Can you give us a potted history of your career to date?
Like a lot of students, I started working professionally while I was still training at the Academy. Most of my early work came from the professors and visiting teachers, and it naturally progressed from there. I met my wife, Liv-Marie Kodurand (Violin, 2008), at the Academy, and when we made the life-changing decision to start a family we knew, first and foremost, that we didn’t want to raise a family in London. I suppose I went into the industry with slightly rose-tinted glasses, as I just wanted to carry on playing in whatever capacity I could. What I hadn’t factored in was the impact having a family would have. In many ways, being a musician isn’t always compatible with a comfortable family life because of the incessant travel and antisocial hours. We moved to Somerset, where I took up various teaching posts, eventually becoming Head of Strings at an independent school until very recently, which provided us with the stability we needed. However, I still wanted to continue my performing career, so I joined the Bristol Ensemble back in 2011 and then took over as Artistic Director about three years ago.
Tell me more about Bristol Ensemble and your role as Artistic Director.
When we moved to the West Country, Bristol Ensemble was already firmly established. It was founded in the early 90s by a good friend of mine, and our CEO, Roger Huckle. He set it up in part because he didn’t want to tour anymore after having a family, and he has built it into the thriving organisation it is now. This autumn we have over 40 concerts and events, in addition to our outreach and education work. We never travel too far from Bristol either, so from a family point of view it has been great as I can be home every evening. One of the few positives to come out of Covid-19 has been people realising that you no longer need to live in London to have a thriving career in music, so the talent is much more evenly spread. We have many excellent players that have moved from London now living locally and Bristol Ensemble has really benefited from that.
As with running any arts organisation, there is very little, if any, government funding so we have to create our own source of income. We have a fundraiser who does our applications, such as for Arts Council funding, and I spend a lot of time trying to develop new partnerships and collaborations, ultimately to encourage people to donate their money.
We have a brilliant education department called Preludes. They work in several schools in deprived areas of Bristol and the children are given a musical training, which is no longer a significant part of the national curriculum. At last count we had just over 2,400 children on our books. There is a wonderful cyclical process that has evolved, because now some of the tutors that go into the schools were originally pupils at the schools we visit.
I think every arts organisation has a duty to undertake education work because the only reason we’re going to continue to feed the music industry is if there is a rock-solid music foundation from the beginning. Of course, not all children are going to grow up to become professional musicians, but it will make them better human beings!
In amongst all that, I try to allocate pockets of time to learn new repertoire, and we’re diversifying our programme all the time. Using the same players, we can cover repertoire from the 1600s right up until the modern day. For example, we’ve recently done a series of Pink Floyd concerts and an orchestral version of Tubular Bells, and next season we will be performing Bach’s B minor mass on period instruments and we are also developing a new festival in Somerset, the Somerset International Festival of the Arts.
What is Bristol Ensemble’s new collaboration with the Academy?
We already do a lot of work in schools and with younger children. It’s incredibly important to get them involved in music when they are young, however education doesn’t stop after people reach the age of ten. We wanted to help those at university level as well, so I hope that in our own way we can help more musicians get their start in the profession.
I had a fantastic few years at the Academy and looking back on it, I didn’t really appreciate at the time the amount of help I had from teachers and music professionals to get my career started. It sounds a bit clichéd, but I wanted to find a way to give something back, especially now that I am in a position to give people work in the music industry, and I take that obligation seriously.
Each term, we will bring players from the Academy for a few concerts with the Ensemble, so they get to experience what it is like to be working on tour as a soloist with a professional orchestra. I see it as a reciprocal arrangement. You never know if we will find the next Sheku or Benedetti. If we can develop a relationship with a talented young soloist just as they are starting out, then hopefully when they are further into their career, they will remember us!
What are your goals for the Bristol Ensemble in the coming years?
Community is really at the core of what we do. We want to continue to do the best concerts that we can, with a varied and interesting repertoire. Ultimately everything we do is for the benefit of the community and the city.
We also can’t rely on keeping our income stream going from touring and travelling. It isn’t financially sustainable, but also, it’s not very environmentally friendly to be jumping on a plane three times a week. I want to find a way to become the country’s first carbon neutral orchestra. Our carbon footprint is already pretty low as we never set foot on a plane, and we operate in a small geographical area for the benefit of the community.
My ambition for Bristol Ensemble is to become an icon of pride for Bristol. So, when people ask what Bristol is famous for, the Ensemble is up there on that list with Brunel and Wallace and Gromit!
Lastly, what does the Royal Academy of Music mean to you?
One of the best things about being at the Academy is that the whole ethos of the place is geared towards getting you working in the profession. I remember as a student when I sheepishly approached the Head of Strings to say I had been offered a job and ask if I could miss some classes. He told me, ‘That is why we are here’ and I’ve never forgotten that. I always felt that everything the Academy did was in the best interests of the students, not its own image. They were always supportive, even after leaving – whether it was for using a rehearsal space or borrowing instruments. It was a lovely place to be, and it’s great to be involved with the Academy once again after all these years.