Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider on what it takes to be a conductor

Ahead of two appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra in October, conductor and virtuoso violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Zneider talks about what a conductor does and what it takes to do it well.

Imagine I don’t know a lot about classical music. How would you describe what a conductor does?

I’m paraphrasing the great Leonard Bernstein here: ‘With a lot of flattering, and threatening, and joking and screaming and yelling and sweating, you can make an orchestra play. But you also have to make them want to play.’ I think if I have to sum it up, that’s what it is about.

We’re not dealing with one group that feels the same, we’re dealing with 90 people who have 90 different needs, wishes, complaints and worries. The job of the conductor is to make everybody go in the same way and to make everybody want to be there.

What sort of personality do you need to be a great conductor?

As with everything else in life, to make it work we have to be ourselves. People respond well to sincerity, and in the same way we want the audience to feel our passion for the music. The orchestra has to feel that passion too. If they feel that, then I think that’s all you need.

Can you think back to the first time you conducted?

The first time one conducts a professional Symphony Orchestra and people actually pay you to be there, it’s a terrifying event. I don’t think anyone forgets it and I’ve spoken with enough conductors who will privately admit to it. Anybody that tells you otherwise is either lying, or stupid. It’s a horrific moment – you give your first upbeat, and it is not together. But, since it’s your first time, you don’t know if it’s your fault … or did they make a mistake? It’s an uphill battle from there but I realised ‘My God, I’m a beginner again!’ and that was fantastic, and I think the journey one has to make is wonderful.


The moment we stop being curious, the creative process stops. I think if we close that lust for new music, then that’s a bad road to go down.

Is there any repertoire you won’t go near, a Room 101?

There were some pieces I didn’t understand, which either a conductor or an orchestra insisted on playing. And I thought ‘Oh no, this is going to be awful, I don’t like this.’ But then having done them, having studied them, I really quite enjoyed them. There are things I wouldn’t come back to, but I think part of being a musician is retaining a sense of curiosity. The moment we stop being curious, the creative process stops. I think if we close that lust for new music, then that’s a bad road to go down.

Have you had any funny or humbling moments at the podium?

To quote Colin Davis, my great mentor and for many years the principal conductor of the LSO, ‘Life is staggering from one humiliation to the next.’ I think that’s true. We are always being humbled in a way, but I agree that some incidents are more fun than others. I’ve dropped the baton, but I don’t think that’s particularly embarrassing. It can be quite fun!

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?

I think perhaps I would tell myself not to be concerned with how quickly things did or didn’t go, to have more patience with the process, to be happy with the fact that things are going well. I would say ‘Young man, just allow yourself to sit back and relax from time to time!’

In preparing for a concert do you have anything you need to do or any rituals?

A slight superstition never hurt anyone, as long as you can control it a little bit. I’ll take a nap every afternoon. I kiss my cufflinks three times before going on stage … I think that’s it. So it’s in check, but don’t take those things away from me!


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