Saturday 5 August 2023

A framework for all young musicians in Scotland: I chat to conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire, the music director of the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland

Catherine Larsen Maguire (Photo: Miguel Barreto)
Catherine Larsen Maguire (Photo: Miguel Barreto)

The British conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire was recently announced as the music director of the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland (NYOS), a new post that sees her leading the orchestras from 2024 for a three-year tenure. Born in Manchester and now based in Berlin, Catherine read music at Cambridge, followed by studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Karajan Academy in Berlin. She turned her focus exclusively to conducting in 2012 following a successful career as a bassoonist, which included 10 years as principal at the Komische Oper Berlin.

Catherine describes the role as a fantastic opportunity for her and hopefully for the organisation. NYOS has a relatively new CEO, Kirsteen Davidson Kelly who has been in post for around 18 months, and she has been restructuring the organisation. Catherine first conducted the senior orchestra in 2017 but plans to return had to be put on hold because of COVID, then in April this year she conducted the senior orchestra in a fantastic account of Mahler's Symphony No. 7. Following these performances, Kirsteen Davidson Kelly had the idea of having someone as music director who took an overview of the whole organisation.

NYOS involves training ensembles (short, non-auditioned, summer courses for young people aged 9 to 14), the NYOS Development Orchestra (for aspiring orchestral musicians aged 11-18), NYOS LAB (a new creative project designed to explore improvised and co-created approaches to ensemble music-making), NYOS Symphony Orchestra (the flagship ensemble, for performers age 14 to 22, Grade 8+ music or equivalent) and NYOS Camerata (the showcase pre-professional chamber ensemble).

Catherine points out that usually when she has conducted youth orchestras, she goes in for a few weeks and then leaves, but as music director of NYOS she will be able to follow the progress of players from the basic level to the seniors as they progress through the orchestra,  and she sees this as an important part of the job. Catherine thinks an important aspect of her role to be unifying the programming for the orchestras. She and Kirsteen Davidson Kelly will also be discussing new aspects of training that they can bring to the youth orchestras so that NYOS is not just about week-long courses but a framework for all young musicians in Scotland.

National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Sean Shibe, Catherine Larsen-Maguire - April 2023 (Photo: Ryan Buchanan)
National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Sean Shibe, Catherine Larsen-Maguire - April 2023 (Photo: Ryan Buchanan)
Catherine has long experience with youth orchestras, both as a member and as a conductor. She was a member of the county string ensemble in Northumberland as a teenager, as well as a member of the European Union Youth Orchestra, and whilst studying in Berlin she was a member of a German students orchestra. All these were wonderful experiences, and she wants to give something back. It was amazing to be part of these orchestras and she wants to make sure that all the members of the NYOS orchestras have similar experiences.

Whilst she was still a professional bassoonist she started conducting sectional rehearsals for youth orchestras, then doing youth orchestra concerts themselves, including Young Euro Classic in Berlin and more recently the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. So that youth orchestras have been a constant thread in her life. She describes working with them as a kind of luxury, always memorable and special. 

She does not have a specifically Scottish connection, though as she grew up in nearby Northumberland and has many friends in Scotland. When changing over from playing the bassoon to conducting, she conducted many non-professional orchestras including the Amicus Orchestra in Glasgow and she was recommended to NYOS by members of the Amicus orchestra. And she has worked a lot with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, some of whose players are tutors for NYOS.

Sean Shibe, Catherine Larsen-Maguire and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in rehearsal - April 2023 (Photo: Ryan Buchanan)
Sean Shibe, Catherine Larsen-Maguire and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in rehearsal - April 2023 (Photo: Ryan Buchanan)

Regarding repertoire for NYOS, she would like to perform a wide range of music, not just the mainstream. She realises that performing Brahms, Mahler and Stravinsky is important for the young players; if they become professional then they are able to take advantage of having performed and learned these works in such detail with NYOS. But it is also important to perform other repertoire, works by women composers, and works by contemporary composers. Also, when creating programmes she likes it if there is a thread running through, something that you can talk about to the players.

In April 2023, she performed Mahler's Symphony No. 7 alongside a guitar concerto by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski, with Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe as soloist. This involved the orchestra players using a lot of extended techniques, including the woodwind using plastic rulers, which created some amazing textures. So she wants to perform both the classic repertoire and contemporary, a wide range of works in programmes that are interesting, accessible and enjoyable (both for players and the audience) with music that stretches boundaries both intellectually and musically.

Playing in a youth orchestra is important for so many aspects of life, including concentration, and playing together. She comments that playing the 80 minutes of Mahler's Symphony No. 7 is an incredible experience for a 14-year-old player, having to concentrate for a long period of time like in no other aspect of life.

She grew up in Northumberland and her parents were not musicians. She was always interested in conducting but does not know where this came from though she wryly adds that perhaps it arose from a wish to be the centre of attention. She studied at Cambridge, and there everyone was doing their own thing so she started conducting groups also. In Germany, she studied bassoon but was conducting as well. She enjoyed her time working at the Komische Oper in Berlin with conductors such as Kirill Petrenko and Vladimir Jurowski, but she was also doing more conducting, taking masterclasses and eventually moved to conducting professionally. In 2012 she left her bassoon job at the Komische Oper, though she continued to freelance a bit. Then five years ago she stopped playing the bassoon, she did not want to do both, feeling that a conductor is what she is.

Catherine Larsen-Maguire
Catherine Larsen-Maguire

When we spoke she had just finished two weeks in Jerusalem, teaching (which she enjoys), giving masterclasses to young conductors as well as giving a concert with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. In fact, the last six months have been a bit of a whirlwind of travel including not just Europe, but Colombia, Spain and Brazil, whilst in August she will be travelling to Mexico. Though she lives in Berlin, she loves travelling though admits that she misses her husband and her cats.

It is hard work and the responsibility is huge, but she is revelling in it. She feels that nearly 90% of the job is score learning, which happens without the orchestra. The nice part is the travelling and the meeting new people. For each engagement, she has to find the best way to get the best out of the orchestra, never having met them before. She feels that having played in an orchestra helps, she knows how the orchestra feels.

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