Amid the general gloom over arts funding, cutbacks, the reported slow but inexorable decline of classical music in general, it is refreshing to come across a confident, fresh, articulate and exciting new talent, in the form of the fast-rising young British conductor Nicholas Collon. In a break between rehearsals at Jerwood Space of Seven Angels, a new opera by Luke Bedford which Collon is conducting for the Opera Group and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group this summer, Collon talked about the new work, his musical trajectory so far and the work being done by the Aurora Orchestra, which he co-founded in 2005 and which has just won the 2011 Royal Philharmonic Society award for best Ensemble. And Collon himself is in the news: he has just been announced as the new assistant conductor (to Vladimir Jurowski) for the 2011/12 season of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. So for him, exciting days lie ahead.
What made you want to become a conductor? "I think it stems from a moment that occurred when I was 10 years old. I was playing second violin on the back desk of a symphony orchestra, a youth orchestra, and it was our first rehearsal. We played the first C major chord of the overture to Die Meistersinger and all I wanted to do was to look around behind me, at the noise coming from the brass, the horns and woodwind. And I had the same feeling then that I have now when conducting, an intense desire to harness all that energy in the orchestra. It was my ‘looking that way’ rather than ‘looking this way’ moment – and Collon fixes me straight ahead with a quizzical stare, before breaking off with a laugh."
Did you have a musical upbringing? "Yes, music has been a constant feature of my life to date. From the violin I went on to play the viola, but actually one of the big musical influences in my life was my grandmother, who taught me to play the piano, and did a fantastic job in giving me a sense of phrasing, and melodic line. Then I went through an intensive Bach phase, and I began to listen to keyboard interpreters who influenced me, like Rosalyn Tureck and Dinu Lipatti. At the same time, in my teenage years until around the age of 17, I became more and more involved with chamber music, which is a fantastic form of musical communication and expression, and then I went to Clare (Collon was organ scholar at Clare College, Cambridge) and became very involved with choral singing and the voice. So I suppose I have been exposed quite widely to different styles and aspects of music".
While at Clare, Collon became friends with fellow conductor Robin Ticciati and the two co-founded the Aurora Orchestra in 2005, having both played previously with the National Youth Orchestra. But Collon resists any suggestion that Aurora is an offshoot of the NYO. "It started very much in an informal, friendly, family way with a small group of players who knew each other and got on well – all young and committed musicians. We found we had the same sort of ideas, of making music accessible by programming and maybe by adopting a less sacrosanct approach to concerts and music-making than in the past. So we set out to explore what we could achieve, and we had some lucky breaks, the O project being one of them early on (newly-formed Aurora were chosen to play the Stravinsky scores that accompanied choreographer Michael Clark and his dance company in their three-year Stravinsky project, a reworking of Apollo, The Rite of Spring and Les Noces). And then I suppose we moved up to the next level in 2010, when we appointed a full-time manager and we were lucky enough to obtain Arts Council funding and support from others like the Jerwood Charitable Trust".
Aurora’s establishment on the UK musical scene, with residencies at LSO St Luke’s and at Kings Place, has been rapid and exciting along the way, culminating in the coveted Ensemble award in 2011 by the RPS. Why does Collon think that his orchestra won the award? "Well, the players are all good musicians, are young and totally committed to what we do. And I suppose Aurora answer some questions about music that other groups and ensembles are maybe not asking". What sort of thing, for example? "Pushing the boundaries, just like we do at LSO St Luke’s. A concert series can and should involve all forms of music-making, from swing to break dancing, to Klezmer: an interesting programme might include Lully, followed by Harrison Birtwistle, and then Duke Ellington. I have a personal passion for the Weimar period of the early twentieth century: Hindemith, Schreker, Weill and Korngold. The Schreker Chamber Symphony is simply fantastic: voluptuous music with a grand sweep, a huge soundscape." In talking about his musical passions Collon exudes enthusiasm, and his commitment to works that he regards as under-performed and under-represented in concert schedules is very clear. But he also talks with conviction and even a touch of awe about the revelatory, conversational aspects of Mozart’s music that are emerging in the ‘Mozart Unwrapped’ series at Kings Place: he is by no means a ‘contemporary new music only’ man, and the symphonies of Brahms are on his conducting agenda for 2012!
I ask Collon about his role models – conductors who have influenced him in particular. He names four – Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Mark Elder, Vladimir Jurowski and Carlos Kleiber. Of the four, it is Elder and Jurowski who have been huge influences on his evolving conducting style. "Obviously there are big differences between my conducting Aurora, a group of musicians whom I know very well and with whom I can connect very naturally, and guest conducting. There is no one way of doing it – you have to learn as you explore the repertoire and different styles of music making". Having just been appointed assistant conductor to the LPO, under Jurowski, Collon will undoubtedly get to know that orchestra well, so does he see himself becoming mainly an orchestral conductor in future? "No, it’s far too early to say that. With any luck, I might have another 50 years as a conductor, and so I want to work slowly and progressively on both the opera and the concert repertoire. In opera, because of my choral background, I feel very comfortable working with singers and the voice, and I should love to conduct the Britten operas for example: I feel very comfortable with Britten. And Richard Strauss would be great: I would adore to conduct Capriccio, for one. Maybe not Der Rosenkavalier just yet – but I have plenty of time".
From Britten and Strauss it is but a short conversational hop to the work that Collon is currently rehearsing, that is about to premiere in Birmingham and then go via various regional venues (Cardiff, Glasgow, Brighton, Oxford) to the Linbury Theatre in July and then to the Latitude Festival in Suffolk. Linbury to the Latitude – quite a jump! "Seven Angels is based loosely on Paradise Lost – it’s a parable of our times, a narrative about climate change, of what we are doing to the planet. It’s a tonal work, intensely lyrical, and Luke Bedford uses his orchestra to explore all sorts of interesting sonorities. There are 7 singers, and 4 violas in a 12 piece orchestra, and the writing has some amazing low woodwind passages: I find the music very attractive and energizing". How will it go down at the eclectic Latitude Festival? "I think it is more and more the sort of work that they want to put on. Opera in that context is no less accessible than any of the other musical acts". Indeed, Seven Angels will be a follow-up opera to the immensely successful Into the Little Hill which played at the 2010 Latitude Festival, so one can see the genre becoming established there. But perhaps not quite as a rival to the Aldeburgh Festival yet.
Collon’s orchestra for Seven Angels is the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and he is clearly enjoying the intensive rehearsal period he has had with them and with the Opera Group, in a production being directed by John Fulljames, whose own appointment as Associate Director of opera at the ROH and assistant to Kaspar Holten has just been announced. But just before Collon has to return to the rehearsal studio, I have time to ask him about another young composer with whom he and Aurora have become closely associated, Nico Muhly. Collon and Aurora curated a mini-series around Muhly’s music at King’s Place in May, to great critical success, and the concerto written for six string electric violin and Aurora’s leader, Thomas Gould, has just been released on Decca under the title Seeing is Believing. "Working with Nico, in such a creative way, has been amazing for me personally and for Aurora as a whole. I think the resulting CD is pretty special – it is such interesting music, such an incredible combination of old and new". Collon’s years at Clare, steeped in the English choral tradition of Byrd and Tomkins and Weelkes, have clearly predisposed him to find Muhly’s extraordinary take on early English church music an inspiring challenge, completely in sympathy with his own desire to make music modern, relevant and accessible to the widest public possible. He is going about it in impressive style.
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