On Thursday 5 November, Stephanie Childress conducts the Orchestra in a programme of Kaija Saariaho, Sibelius and Mendelssohn, streamed live from LSO St Luke's and available to watch on Medici TV from 6.30pm GMT. We caught up with her to hear about her memories of listening to 70s funk as a child, playing with the LSO String Academy, and how she's preparing to conduct this performance after stepping in at short notice.
When did you first get involved in music?
I come from a non-musical family so have very strong memories of listening to non-classical genres during my childhood: 70s funk and 80s hard rock in tandem with a lot of Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald (which probably shows my parents’ age!). However, I do have a vivid memory of watching Nigel Kennedy play Vivaldi's Four Seasons when I was four years old. According to my parents I was absolutely transfixed by his performance, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I asked for violin lessons a few months later.
You’re also a violinist, and appeared as a finalist in the 2016 and 2018 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. When did you become interested in pursuing conducting?
My interest in conducting stemmed from playing in youth orchestras and working with some amazing conductors. I always felt that there might be more to my musical life than the violin and was curious as to what really made orchestras sound different every time someone new stepped onto the podium. Eventually I had a 'eureka' moment at the age of 13 whilst watching Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier at the English National Opera. Perhaps it was the beauty of Strauss’ score or the incredible singing, but I just knew I wanted to be part of that musical synergy as a conductor.
What are you most looking forward to about the concert on 5 November?
Performing with the LSO! As a Londoner I literally grew up watching this incredible Orchestra perform a huge variety of music. I was in the 2015 LSO String Academy as a violinist and was always keen to attend their rehearsals at the Barbican when I was a student. Their level of musicality and focus both as individuals and as an orchestra is truly amazing and I know that whatever happens I will learn a huge amount over the next few days.
You've stepped in to replace Susanna Mälkki, who is unfortunately unable to conduct this performance due to travel restrictions. How do you even begin preparing to conduct with just a few days’ notice?
Since I was preparing to assist Susanna Mälkki, I had already started studying the scores when I was asked to step in. However, there is a completely different depth of knowledge required when you're expected to conduct, so I have mostly been focusing on refining my interpretation of the programme whilst adopting a constructive, positive mindset – making music is as much psychological as it is physical!
Are there any conductors that you particularly look up to?
There are many conductors that I admire and luckily I have been able to work with most of them in one way or another. Sir Simon Rattle has always been a huge inspiration and assisting him on two LSO projects this season was a dream, especially after not having made music in six months! During my time with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, I got to work with François-Xavier Roth, whom I greatly admire and respect both for his knowledge of the core repertoire and for his interpretations of contemporary music. And I consider Bernard Haitink to be one of the greatest conductors of all time; he just emanates music and manages to be calm whilst generating such intensity when conducting.
What advice would you give to young people hoping to pursue a career in music?
My biggest piece of advice would be to stay open-minded. You never really know where a career in music will take you, and in a way it’s our job to be open to art’s limitless possibilities.
You’re in your early twenties now. Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict anything concrete. I’d simply hope to keep improving as a conductor and musician. Ultimately, our profession is a marathon rather than a sprint so if in ten years time I’m working with talented musicians and developing my musical skills, then that’s all I can wish for!
Stephanie Childress conducts the LSO in Sibelius' En Saga and Cassazione, Kaija Saariaho's Lumière et Pesanteur and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor with soloist Alina Ibragimova. The performance will be recorded from LSO St Luke's and is available to watch live on Thursday 5 November 6.30pm GMT or on demand for 90 days via Medici TV.
The first movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto will be available to watch on the LSO YouTube channel from Sunday 15 November.