Conductor Alpesh Chauhan is one to watch this year. As former Assistant Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor Designate of Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini Parma, the 26-year-old is already making an impact across Europe. We get to know the young conductor ahead of his debut with the LSO on Thursday 26 January, where he will be joined by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.
Congratulations on your new appointment as principal conductor of Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini Parma. What have been some of the highlights of your career up until now?
Thank you! I’m very much looking forward to getting started with this lovely orchestra. I have had some really fantastic opportunities that are really helping me develop at this crucial early stage. One particular highlight was conducting two concerts with the CBSO this season, one of which gave me the chance to perform my first Bruckner symphony with the orchestra I grew up with, and where I later became Assistant Conductor. The post gave me a brilliant education, as it offered unrestricted access to all of the CBSO rehearsals, concerts and two years shadowing Andris Nelsons. The BBC's Ten Pieces project was also a real highlight for me; seeing children really interacting with classical music in a fresh, innovative and engaging way. It was heartwarming to see the reactions of many children who 'didn’t know classical music could be so exciting!' Of course, there have been some other great opportunities for me including concerts with the BBC Orchestras, and debuts this season with the Philharmonia and yourselves, the LSO!
'I love being in the middle of the sound, shaping and crafting the musical journey and sound-world.'
Having been principal cello with the CBSO Youth Orchestra, not taking up conducting full time until a few years ago, what made you decide to go down the conducting route rather than the instrumental?
I used to love playing in orchestras more than any other aspect of my music-making when I was younger. When I started playing in full symphony orchestras, I developed a real fascination with the people at the front and the dark art that they practised! This led me to set up orchestras of my own so I could try my hand at the craft, and to then take part in a conducting masterclass offered by the CBSO Youth Orchestra. From that point on, I never looked back! I love being in the middle of the sound, shaping and crafting the musical journey and sound-world.
You have had many opportunities to perform around the world, including with the Kymi Sinfonietta, Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and the Opéra National Lorraine. How does performing on tour compare with performing here in the UK?
It’s funny actually because orchestras have very different personalities, even sometimes between different countries. But at the end of the day, we just have to work and achieve the best musical result that we can, no matter what the orchestra. I love making music with other people and that’s the most important aspect of it, whether it be on home turf or away. One of the differences, though, is time constraints and rehearsal allowances: in the UK time is very tight so one has to find the most efficient way to achieve the best possible result. And at the same time, this must strike a balance – in any given rehearsal period – between musical result and technical brilliance. Music should always win.
What are you looking forward to about your debut performance with the LSO?
It’s such an honour to have this concert with the LSO – one that I’ve been mentally and musically preparing for since we started discussing it around 18 months ago! I think for a 26-year-old to have an opportunity to work with the world-class LSO is a real privilege and one that I will do everything I can to make the absolute most of. The repertoire, though, is the biggest highlight! I feel very lucky but also extremely excited to be able to share this Brahms-Strauss programme with an orchestra that really knows how to perform these works, also with real history and tradition in the sound.
Could you tell us a bit more about the repertoire for the concert on 26th January? When did you first get to know these pieces, and do you have any favourite moments in the works?
I performed the Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 with Benjamin Grosvenor earlier this season with the CBSO, and I’m really interested to see how the piece has changed for both of us (still being relatively young!) in the interim period. We really enjoyed working with each other in Birmingham (Benjamin is a real chamber musician and I found it so natural and easy to work with him in this piece, which is more a symphony for piano and orchestra!) so it will be great to bring the concerto to London for both of our LSO debuts.
The Brahms-Haydn Variations is a piece I have lived with a lot. Firstly, it was a piece that I studied in masterclass with Jac van Steen and the Ulster Orchestra a few years back and secondly as I toured the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy last Summer with the Filarmonica Toscanini for seven concerts with the piece. So again, I’m looking forward to seeing how it will have changed for me as I perform it for the ninth time. The Strauss Death and Transfiguration is a monumental, exhausting and dark work which I think will benefit from the lighter Brahms that precedes it!
Some conductors will learn a large range of repertoire. Do you think it is important for a young conductor to have a large range of repertoire, or to focus on a specific period or artist?
Yes I do think this is very important, but I try not to rush things and only take on repertoire which really means something to me. I only do something if I feel I have sufficient time to do it justice, and if I really feel a closeness to the repertoire – otherwise you’re just ticking boxes. I think it’s important to keep repertoire varied though, as it all develops part of your music-making. To provide an analogy, I used to run for fitness, but I now realise I must do lots of different forms of exercise for overall fitness. This is similar to the need to have varied repertoire for good musical health!
Who are your conducting inspirations?
I was very lucky to spend two years watching Andris Nelsons at the CBSO and learnt incredible amounts from that period. He is a real master of gesture, able to show the perfect signal to achieve exactly the sound that he is imagining. I have also been inspired by many other conductors at the CBSO during my time there, notably Sir Simon Rattle, the late Walter Weller and Edward Gardner. I do particularly enjoy hearing Gianandrea Noseda too. For real gestural genius, I must mention that I watch endless videos of Carlos Kleiber and Gennady Rozhdestvensky too!
'Every time I get a piece out, I'm uncovering new and different things which I find incredibly exciting but also really rewarding.'
How do you prepare for a performance, and what is your approach for interpreting a score?
I mark my score up heavily! Red. Blue. Pencil. More Pencil. Rubbing out, then even more pencil! I do an initial mark up and then live with it for a long time, which means the marking up and constant thinking through ideas never stops. Every time I get a piece out, I'm uncovering new and different things which I find incredibly exciting but also really rewarding. I try to listen to as many different recordings as possible, and from different traditions too, but always AFTER I’ve had my own time to think through a piece.
And finally, outside of conducting, how do you enjoy spending your free time?
Maybe it’s the time I spend in Italy in the Veneto region especially, but I really have a huge passion for fine red wines. I like to visit the wine producers (particularly the interesting small ones with only small yields) and to taste the different wines of such great quality. My social media is usually testament to my love of fine reds! Other than that I love films too. But the world in which I work is so intense that really the balance after work and study doesn’t leave too much space as it really can be all-consuming ... especially when I delve into such works as Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss. Once I start going through them, they tend to always be there in the mind, working through ideas in my subconscious, even when I’m not consciously going through the scores!
Alpesh Chauhan conducts Brahms' Piano Concerto No 1 with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor on Thursday 26 January at 7.30pm. The programme also features Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Strauss' Death and Transfiguration. Tickets are available online here.