Meet our DFCC 2018 candidates: Jack Sheen

Jack (25) is a conductor and composer based in Manchester, and is currently a Junior Fellow in conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music. In 2018/19, Jack returns to Aldeburgh's Britten-Piers Young Artist Scheme, tours to New York and Copenhagen with contemporary music ensemble Apartment House and will be assistant conductor to Thomas Adès

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Where are you at the moment and what are you currently working on?

I’ve just got back to Manchester this morning after some performances in Copenhagen over the weekend with Apartment House, rounding off a month-long project there and in New York realising an opera by Henning Christiansen from the 1960s (which until now has only ever been performed once!). Now that that’s done I’m spending all day every day in rehearsals for a Puccini double bill at the RNCM (Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica) and preparing for London Contemporary Music Festival, a festival I co-curate that’s happening in December which includes a night of new orchestral music by Neil Luck, Elaine Mitchener, Gerald Barry and Chaya Czernowin.

When did you first become interested in conducting? 

I came to ‘classical music’ quite late in my life, around the age of 15 or 16, and before then had only ever played bass guitar in bands and jazz groups. I couldn’t read or write music other than chord sheets, so taught myself music notation and started with piano lessons. It sounds silly but I just felt like the only natural thing for me to do – as someone who was obsessed with music but would never achieve great things on an instrument so late in my life – was to compose and conduct, without really understanding what either of those things meant. I was lucky to study on a course with amazing opportunities for young conductors at the University of Manchester. I set up a concert series, started doing masterclasses and then recently was awarded a fellowship in conducting at the RNCM, where I’m currently based. 

Who are your musical role models?

Maybe it’s an obvious thing to say, but I’ve always looked up to composer-conductors such as the late, great Pierre Boulez and Oliver Knussen. It’s inspiring to see people with a very ‘total’ idea of music and music culture which they aim towards, not least through writing and conducting but also through bold, ambitious programming which centres on new music and new approaches to curation. Ilan Volkov has been a conductor I’ve looked up to for a similar reason; I’ve always had a love for contemporary music, and whenever I’d seek out performances or broadcasts it would almost always be him at the helm. There are also friends, colleagues and teachers I find infinitely inspiring and motivating, without them really realising or trying, such as the cellist-composer Anton Lukoszevieze, my teacher Mark Heron, and plenty of other young musicians who are just starting a lifelong career and are equally obsessed and enamoured by what they’re doing as I am.

How have you been preparing for the competition? 

I’m trying to fit in time to do a little bit of studying every day, although that’s becoming increasingly difficult! For me, learning a piece is sort of like composing a piece. When you compose, you imagine a sound in your head and you translate that via notation, in all its detail. When you learn a piece of music, you’re reading that notation and then imagining the sound from that. In some ways, it’s the reverse of composing, but it still requires this process of creating cohesive musical shapes in your mind, alone, in a quiet room. I always try and have a strong image in my mind of how I want the music to sound, move, feel, weigh, but I also leave my ears open enough to enjoy what every musician can offer through their vision of the piece and then incorporate some of that too. 

What are your thoughts on the repertoire?

The repertoire is great! I’ve never touched any of it before and have loved learning everything. I’m a huge Prokofiev fan, so if I’m lucky enough to reach the final I would say that’s the piece which is exciting me the most. It’s also amazing to work with a soloist on a piece – even in quite a short time frame such as in this competition! - and to be able to take on their ideas and energy, as well as those of the orchestra. Stravinsky is always incredibly fun to conduct, and the Mendelssohn is just pure, pure joy. 

What is the piece that made you fall in love with music, either while performing it as a musician or experiencing it as an audience member?

Perhaps bizarrely it’s an unconducted piece: Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians and Violin Phase. Without wanting to sound too dramatic, those were the pieces that completely changed the course of my life and introduced me to the idea that a ‘composer’ or a ‘concert hall’ were not only relevant today but that they were exciting, totally fresh and not quite like anything else I’d been exposed to before.

What is your all-time favourite piece of music?

Truly impossible to say. I really like John Cage’s ‘late number pieces’. 

How do you relax? What are your hobbies?

I collect records, read, run, cook, see my mates.

If there were anything you could change about classical music, what would it be?

How much it costs to have a chance to take part in making classical music.

What advice would you give other budding conductors?

In no way am I qualified to give any! I would say it’s important to find a good reason to do it. Find a way to feel like you’re truly contributing to something. Go to rehearsals, talk to other conductors, be friends with non-musicians and invite them to all your gigs and give them free tickets.

What would the prize (£15,000 and being LSO Assistant Conductor for 2 years) mean to you? How would it help your career?

It would be truly life changing chance to be a small part of one of the world’s best orchestras, mapping out a huge learning curve, and the chance to make some amazing music with brilliant musicians and people. I can’t think of anything better for a young conductor.


 Meet the other candidates

Find out more about the competition in 2018