In the week in which he makes his debut in Berlin, Alexander Shelley is interviewed by Clemency Burton-Hill on the concert, his work in Nuremberg and his inspirations outside of music. Read the full interview below.
You’re about to make your debut conducting in Berlin, at the Komische Oper - how does that feel?
It feels incredibly exciting! It’s wonderful to play in any great capital city, of course, but Berlin has such a phenomenal musical history and such discerning audiences for any form of art, particularly music. I’m simply looking forward to it.
What are you playing?
I couldn’t have wished for a more beautiful programme. We’re doing Strauss’ Don Juan and Shostakovitch’s Hamlet suites - so it’s a storytelling first half - and then in the second half Lars Vogt joins us for Brahms’ first piano concerto.
Storytelling? How important is that to you, as a conductor?
Really important: I enjoy talking about the stories behind music and in music at all levels. There are so many different ways of storytelling in music. It means something different for everyone but the more you understand, the more knowledge you have, the more you take. In Nuremberg [where Shelley is Chief Conductor] we have the opportunity to explore the stories behind the music on some deeper levels with our subscription audience and also through technology, which you couldn’t do as easily 50 years ago. I think the arts are on the cusp of a very exciting time in terms of how you reach people and I’m encouraged to see so many organisations taking the initiative.
Talking of Nuremberg, your contract has just been extended to 2017. Congratulations!
Thank you! The relationship with the orchestra feels very healthy. They’re ambitious, they’re willing to go places. Every week, we’re able to delve deeper and deeper, to find more and more colours in our palette, so to speak. There’s a real willingness on both sides to work as if we’re discovering the pieces for the first time and I think that openness is maybe all you need to enjoy making music together.
How have you found the Nuremberg audiences?
Lovely. We have lots of incredibly engaged subscribers - around 3000 and growing - and that’s not only inspiring, it’s fun, as we all get to know each other. You’re moving a lot of people a long way.
Any particular highlights that stand out?
When we played in the Musikverein in Vienna, the orchestra’s first visit, that did feel a bit like a benchmark. It was a wonderful moment. That hall carries so much history and that phenomenal acoustic - well, you put an orchestra in there that’s been working hard, looking for results, and it just gives it that extra sheen, somehow. We’re going back in two years, and between now and then we want to take some more big steps!
What - if any - are the downsides of being a young conductor in such international demand?
The only downside is it consumes vast amount of time; all the studying, rehearsing and travelling. There so many exhibitions I’d like to see, books I’d like to read... there’s a pile building at home of things I need to read and listen to but can’t find the time! I was just reading this morning about the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that’s opening in London this week - I’m very much hoping to get to that...
How important are those non-musical elements to your music-making?
Incredibly important. I really find that my work in music is freshened by my exposure to literature, to philosophy, to the visual arts and science.
Who are your greatest musical inspirations?
I have to say the composers themselves: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Wagner - pretty much anyone I happen to be studying that week. It is such a joy and privilege to study so closely such genius. Among conductors, I’d have to pick out Carlos Kleiber and his friend Karajan. Of the modern generation, Jansons is incredible; Abbado is a god; Gergiev has an incredible musical energy, such an ability to create colour and power from an orchestra. And there are so many young conductors I respect and admire - for example Gustavo Dudamel and Yannick Nezet-Seguin. I think this is such a healthy time for classical music, it’s very exciting.
What do you mean by that?
When I look around me I see a plethora of great young soloists who are not only fantastic instrumentalists. They’re dynamic, young interesting people of the world; they have genuine interests outside of classical music that bring more to their music-making, but are no less great than the artists of the previous generation. It makes me happy that the perception or cliche that classical musicians are stuffy, geeky nerds, who’ve never been outside because all they do is practice, just simply isn’t the case any more. I know so many outstanding musicians of my generation who could be in a rave the night before and a rehearsal the next day and don’t define themselves as anything other than people who enjoy everything in life. That makes classical music much more personable, more real.
What’s on your iPod?
Well, I’m a fan of most music so I have weeks and weeks worth on there! I tend to go through phases - currently I’m listening to lots of Latin music, and Stevie Wonder who I just think is a sensational songwriter. I used to play a lot of jazz piano and I love Bill Evans. And I also always have the coming programmes for the next season.
Do you listen to many different interpretations of the music you’re working on?
As many as possible. But first I go to the score without any sounds; I immerse myself in the written text. Only once I’ve worked out exactly what it is I want to do and why I believe it needs to be done do I listen to how others have seen it or sorted out certain corners. And then I listen to everything I can!
What was the last book you read?
I’ve just read The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes, a play on The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Landes analyses how it came to be that economies around the world are in different stages of development and what influences that, like geography and topography; how that shapes the political systems that determine the economies. It’s a very interesting book.
There can’t be many conductors out there poring over economics tomes, I’d bet. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I once heard Bill Clinton’s adviser say that his greatest strength was his ability to compartmentalise. And that’s, increasingly, an incredibly important element of my life working properly. It also goes hand-in-hand with my old cello teacher’s advice, which was about levels of concentration. He always said you have to actively create, in your practice, the same level of purpose you would have on stage. It’s about focus, I think. I don’t always get it right but that’s the goal!
Where do you feel most at home?
London. The wealth of things on offer is astonishing, but at the same time it’s like lots of villages that have been stuck together; a small community within the big. I love the green spaces: I grew up near Hampstead Heath and my wife Zoe and I now live near Hyde Park. I’m not silly enough to say London is the greatest city in the world, but it shares with those others the ability to be utterly cosmopolitan and utterly intimate at the same time.