Classical: Fergus Macleod ready for the big time

Fergus Macleod. Picture: Contributed
Fergus Macleod. Picture: Contributed
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After cutting his teeth in Scotland, Fergus Macleod is poised to take up a conducting post at London’s Coliseum

What does it take to become a conductor? Technique, passion, knowledge and the necessary strength of personality, of course. But when your instrument is a collective of anything up to 60 or 70 players, it’s not like buying a violin or a clarinet and holing yourself up in your room to practise. So how do you do it? How do you get the necessary hands-on experience?

Fergus Macleod conducting at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland. Picture: Contributed

Fergus Macleod conducting at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland. Picture: Contributed

One person who’s found the answer is Fergus Macleod. With a mixture of luck, sound guidance, go-getting personality and resourcefulness, the 26-year-old Cambridge graduate from Shropshire has followed a course of education and training that has opened up the necessary opportunities, and now – as outgoing Leverhulme Conducting Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) – has found himself, as of August, a nice little number as Mackerrras Conducting Fellow at English National Opera (ENO).

Receiving the news last week, Macleod was understandably excited. He’s only the second person ever appointed to the two-year post. And if it’s anything like it was for his ENO predecessor, Gergely Madaras, it will mean assisting the music director (currently Edward Garden, but soon to be Mark Wigglesworth) in anything up to 13 productions in his first year before being let loose to direct a production of his own.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity for me to extend my knowledge base, to work with the singers on ENO’s Harewood Young Artist Scheme, and more importantly, to allow me to expand my skills and experience in an area where maybe I’m not quite yet on solid ground,” explains Macleod, who recently conducted one of the performances in the RCS’s production run of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

Indeed, the experience he has gained on the RCS fellowship has, he believes, equipped him well for his new adventure at London’s Coliseum. For not only has it given him internal opportunities to conduct symphonic, operatic and contemporary ensemble repertoire within the RCS, but a link-up with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra means that Macleod has also acted as conducting assistant to SSO principal conductor Donald Runnicles.

It’s in that capacity that he conducted the offstage brass in the SSO’s monumental performance of Wagner’s Tannhauser at last summer’s London Proms, and rehearsed offstage elements of the Verdi Requiem that closed last year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Other than that, he says, “I get to be Donald’s ears in the hall, things like checking the balance, but more importantly just talking to him and observing how he gets such marvellous results from the SSO.”

As we speak, Macleod is getting ready to assist Runnicles in next week’s SSO performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 9, as well as conducting Red Note Ensemble in the RCS’s contemporary music festival, Plug, and preparing the RCS Symphony Orchestra for its summer concert under former RCS conducting fellow Jessica Cottis. He’s also down to do a masterclass and concert with Dresden Staatsoper.

The subsequent move to London is pivotal for Macleod, a golden opportunity to fine-tune all he has learnt since he first became awestruck by the art of conducting as a 15-year-old violinist in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO) and as a music scholarship boy at the prestigious Shrewsbury School.

“There was a really strong music department at Shrewsbury, run by John Moore, who grew up in Edinburgh, and saw no reason why the school orchestra couldn’t play Shostakovich 5 or Dvorak 9,” Macleod recalls. “But what really got me hooked was a mad programme we did at NYO in a tiny hall which opened with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture using the full NYO forces. Someone asked the conductor why he was doing Mozart with such a big orchestra. He said he just wanted to hear what it sounded like. I was immediately sucked into this person who was allowing us all to play together in this crazy way.”

Until then, he harboured hopes of becoming a lawyer. “I come from a medical family. My sister is a surgeon and my dad is a doctor. I wanted to be a medical negligence lawyer so I could sue my sister.”

But music cast its spell, and Macleod won a choral scholarship to Cambridge, and within a week found himself conducting. “It was one of these odd quirks of fate. My director of music at Shrewsbury had been very keen to help me conduct, and I had put on concerts there conducting friends from NYO, so I came to Cambridge having done quite a lot. My college found out about this, and when, in my second week there, someone pulled out of an orchestral concert because they couldn’t conduct Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, I was asked to do it.”

Cambridge, he says, was exactly the right place to gain plenty of hands-on experience. Besides taking every opportunity to conduct – “I did everything from Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms to Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child to Borodin 1 and Bach’s double harpsichord concertos with Nicholas Cleobury and Simon Standage” – Macleod set up his own contemporary music ensemble, performing works such as Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony and Britten’s Sinfonietta.

“It was a very proactive place to be. If you wanted to do something, everyone just sorted things out quickly and made it happen,” he recalls. After Cambridge Macleod went on to study in Zurich with Johannes Schlaefli.

As for Glasgow, Macleod believes, for him, it was the right place at the right time. “It’s a pretty unique scheme they have at the Conservatoire. There’s something like it in Baltimore, but that’s at a fledgling stage,” he says. “I feel well-equipped for the next big challenge.”

• Fergus Macleod conducts Red Note Ensemble in the opening event of RCS contemporary music festival, Plug, on 30 April,