Interview: Alpesh Chauhan on his new role as BBC SSO associate conductor

The SSO is recording again, and with a new associate conductor, writes Ken Walton
Alpesh ChauhanAlpesh Chauhan
Alpesh Chauhan

When I first spoke to Alpesh Chauhan in February about his then impending announcement as new associate conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, storms were brewing. Literally. The UK had just been battered by Storm Dennis. A more disastrous onslaught, the Covid-19 epidemic, was yet to figure. When it did, every orchestra’s new season plans were swiftly thrown into disarray, the SSO’s launch in March was cancelled, and it was decided that Chauhan’s announcement would have to wait for another day.

That day has happily come, and the young Birmingham-born conductor has been working in Glasgow over the past five days. And even if it has been a week cloaked to some degree in secrecy – the players are quietly returning in dribs and drabs to the orchestra’s City Halls home while it undergoes the delicate process of finding safe solutions to playing under social distancing regulations – there’s enough cautious optimism in the air for the SSO to finally make Chauhan’s appointment official.

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“I actually don’t know what to expect next week,” he told me just before heading north from his Coventry home. “We’ll be recording behind closed doors for radio, but exactly what the repertoire will be is still up in the air. I can’t even tell you what the various options are.

“The rate of change in any planning conversations at the moment is mind-boggling,” he reveals. “It just takes one more government requirement to come in which says you can’t have as many brass players on stage, and plan B or C has to be instantly adopted.”

Chauhan has had to be prepared to conduct whatever programme is decided at the last minute. Even at just 30, though, he’s experienced enough to take such challenges in his stride. The past five years have seen him nurture a productive relationship in Italy as principal conductor of Parma’s Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, alongside other regular European dates in Germany and Spain.

Here in the UK, in addition to regular guest appearances with leading orchestras, including the SSO, he is music director of Birmingham Opera Company, therefore part of the successful creative partnership under artistic director Graham Vick that won a 2019 Royal Philharmonic Award for its production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District.

Back in February he had firm intentions for his first season on board with the SSO, working in tandem with chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard. “I had a really exciting pair of programmes scheduled around Shostakovich’s two cello concertos, which would also have featured Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony,” he says with some regret.

“It’s very unlikely that will go ahead; it’s just not going to be possible to programme Romantic symphonies that require enormous numbers of players. Our challenge now is to find do-able repertoire that follows a meaningful narrative. The worst thing would be to choose works that simply fill space.”

It’s an exasperating situation, but one that every arts organisation in the land is facing. Achieving any sense of normality for live performances before Christmas, and possibly beyond, looks like pie in the sky. What that means for an orchestra like the SSO, argues Chauhan, is “we have to take things as they come.”

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That inevitably means opting for smaller scale works. “I don’t think audiences will mind. If we can still put on concerts in some form or other, people will appreciate how things are.”

The purpose of the past week, he explains, will be an important test bed. “These musicians are in the process of coming together after months of not working together. This is the time when we see how they feel, what is possible, and how we move forward.”

How quickly can that happen? “This is interesting,” Chauhan says. “As I look at my diary up to Christmas, any UK dates have completely gone. However, as things become more normal people will get used to changes, so I expect concerts will pop up here and there. These will be one-off events rather than a season.

“That said, all of my Germany work and elsewhere in Northern Europe has remained. I even gained a concert during this time because they have been getting back to it a lot faster due to the fact they have better funding, but especially because their venues are supported a lot better than ours. Our orchestras would have been able to go back sooner if our venues had been in a better state in terms of government financial backing.”

As to what musical surprises materialised from last week’s recording sessions with the SSO, all will be revealed when the programme is broadcast on 26 August on BBC Radio 3

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