Interview: Alpesh Chauhan discusses his meteoric rise

Birmingham conductor Alpesh Chauhan 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 Bruckners 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 dont think that its ever been too quick. Its like constructing a house, everything that I do adds to the foundations that Im 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 dont do often, or ever. In return theyll 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?

Its a bit of both. I did Sibelius 5 with the CBSO last month and theyve 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, whats 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 Orchestrasthere are so many links there, so many who have helped me technically, musically, holistically. Its very much a family-type relationship where people can be honest, in a constructive way. I think we need this because as conductors were 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 theres 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 its rare, and I guess youre 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, Ive 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 Im in front of the CBSO I think that Im stronger, that I know better what I want and I think I know how to achieve it.”

“And also control, and I dont mean that in a dictatorial way, most orchestras dont 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 youre trying something and its 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 Im 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 Id 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.’”

You made your Proms debut this year with Ten Pieces II, a BBC project started in 2015 which aims to involve children both in listening to and making classical music. And it’s just won a BAFTA in the Secondary Learning category of 2016 Children’s Awards…

Yeah, not for me but for the film production team – it was a very theatrical event. I think that it was one of the most important Proms of last season, we did two and they were packed out and it was clear how excited the kids were and how positive their response to the music was, with some even performing their own work at the Proms, inspired by the Ten Pieces. The buzz was there, with the childrens tv presenters taking part and the visuals playing in the Royal Albert Hall, so we need to make the bridge and find a way of helping that enthusiasm to grow the next generation of audiences for classical music.”

But I’m amazed by the success of Ten Pieces, I think that it surpassed everyones expectations and weve had children from all backgrounds saying that they didnt know that classical music could be so exciting. And we have to ask ourselves, why didnt they know that, because thats our problem, that’s a cultural problem that we who live and work in classical music have to overcome. And we need to bring people into our world more broadly, and the Proms are a very important vehicle for achieving that.

Your first North American concerts came in November with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite and Mendelssohn’s First Symphony. How was the experience and did you find the musical culture differed to that in Europe?

Well the audience loved the music and theres a real hunger for it over there. We did pre-concert talks before each of the two performances and they were very well attended. The orchestra has recently acquired  an exciting new Music Director in Carlos Izcaray who is bringing his own following and people are getting behind what hes trying to do. But its really similar to over here, very professional and strict as regards timekeeping, for instance in rehearsal you dont go a second over and time really does mean time. Im certainly keen to go back to America but my management are talking to various orchestras in different parts of the world, discussing potential engagements anything up to three seasons ahead so well have to see what transpires.

You performed two CBSO concerts with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, first at Symphony Hall (November 30th) and then at the Forum Theatre in Malvern (December 1st). It’s the first time you two have worked together, were you pleased with the collaboration?

Hes such a sensitive player, but such a chamber musician as well. We did Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 which requires a pianist who can accept what this piece is – more of a symphony for orchestra and solo pianist – and not just one who can cut through the orchestra and be heard, because theres plenty of those. Benjamins quite staggering and it felt like I had a soloist of so many years experience behind me and yet hes younger than I am, although hes already been playing the piano longer than Ive been conducting.”

I think that we found a way to work together onstage, to be a partnership. It was intuitive and I felt that he was always there for me, which is rare with a soloist, and that if he needed space or time, I would have been there for him. But I also felt that if something happened in the orchestra, if we phrased in a different direction, used a little more time to make the music breathe or moved 

Hes an incredibly special musician, he makes every note speak. Its like when you close your eyes and listen to a recording of an established pianist, fifty, sixty, seventy years old, and they are just transporting you because theres no arrogance, theyre just serving up this piece on a platter made of pure gold.

You perform the Brahms again on January 26th when you both make your debuts with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Itll be nice to return to it with a different orchestra in a different hall just to see how things might have developed in the course of a few months. Benjamin and I spoke recently about the CBSO concerts, and thinking ahead to the LSO one of course, so Im really looking forward to performing it with him again.

Being asked to conduct the LSO is a tremendous accolade for any conductor, remarkably so at this early stage of your career. But the Brahms isn’t the only significant work you’ll be showcasing that night?

Yes, were also doing Richard Strauss Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration) which Ive not conducted with a professional orchestra before. I love Strauss and Brahms, they are composers that I have got deeply into and I think that at this point Brahms, in his music, is the closet composer to me, to what I feel like in my life.”

But this date has been in my diary for around 18 months and we started to put the programme together back then. We wanted to find something that both Benjamin and I would thrive in, that we were really passionate about. The Brahms/Strauss link came quite early on, and at that point neither of us had done the Brahms before. Between all parties concerned the idea of these two pieces really clicked. The Brahms is a very heavy piece, a mammoth work and I think that its a big thing for Benjamin as well, a massive romantic concerto. And then theres the Strauss, which is very deep and very dark, so I think you need a lighter piece to augment them which is why the third [middle] work that were undertaking, Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, is much lighter and creates a nice juxtaposition in between the other two.

Have you conducted in the Barbican before?

Yes, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Ten Pieces. As is well known, its not the easiest of halls, so its great to have conducted there previously, but the LSO know the venue so well and understand how to make it work, plus we have three days for rehearsals.

And will Birmingham audiences be seeing much of you in 2017?

Hopefully, because I have a great relationship with the CBSO. So of course if they ask me I will come and there are some ideas for working with them next season. But its also nice to see how different orchestras work, their different speeds of work, the different musical and emotional levels, and that can only strengthen me when I do return to perform in Birmingham and the CBSO.