Please share your background with us.
My name is Alpesh Chauhan and I am a conductor. My parents were born in East Africa (father in Tanzania and mother in Kenya) of Indian descent (Gujarati). I was born in Birmingham (UK) and grew up there, learning the cello from the age of six. This led to me studying at the Royal Northern College of Music (Manchester, UK) and achieving a Bachelor of Music degree in cello (2008-12) and then a Master of Music degree (2012-14).
I am currently at the end of a two-year Assistant Conductor post at the world-class City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, following a successful experimental year as Conducting Fellow. I am lucky enough now to be forging relationships with many European orchestras including a prestigious debut at the London Symphony Orchestra next January and further afield with work to date in Finland, the Netherlands, UK, Italy, Germany, France and debuting next season in the USA.
What are your earliest childhood memories of being exposed to Western classical music. Why did you decide to pursue this career path and how supportive were your family and friends?
I grew up watching many Bollywood films with my family! The soundtracks for these were very orchestral and instrumental so the sound world was not so far from the orchestral world in which I make my life now. Of course, as I improved as a cellist, I played with many youth orchestras and so got a feel for arrangements of popular classical works and then went on to play complete symphonies, for example in Birmingham Schools’ Symphony Orchestra and the CBSO Youth Orchestra.
I bought my first CD around the age of 15: Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. I was hooked immediately. My CD collection grew so quickly, often shadowing the repertoire I would be studying in music classes or playing in orchestras and chamber groups.
It was obvious to both me and my family that when it came to applying for universities, music was the only option! Academically, I only enjoyed maths! I did think about the possibility of pursuing maths and getting a ‘normal’ job but that would have been untrue to myself. I knew the passion and drive was there and everybody close to me knew the same. Even though extended family (most of them from a very traditional Indian background) only really understood 9-5 jobs, they all knew that music was my vocation and, rather than criticising or questioning too much, many of them were very interested to see where it would lead as it was something so different. This was more the case from my younger relatives – cousins – and friends at school who saw my commitment and drive, respected it, and supported me wholeheartedly. Many of my extended family still don’t understand it – but they are all very excited to see where the journey takes me and to support me too.
What challenges do you face as a young conductor?
The answer – and I believe there is only one answer – is in your question. Being young. This translates into a lack of experience – but I would be very naive if I didn’t accept this! Conductors often give the best concerts of their lives when they are well into their 60s, 70s or even 80s. It’s a field where age and experience only improve your conducting, provided you take care of your physical and mental health along the way.
This experience includes life experience, to understand better the plethora of emotions that composers strive to achieve in their music and also practical experience of addressing problems and solving them as quickly as possible. However, you can always help yourself by working as hard as possible. You have to study and always strive to go deeper and deeper into scores so that when standing in front of an orchestra, you know the music as well as you can on that day.
Your favourite piece of music and composer?
For some time now my favourite symphony has been Beethoven’s Third. It’s a magnificent work, at times scary, and still feels avant-garde in 2016. Other than Beethoven, at this point in my career I really enjoy studying and performing works by Brahms and Shostakovich. I am also passionate about 20th-century music, including composers such as Lutoslawski and Berio.
Your advice for young musicians across the world?
Once you know what you’re getting yourself into, focus! Focus, focus, focus! It’s a hard world – people often comment on just how difficult it is to be employed and to be successful in the music business. However, it really isn’t that scary if you are committed and have the passion and drive to thrive. The best musicians are honest and true to themselves, and therefore able to speak to the audience and their emotions. This doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself in a room studying every hour of every day, it just means being focused enough to work hard and always wanting to go further into the music you are working on to deliver a convincing, honest performance. As musicians, we should always strive to communicate our musical intentions and move the audience (be it through laughter, tears, reminiscence…) and to use our technique to achieve our musical wishes.
Would you consider touring India at some point in the near future?
Of course! If the right opportunity came along, this would be an incredible experience – especially to be involved in outreach. I know of orchestras and musicians who have toured India to great success. There is definitely a passion for the music there and it would be great for me, especially with Indian descent, to experience this for myself.
About Alpesh Chauhan
Alpesh Chauhan is Assistant Conductor at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a role to which he was appointed in 2014 having previously been the orchestra’s first Conducting Fellow. Quickly rising to international prominence, the insight which Alpesh brings to the music is relished by orchestras and audiences alike, and his natural rapport with the players has resulted in him already establishing relationships with some of the major orchestras in the UK and Europe.
Alpesh’s career to date includes engagements with the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, Kymi Sinfonietta, Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini Parma, Orchestra del Teatro Petruzzelli Bari, Ulster Orchestra, Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. He gave his début with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in a Radio 3 live broadcast of Vasks’ Violin Concerto Distant Light and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 and was re-invited to conduct the orchestra for the Ten Pieces Secondary film. In May and June 2015 he stepped in for two live Radio 3 broadcasts with the BBC Scottish and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras, both of which were received with great acclaim.
The 2015/16 season sees Alpesh return to Kymi Sinfonietta, Manchester Camerata, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini Parma as well as conduct the orchestras of Teatro Carlo Felice Genoa, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Symphony Orchestra of the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland for the first time. He will also make his French début with the orchestra of Opéra National Lorraine in Nancy. In January 2017 Alpesh will make his début with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre, performing Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Benjamin Grosvenor.
By way of background, in 2005, Alpesh joined the CBSO Youth Orchestra and soon after became their principal cellist. In 2007 he began taking conducting masterclasses as part of the Youth Orchestra Academy. He joined the RNCM in 2008 to study the cello with Eduardo Vassallo before deciding to pursue the prestigious Master’s Conducting Course, taught by Clark Rundell and Mark Heron. Alpesh has participated in masterclasses with Juanjo Mena, Vasily Petrenko and Jac van Steen, been mentored by Andris Nelsons and Edward Gardner and has studied with conductors of renown including Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.