Onwards, ever upwards

Steve Beauchampe talks to one of the rising stars of the world’s classical music scene, Birmingham conductor Alpesh Chauhan.

Alpesh reflects on his meteoric rise in 2016 and looks forward to some of the exciting projects awaiting him in 2017.

It’s only two and a half years since you completed your conducting course at the Royal Northern College of Music, and your rise to national, and now international, prominence since then has been exceptional, particularly so this year. If you could pick out some memorable moments from 2016, what would they be?

“My two guest spots with the CBSO this season have been really important. My time there, first as Conducting Fellow and later Assistant Conductor, was a great education and these two shows seemed almost like graduations. We performed Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony, young conductors are sometimes under pressure to do large symphonies such as the big Mahlers and create a name for themselves, but there was something that enticed me about Bruckner, in particular his 3rd, I felt so close to it.

“Mahler and Bruckner are two huge composers that people often get to late in life but for me to perform the Bruckner with a band that I know so well already, not only was it an education but it was a milestone for me to do something this massive, this challenging, a big point in my own development. The work lasts an hour and you have to structure it, calculate everything, be thinking where the peaks are, where you want to be in an hour and how you and the orchestra are going to get there.

“Overall though, my career is building in a really positive way but I don’t think that it’s ever been too quick. It’s like constructing a house; everything I do adds to the foundations that I’m building on week after week.”

You’ve worked extensively this year with the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini in Parma, conducting three programmes with them, including numerous concerts. You’ve now been appointed their Principal Conductor from the start of the 2017/18 season, for an initial three-year period. It’s your first such posting and you must be eagerly anticipating it?

“The relationship feels so right and every concert we do together we are really building this. I hope to bring them lots of new repertoire, works that they don’t do often, or ever. In return they’ll teach me much about the Italian repertoire and the traditions they have. Plus we have three further programmes with them this season, including one at the end of December, so I shall be visiting regularly before I begin my post there next autumn.”

Some of the pieces you’ll be doing with the Filarmonica they’ll have played many times before. How much can you shape a performance under those circumstances, and how much does the orchestra shape you?

“It’s a bit of both. I did Sibelius 5 with the CBSO last month and they’ve performed it with Andris Nelsons, Sakari Oramo, Simon Rattle, even under Paavo Berglund, and to such world acclaim, so they have a real Sibelius heritage. I learned so much from the orchestra, but I tried to do different things, not for the sake of it but you just do whatever feels right for you, what’s close to you, however it must be honest and organic, not calculated.

“But the CBSO has given me so much, so many people who have taught and coached me over the years, both when I was playing chamber music and as a cellist in the Birmingham Schools and CBSO Youth Orchestras…there are so many links there, so many who have helped me technically, musically, holistically. It’s very much a family-type relationship where people can be honest, in a constructive way. I think we need this because as conductors we’re a fairly sheltered breed.”

Indeed, in one sense yours is a fairly solitary lifestyle. Are there conductors who you talk with, seek advice from?

“Some are closed to that but there’s a small pool of a conducting friends who I can converse with and there are those that I worked with when I was attached to the CBSO and with some of them, if they are visiting Birmingham, we might meet up and say hello. But it’s rare, and I guess you’re more likely to bump into fellow conductors in an airport!”

So how does the Alpesh Chauhan of December 2016 differ from the Alpesh Chauhan of January 2016?

“Experience really, I’ve performed with more European orchestras, made my US debut and I made my Philharmonia debut this season which was just astounding for someone aged 26 to stand in front of that orchestra and hear their trademark sound. But experience breeds confidence and every time that I’m in front of the CBSO I think that I’m stronger, that I know better what I want and I think I know how to achieve it.

“And also control, and I don’t mean that in a dictatorial way, most orchestras don’t thrive on that and would like respect from a conductor. I also know better which parts of my technique I want to develop and you learn best when your doing it rather than just sitting in front of a mirror. Yet sometimes you must have the courage in rehearsal if you’re trying something and it’s not working to be honest with the players and be prepared to abandon an idea.”

So as with the Bruckner, are there pieces that you would be happy to do now that a year ago you wouldn’t have felt ready to tackle?

“Yeah, Elgar 1 is an example; last year I would not have wanted to do that but right now I’m thinking that if I could do it anytime soon I probably would. The Bruckner came really quickly because I never used to understand him, I never used to get it. And then I had a revelatory moment when listening to Bruckner 3, and I’d assisted the CBSO with Bruckner 7 on tour with Andris and so when I programmed it I thought, ‘You know what, six months ago I would never have included this’.”

In part two, Alpesh discusses his inaugural US concert, performing at the 2016 Proms, working with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor at the CBSO and their highly anticipated joint debuts next month with the London Symphony Orchestra.