Who or what inspired you to take up conducting, and pursue a career in music?
The unspoken task of anyone who ‘makes’ music, is to imagine sound. A child sings a simple melody correctly because they develop the ability to hear the pitch in their mind’s ear. Then miraculously, they recreate it. Music is my vocation because I was totally entranced by this magical activity when I was a child. There was no looking back. I sang in choirs, played the piano (badly) and learned to play the French horn. Beyond that, to imagine sound with other musicians was simply cosmic. I always wanted to be closer to music. Conducting was a natural extension and progression from my experience as a horn player. The challenge of trying to imagine a complex score written by someone else took this magical internal activity even further than playing one line. Perhaps the ultimate version of this is to imagine one’s own sounds. My inner need to imagine sounds has created the compulsion to compose.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Mozart (an angel with a human face), Beethoven, Brahms, Janacek and Bartok. Some of my earliest memories are of my sister Becky playing simple works by Bach on the piano when she was around ten years old and I was four. She had an excellent sense of rhythm which I can still feel in my bones.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I do not think of a ‘career’. The greatest challenge is always to do the next thing with the best quality of approach. In this context, it takes courage to accept the inevitable disappointments. This is a simple fact of being human.
Which performances with the LSSO are you most proud of?
Many – of the ones I have conducted, the Bartok 3rd Piano Concerto with Gyorgy Sandor (who gave the work its premiere in 1945!) and the Schumann Konzertstuck with Richard Watkins and three stellar colleagues. Oh yes, and the Alpine Symphony.
Which particular works do you enjoy conducting the best?
Mozart. Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Most players remain in the LSSO for 3 years. We like to give them as varied a repertoire as possible in those three years. We also look carefully at our personnel to give them good opportunities to realise their potential. But we would never choose repertoire if any player was compromised. We also try to create a complete cultural experience where our annual tour is tied to the repertoire. For example, this year our trip to Transylvania includes contact with the mediaeval Saxon heritage as well as to the local gypsy traditions.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Not really. I like the Barbican because I’ve had so many rewarding experiences there with the LSSO. But it’s not a great hall like you can find in Europe. Playing in a great hall is like sitting inside a wonderful instrument. Performing the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Louise Hopkins on tour in the Dvorak Hall in Prague was a highlight. And she got a standing ovation.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I can usually recall where I have worked just by thinking of the music. So there are lots of memories. I once conducted Messiah in the Hermitage Theatre in St Petersburg. I was so concentrated, I was totally unaware that the time was passing. That was like a dream. A good one.
As a conductor, what is your definition of success?
Creating a rehearsal or performance situation where players and singers can relax and realise their potential. Then you have to connect with an audience too. That’s a kind of alchemy. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, it’s wonderful. You have the sense that everyone in the room is almost breathing together.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Confidence, Curiosity and Creativity.
Where would you like to see the LSSO in 10 years’ time?
I should like the LSSO to be perceived by every normal London school child as the ultimate orchestral experience they can aim for – one which they can carry with them for the rest of their lives, whether or not they choose music as a profession.
Peter Ash is the Artistic Director of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO). The LSSO is generously sponsored by the Corporation of London.
On the 9th January, Sir Richard Armstrong conducts the LSSO in Holst’s The Planets at The Barbican.