Interview: conductor Alpesh Chauhan on dealing with shouting players and last-minute gigs

Alpesh Chauhan
Alpesh Chauhan
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Alpesh Chauhan is a bundle of energy on the podium. Reviews are full of references to the way he gets “all over the musicians”, either “cueing and cajoling”, or “semi-toppling on one leg as if his energy has simply overcome him”. The 26-year-old made his last conducting visit to Scotland with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in December, and he returns to conduct the same orchestra in just over two weeks’ time in a programme of Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Malcolm Arnold and Webern. If he conducts as slickly as he talks, his reputation as the latest “hot property” could well be confirmed.

Even though he’s only 26, Chauhan has long been big news in his native Birmingham. He began learning cello at the age of six, but it wasn’t until his early teens that music really took hold of his life.

“At 14 I discovered the CBSO [City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra] through friends round about me who encouraged me to join the CBSO Youth Orchestra,” he recalls. “That’s when I started discovering orchestral music. It certainly wasn’t a culture I was familiar with in my own house. But to me, at that moment, it just seemed so amazing.”

Twelve years on, Chauhan has learned his trade, first as a cello student at the Royal Northern College of Music, then on the Manchester college’s prestigious masters conducting course, during which he was spotted by CBSO chief executive Stephen Maddock and a golden opportunity presented itself.

“I’d been conducting childrens’ orchestras involving members of the CBSO and they told Maddock to check me out,” Chauhan says. He did, was suitably impressed, and created the post of fellow conductor, which Chauhan held until being elevated to associate conductor in 2014, giving him the opportunity to shadow none other than principal conductor Andris Nelsons, and ultimately to conduct his own full programmes.

It was undoubtedly a magical musical awakening, but working day-to-day with orchestral musicians – a notoriously belligerent species – and really getting to know them was, he maintains, as important a learning curve as knowing how to shape the notes on a score.

“I really benefitted from the luxury of not initially conducting much, but simply watching others in action,” he explains. “Sometimes young conductors get involved too soon, and that can give rise to arrogance. By watching you learn how not to do things. You might see really reputable people come in and get the players’ backs up, while others know exactly what to say or do, and you’re thinking ‘that’s how I want to do it.’”

It’s a mindset that’s served him well as the opportunities to take up the baton have escalated: conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in two of the BBC’s Ten Pieces concerts at the 2016 Proms; deputising last-minute with the BBC SSO 18 months ago when maestro Donald Runnicles fell sick; debuting in the US with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra last November; concerts this month with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras; and now getting set to take up his principal conductorship of the Filharmonica Arturo Toscanini Parma, performances with which have already earned him Italian plaudits as “a genuine talent”.

Just as at Birmingham, he is looking forward to the idea of “developing a close relationship” with his new orchestra. But this time, he’s the man in charge. Does that frighten him? “Not really,” Chauhan replies. “I’ve got used to adapting quickly to how orchestras react. You realise within a split second how an orchestra will react to your beat: sometimes immediately, sometimes not. An orchestra is an organism and you shouldn’t mess around with that. The important thing is knowing instantly how to move them along in a certain direction.”

There will be, he says, a different temperament to get used to. “I was taken aback recently in Italy when a principal viola and the leader started shouting at each other mid-rehearsal. What’s going on, I asked? Is everything OK? Yes, they replied. We’re just deciding on the bowing.”

Things, he appreciates, are a lot less heated with the SSO. “I’m beginning to establish a really nice relationship with the players”.

We finish our interview and Chauhan sets off to join some of them for a Glasgow pint. A wise conductor is one who knows the way to a musician’s heart. ■

Alpesh Chauhan conducts the BBC SSO at the City Halls, Glasgow, 16 February and at Eden Court, Inverness, 17 February,