge and find a way of helping that enthusiasm to grow the next generation of audiences for classical music.

“But I’m amazed by the success of Ten Pieces, I think that it surpassed everyone’s expectations and we’ve had children from all backgrounds saying that they didn’t know that classical music could be so exciting. And we have to ask ourselves, why didn’t they know that, because that’s our problem, that’s a cultural problem that we who live and work in classical music have to overcome. And we need to bring people into our world more broadly, and the Proms are a very important vehicle for achieving that.”

Your first North American concerts came in November with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite and Mendelssohn’s First Symphony. How was the experience and did you find the musical culture differed to that in Europe?

“Well the audience loved the music and there’s a real hunger for it over there. We did pre-concert talks before each of the two performances and they were very well attended. The orchestra has recently acquired an exciting new Music Director in Carlos Izcaray who is bringing his own following and people are getting behind what he’s trying to do. But it’s really similar to over here, very professional and strict as regards timekeeping, for instance in rehearsal you don’t go a second over and time really does mean time. I’m certainly keen to go back to America but my management are talking to various orchestras in different parts of the world, discussing potential engagements anything up to three seasons ahead so we’ll have to see what transpires.”

You performed two CBSO concerts with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, first at Symphony Hall (November 30th) and then at the Forum Theatre in Malvern (December 1st). It’s the first time you two have worked together, were you pleased with the collaboration?

“He’s such a sensitive player, but such a chamber musician as well. We did Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 which requires a pianist who can accept what this piece is – more of a symphony for orchestra and solo pianist – and not just one who can cut through the orchestra and be heard, because there’s plenty of those. Benjamin’s quite staggering and it felt like I had a soloist of so many years experience behind me and yet he’s younger than I am, although he’s already been playing the piano longer than I’ve been conducting.

“I think that we found a way to work together onstage, to be a partnership. It was intuitive and I felt that he was always there for me, which is rare with a soloist, and that if he needed space or time, I would have been there for him. But I also felt that if something happened in the orchestra, if we phrased in a different direction, used a little more time to make the music breathe or moved it a little bit, it always felt like we were together.

“He’s an incredibly special musician, he makes every note speak. It’s like when you close your eyes and listen to a recording of an established pianist, fifty, sixty, seventy years old, and they are just transporting you because there’s no arrogance, they’re just serving up this piece on a platter made of pure gold.”

You perform the Brahms again on January 26th when you both make your debuts with the London Symphony Orchestra.

“It’ll be nice to return to it with a different orchestra in a different hall just to see how things might have developed in the course of a few months. Benjamin and I spoke recently about the CBSO concerts, and thinking ahead to the LSO one of course, so I’m really looking forward to performing it with him again.”

Being asked to conduct the LSO is a tremendous accolade for any conductor, remarkably so at this early stage of your career. But the Brahms isn’t the only significant work you’ll be showcasing that night?

“Yes, we’re also doing Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration) which I’ve not conducted with a professional orchestra before. I love Strauss and Brahms, they are composers that I have got deeply into and I think that at this point Brahms, in his music, is the closet composer to me, to what I feel like in my life.

“But this date has been in my diary for around 18 months and we started to put the programme together back then. We wanted to find something that both Benjamin and I would thrive in, that we were really passionate about. The Brahms/Strauss link came quite early on, and at that point neither of us had done the Brahms before. Between all parties concerned the idea of these two pieces really clicked. The Brahms is a very heavy piece, a mammoth work and I think that it’s a big thing for Benjamin as well, a massive romantic concerto. And then there’s the Strauss, which is very deep and very dark, so I think you need a lighter piece to augment them which is why the third [middle] work that we’re undertaking, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, is much lighter and creates a nice juxtaposition in between the other two.”

Have you conducted in the Barbican before?

“Yes, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Ten Pieces. As is well known, it’s not the easiest of halls, so it’s great to have conducted there previously, but the LSO know the venue so well and understand how to make it work, plus we have three days for rehearsals.”

And will Birmingham audiences be seeing much of you in 2017?

“Hopefully, because I have a great relationship with the CBSO. So of course if they ask me I will come and there are some ideas for working with them next season. But it’s also nice to see how different orchestras work, their different speeds of work, the different musical and emotional levels, and that can only strengthen me when I do return to perform in Birmingham and the CBSO.”

Pic: Marcello Orselli