The Classical Station’s Interview with Alexander Shelley

By Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: © Dwayne Brown Studio)

Left-side view of Alexander Shelley conductingAs the Principal Associate Conductor of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley is an award-winning conductor, earning the ECHO prize for his recording of Peter and the Wolf. Active across the globe, Shelley has inspired both professional musicians and upcoming generations, and has led thousands of people to recognize the everlasting beauty of classical music. In our interview with him, Alexander Shelley reminisced on his time learning music, the great musicians who served as his influences, and his conducting techniques.

When asked about his early years as a musician, Shelley responded with anecdotes of his childhood.

SHELLEY: My father is a concert pianist and conductor, and my mother was a concert pianist. And the house was full of these instruments. My grandmother lived also in a flat in our house and had a piano, and she was a musician, a cellist and a pianist. And so I was bombarded from the months in which I was being cooked in my mom’s tummy up to the moment I was born by the sound of the piano. And then for all the years of my early life, that was the background noise of our home.

I realized also that in many ways, the first language that my parents communicated with me in was music… their hearts were expressed through the sound that came out of the piano. And so I think I understood very early on how to associate warmth or love or passion or fear or mystery, all these things, through the sound of notes. And that would be my primary influence, without question, just those formative years and formative months before I was even born. Subsequently, my mother was my first piano teacher. I had a rebellious phase in my early teens where I argued with her all the time about why I should do this fingering or that fingering.

He told us about his later musical inspirations, and his relationship to music as a teenager and young adult, citing Tim Hugh of the London Symphony Orchestra as his idol and mentor in high school. Alexander Shelley also responded with some great advice about conducting, his views on technique, and how he learned the craft.

SHELLEY: There are many different facets of what a conductor does. We would demand so much of ourselves as pianists or trumpeters or percussionists or flute players or violinists. If we wanted to play in an orchestra, we would realize that there’s no room for technical error. And yet somehow conductors allow themselves sometimes to get away with not being quite accurate, not being quite precise. And I’ve been sharing with the professional development participants, the colleagues who I’m working with, my belief that one needs to be stringent with oneself about one’s technique. And the good news for conductors is that in comparison to playing a piano or a violin or anything else, it is quite a simple business. But all the more reason to be really self-critical and really precise with it.

Really refining your technique pays out double and triple and quadruple later because you are freed up to have a body that is intuitively expressive and intuitively follows the demands that your mind places on it. And turn your mind to really listen to what the orchestra is doing to project out in front of what you’re playing in that moment…you have to project forward by a fraction of a second, up to several seconds, and in a sense throughout the whole piece.

Shelley’s viewpoint on his profession as a conductor is both sensitive and practical.

SHELLEY: You have a big, big repertoire and understanding of the different music that have been written for small to very large ensembles. And beyond that, digging emotionally, spiritually, philosophically, metaphysically into the ‘why’ of music. These are things that are a lifetime’s work. And they cross the borders from music into asking questions about the essence of life and interpersonal communication.

Why is it that certain music has a certain effect on people and can get to the root of that? How can one augment it? And how can one bring that thing to life as a collective in a group? Or rather, how can you recognize it if it is not quite igniting with an orchestra? What is it that’s missing? These are questions that are incredibly fruitful and enriching because you transcend the medium of communication, which is music, and go into the essence of what all communication is about, and through that, in a sense, what life is about, because we are always seeking communication, seeking to ask questions, seeking to find answers.

If there’s anything at all aspiring conductors can take away from this interview, it is that conducting is far more about the mental viewpoint you adopt than you would assume. It is a unique interplay between the physical and mental realms, and Alexander Shelley has mastered it over decades of rigorous practice, just as the musicians he conducts have mastered their own skill-sets.

Rob Kennedy’s full 30-minute interview with Alexander Shelley premieres on August 1st, so please listen if you’re interested in hearing everything this wonderful composer has to say about his profession. WCPE’s The Classical Station features famed composers and musicians all week long, so tune in!