Interview with Toby Thatcher

This week Zoe sat down with the globe-trotting conductor and oboist Toby Thatcher to discuss his origins in Oz, his love affair with London, and partying to Prokofiev!

What's the music scene like in Sydney? Is it very different to London?

It's quieter for sure. There's less going on, but the standard is very high, and I think people forget that, because Australia is so far away and it's isolated from the rest of the world. With the exception of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian orchestras don't tend to get a look-in. At Sydney Symphony we usually do a programme a week and rehearse for much longer than any London orchestra. It's laid back, but in a positive way, so while we perform at a similar level, the ethos couldn't be more different from London.

What was your experience of playing with the Australian Youth Orchestra?

I played the oboe there, and I travelled to Europe with them on an international tour two years ago. We played in the Concertgebouw and the Konzerthaus in Berlin, which was amazing! I’ve continued my orchestral playing around London since I moved here for my MA at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Australian Youth Orchestra at Berlin Konzerthuas in 2007

A while back you participated in the Symphony Australia Young Conductor Development Programme. How did you find it?

That's going back a long way... I was in my second year as an undergrad, so I would’ve been 19 or 20. I was given the opportunity to travel round Australia and New Zealand conducting professional orchestras. All the ensembles I worked with were incredibly receptive and, for someone who hadn't really conducted before, it was a great way to begin.

So did that develop your conducting style?

I hope so! The orchestra members, many of whom I knew through the Australian would come up to us during the breaks and advise us on how we could improve. This was my first professional exposure, and it was terrifying and reassuring all at the same time. There aren't many people that, within a year of having first picked up a baton, can be conducting a professional orchestra.

So was it difficult moving to London, away from your family?

Not at all, no. I'm not sure what the most diplomatic way of saying this is... I'm an only child, and I quite enjoy my own company, so I had no problems moving to the city. Also my parents are both English, and I have a lot of family in London. In fact, I have more family here here than I did in Sydney. So the whole experience was amazing, and I still utterly love London. It's my favourite city in the world, by quite a long way.

Were you studying both oboe and cor anglais at the Royal Academy?

Yes, both. It's sort of compulsory at the Academy that everyone has to play both. I initially went there on the oboe, but I also played the cor anglais. I love playing cor anglais; it's a beautiful instrument, and it has far fewer technical obstacles than oboe. I had the most amazing oboe teacher who helped me get work with the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic. I went on to tour with the Royal Philharmonic to Paris which was great. So until a year ago I was basically an oboist who conducted.

You've been invited to apply for a couple of very good orchestras as a conductor. What's the auditioning process like?

I auditioned for the assistant job at the Bournemouth Symphony while I was still at the Academy. I got to the final four, but they gave it to someone else. It was the first audition I had ever done and so I was thrilled to even get to that point. Sydney Symphony Orchestra was a slightly different procedure - they invited me to apply and I went over to audition. Though I still apply for masterclasses and competitions, since then most of my work seems to come through word of mouth. I’ve been invited to conduct the Sinfonieorchester Basel in 2016 which I’m looking forward to.

Is the conducting scene quite competitive?

In fact, I think oboe is more competitive. Though I feel like for the last twelve months I’ve led a bit of a charmed existence as a conductor and got very lucky very frequently, so maybe my view of isn’t entirely accurate! For the Sydney job there were five people who auditioned and I knew three of them. But I did a masterclass earlier this year which 250 people applied for, and there were only 25 people in the live rounds. So yes, there are a lot of people vying for very few spots.

Who are your conductoring role models?

Carlos Kleiber is number one for me. Though his repertoire was limited, I think he's the perfect musician for a conductor. He had control, but gave space to his musicians to play the way they wanted to - he was just the safety net. I've watched a lot of conductors while I've been in London, and their approaches to an orchestra are so different. You get people who just walk in and let everyone play and don't say anything, and then you get the maestros who try to dictate. I think living in the middle ground is ideal, and he just defines that middle ground. But I also have an enormous amount of respect for Bernstein, more as a person, because of the amount he achieved and the way he influence the public's relation to music. I think classical music is at a bit of a crossroads at the moment, where it's seen as an old-fashioned elitist pursuit which exists outside of reach of most people. It's our job to encourage people that there's something we can offer them, and I think Bernstein was the master of that.

A true master of his art: Carlos Kleiber

What would you do as a conductor to bring classical music to more people?

I think about this so much. At the orchestra that I have in London, Ensemble Eroica, I'm currently talking about playing an interactive set at a rave. We'd perform Peter and the Wolf, and then merge the work into the party. I think the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are absolutely nailing it at the moment in London, with their approach to young people and the fact that they give out cheap tickets. And this is an orchestra that plays very old music in a very old style, but the way they advertise and market is just brilliant, so I think a lot of orchestras have a lot to learn from them.

So at the moment you're living in London and working in Australia. Tell me a bit about that.

I'm loving it. Essentially I'm there six months and here six months, but in month-by-month blocks. I'm here for three weeks and then I'm going to back Sydney for two months, in which time I'll be touring with the orchestra in China and Korea. It's a dream situation living in my favourite city in the world but then working at the Sydney Opera House. The position that I have in Sydney is probably unique in terms of the amount of hands on time I have: the amount of concerts that I have with the orchestra, the amount of time that I get with the conductors, with the players. It's just extraordinary. There are so many assistant positions in the rest of the world that just involve you sitting there, not saying much and absorbing - which is fine, but I much prefer my situation. And it’s great to have that space in Sydney to think and to study conducting, because London, as much as I utterly love it, is frantic and hectic and manic.

And finally, let's talk about your dream concert. What orchestra would you conduct, where would it be, and maybe what piece?

I've never even thought about this! There's too much to choose from. I think probably my favourite two orchestras in the world at the moment are the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Royal Concertgebouw. Obviously the Berlin Philharmonic are phenomenal but I feel like that's everyone's answer. In London the Philharmonia are my favourite orchestra, so if I had to do a concert in London I'd love to do it with them. I suppose I am slightly biased, having played with them, but I do genuinely think that at the moment they are the most consistently fantastic orchestra in the UK, though Rattle may well change that. In terms of repertoire, just... anything. Anything except Weber! Perhaps a symphony by Bruckner, Mahler, or Brahms with some contemporary music. I'm a fervent believer in combining new music with the established canon. And I'd love to do Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major at some point.

The opulent interior of the Concertgeouw in Amsterdam

And how about a concert hall?

The Concertgebouw. I played there with the Australian Youth Orchestra on tour and it was just amazing. The Konzerthaus in Berlin was phenomenal as well but there's something special about the Concertgebouw, I don't know what it is... So I guess conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in that hall would be the ultimate concert for me.


Toby will be conducting Ensemble Eroica tonight in a concert of Brahms, CPE Bach, and Schubert.

Click below for more details:

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