Saturday 4 January 2014

Becoming a conductor - an interview with George Jackson

George Jackson conducting
George Jackson is a young English conductor who is just finishing his training in Vienna, at that interesting stage of his career when he takes the first steps at being freelance and sees how his career develops. During our interview George talked about how that smallest things, such as a phone call, can make a big difference at this stage. George already has a number of interesting projects line up for 2014 including performances of rare Beethoven in Romania, his debut with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and time as a conducting fellow at this year's Aspen Festival.

George did his first degree at Trinity College Dublin, before going to study conducting in Vienna at the University for Music under Mark Stringer. The move to Austria was deliberate as George wanted to learn conducting within the Austro-German kapellmeister tradition. The course at the university was extensive, lasting five years and including singing, piano and flute lessons; George himself was originally a violinist and singer. He is currently coming to the end of his course, and his training concludes with his public concert in May with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. For this concert he will be performing the Brahms' Haydn Variations and talks about how he likes the idea of having the two Viennese composers in one single piece.

George originally studied at Trinity College Dublin, where one of his main subjects was composition but he became aware that he had stronger opinions about other people's work. Whilst there he had conducting lessons at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and got a job conducting the chapel choir, requiring two services a week on a relatively small amount of rehearsal; good training for an aspiring young conductor. George makes the analogy with flying and the need to get in a decent number of flying hours.

During this period, though he found he had strong opinions about how things should go and listened to lots of recordings, he found it frustrating that it was difficult to try things out. He started a composers ensemble at Trinity College Dublin working on his own and other composers work. Like many young conductors before him, finding that the way forward was to just get up and do things.

Once he moved to Vienna to start studying, he found that things got more theoretical again with fewer opportunities for practical work. But he was happy to report that he is back to being busy, with dates in the diary up to 9 months ahead (invaluable notice for a young conductor who needs to get the learning of new works under his belt).

This summer he will be at the Aspen Festival on a conducting fellowship, a big two month period which he anticipates as being intense. There will be eight young conductors working as conducting fellows with guest conductors like Leonard Slatkin as well as covering Robert Spano the festival's director. Such posts not only give the young conductors the chance to work with a wide variety of distinguished conductors, but also the possibility of jumping in when people are sick. Opera is a great interest of George's and his time at Aspen will include three, Lowell Lieberman's Picture of Dorian Gray plus Carmen and Eugene Onegin.

George has great interest in opera, particularly new opera, though he came to the genre rather late. Both his parents are actors so he comes from a very theatrical background, but he only caught the bug at the age of 17 (it was Tosca at ENO). Whilst in Vienna he set up his own opera group, Speculum Musicae and conducted Pergolesi's La serva padrona and Charpentier's David et Jonathas with them.

He goes on to talk about the surprising fact that most of the young conductors that he know have no interest in singers. George is clearly interested in singers and singing styles, and our discussion is peppered with interesting asides about singing styles and repertoire. He already does coaching with singers and we go on to talk a lot about historical practice and old recordings of singers. But he wants to balance this with symphonic music and be able to do both.

He talks of being a conductor as being rather a schizophrenic profession; a conductor needs to be able to be a loner and work on their own, but also to be charismatic and be able to work with large numbers of people. This latter requirement is even trickier when the members of the orchestra are of maturer years and the conductor is only in his mid twenties.  It is important that the orchestra feels that he is doing his job and letting them do theirs. But he says that it is harder in London, where rehearsal time is short. And at this stage of his career, he needs to fit in with the orchestra's own culture. George says that he has found that relations with orchestra work well when they are slightly removed by language, so that he has enjoyed good relationships with Romanian orchestras where he has to communicate in French, German or Italian.

George has developed strong relationships with orchestras in Romania. He has been invited back by the Craiova Oltenia Philharmonic Orchestra for a concert in Craiova in southern Romania close to the Bulgarian border, where there is a new concert hall. He was invited to choose his own programme and, as the orchestra is doing a Beethoven cycle, George decided to take his teacher Mark Stringer's advice and use the occasion to learn some rare repertoire. So he will be conducting Beethoven's Symphony No.8, Choral Fantasy and Ruins of Athens Overture. (Another gleam in George's eye is the idea of doing Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and Symphony no. 9 in the same programme).

In October 2014 we get the chance to hear George in action in London when he will be conducting the London Firebird Orchestra in A Viennese Whirl  programme of Strauss waltzes, plus Mozart and Haydn at St Paul's Covent Garden. As this will be when George has just moved back to London from Vienna, it is perhaps something of a farewell and a welcome.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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