“The challenge for anybody who wants to start conducting is, ‘Who do you conduct?’,” Oliver Zeffman tells What We Seee. “If you want to learn the flute, for example, you can go and buy a flute, but you can’t go and buy a group of people to play for you.” But that’s exactly what he needed to start his career as a conductor. So instead, at the age of 16, he founded the Melos Sinfonia. “If you’re 17, people aren’t going to say, ‘Come and conduct the London Symphony Orchestra’,” Zeffman explains. “I got some friends together and did a concert — it was awful, I was awful,” he laughs. “The next time was a little bit less awful. But you just need to practise, it’s like the piano — the only way to get better is to do it.”
Zeffman is quick to downplay his early accomplishments, but his CV speaks for itself. The Telegraph called him “phenomenally promising” and he was recently the Classical Music nominee for The Times Breakthrough Artist Award at the 2018 South Bank Sky Arts Awards. But it began with the Melos Sinfonia and their choice to go to the spiritual home of burgeoning artists and, well, becoming less awful — the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“When we went to the Fringe, I wanted to do an opera, but I had never conducted one before,” he says. “We went with Mozart’s The Impresario. It was a good first opera — some singing, some speaking and it’s not too long and it worked well as a choice for the Fringe because of this.”
Since then, they’ve continued to expand and grow. “It’s been a steep learning curve,” Zeffman says. It grew to an ensemble of 20, then 40. They started commissioning new work — a total of 13, to date. And of course, they’ve gone from a group of school kids to a formidable musical force, touring internationally. “Rather than being 16- or 17-year-old kids, now they’re all young professionals playing at a very high level and I’m not so bad now, I hope!” he laughs again. Last year they brought their most ambitious project, George Benjamin’s landmark opera Written on Skin, to the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.
Now It’s My Job
Although Zeffman continues to work with the Melos Sinfonia, his career has moved in many directions. But, interestingly for someone so steeped in music, he didn’t decide on this profession from a young age. “I wasn’t planning on being a professional musician — at university, I studied history and Russian,” he says. “Many people know from an early age that they want to go to music college, but I just spent more and more time doing music at university (and less and less time doing my degree), and now it’s my job.” And as for conducting rather than playing? For a young Zeffman, sitting in the violin section of a youth orchestra, it was simple. “I saw a conductor and thought, ‘That looks more fun,'” he says.
And though he’s achieved an impressive CV already, it’s clear that he’s already thinking ahead — yet never gets ahead of himself. “I’m doing more things, but I’m still very much a ‘baby’. Unless you’re an incredible wunderkind, there’s a hierarchy, it’s all a part of it.” The more you speak to Zeffman, the more clear it becomes that his intense attention jumps from subject to subject — and it’s easy to see how he balances multiple projects. “Once you’re big and famous you might have your diary booked up five years in advance. I have some things booked in next summer and beyond already, not every week, but I’ll get more and more busy,” he says. “I’ve got plans that are developing at different stages.”
With his own orchestra, there’s a constant sense of novelty, combined with a passion for creating new opportunities in what can be an impenetrable business. “What the orchestra aims to do — broadly speaking — is to provide young professional musicians with opportunities, experience, and exposure that they may not get anywhere else,” he explains. “Particularly if, for example, you’re a young composer, it’s very hard to get big opportunities. Most established orchestras tend to commission pieces from established composers – it’s an expensive undertaking and few orchestras, understandably, will take a risk on someone who hasn’t already got substantial experience of writing for a large group. The London Symphony Orchestra has a great scheme for young composers, but most orchestras don’t take a punt.” So he gives many emerging composers a chance to write their first piece for full orchestra, under (slightly) less pressure than with the very big names. As their site reads:
“We are a group of young professional musicians who come together several times a year to explore new repertoire, foster meaningful relationships and push one another to develop as artists. Our activities encompass fully-staged operas, new commissions (thirteen to date) and underperformed masterworks, alongside classics of the symphonic canon.”
You Learn By Watching
This focus on new artists makes sense when you hear Zeffman speak about how he’s reached where he is. He’s worked as an assistant to Valery Gergiev, preparing orchestras like the Rotterdam and Luxembourg Philharmonic and to Daniel Harding, for whom, amongst other things, he has prepared Mahler Symphony No. 8 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the New Japan Philharmonic. He makes it clear that he’s indebted to these experiences.
“You learn a lot by watching — by sitting in rehearsals and watching people who know how to do it, do it.” He’s also learned a lot from preparing orchestras and running rehearsals, even if he knows he’s not going to be booked by them as a conductor yet. “I’m getting to conduct pieces that I’m not getting booked to conduct myself at the moment and work with some really top orchestras that wouldn’t book me just yet, but you get to know the music and to know them,” he explains. And you never know what opportunities might arise. “It’s about being in the right place at the right time.”
As someone who learned in such a hands-on way, from forming his own orchestra to absorbing everything he can from the greats, it’s not surprising that his key piece of advice for aspirational conductors is to do just that. “Just do it,” he says. “If you want to conduct, you have to conduct — there’s no substitute for hands-on experience.”
It’s an immersive approach — and one that he clearly follows. Despite his accolades and mounting experiencing, he keeps his head down rather than setting arbitrary goals for where he’d like to be. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a sensible approach to have specific goals. Things develop quickly,” Zeffman explains. “I’m young, some things work out and some things don’t work out. It’s better just to focus on the work.” And he certainly is.
You can see more about Zeffman’s work and his orchestra on the Melos Sinfonia Website and see them live at their upcoming concert at LSO St. Luke’s. He is also currently the assistant director for the forthcoming production of Salome at the English National Opera.