At the age of just 20, Jamie Phillips became the youngest ever assistant conductor of the Manchester-based Hallé Orchestra. Since this appointment, he has gone on to conduct orchestras across the world, recently being appointed the Dudamel Fellow of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On Thursday 5th November, he will conduct Oxford University Orchestra (OUO) in a performance of Mahler’s 7th Symphony.
Are you excited about coming to Oxford?
I am indeed! I’ve been looking forward to this concert for a long time. The chance to be able to perform Mahler’s amazing 7th Symphony doesn’t come along very often, and I’m delighted to be able to debut it with OUO.
You became associated with the Hallé at a very early age, did you feel under a lot of pressure and how did you deal with being thrust into the spotlight?
In all honesty, I wasn’t particularly aware of huge pressures. There was some media interest when I became Assistant Conductor of the Hallé, mostly due to the fact that I was the youngest person to hold the post. I’ve now been with the orchestra for over three years, and am doing some very exciting work with them, but thankfully I’m surrounded by very generous people who care greatly about using the Assistant Conductor post to educate young conductors, rather than to scare them and put them off for life! I’ve just been made Associate Conductor of the orchestra, which is a great honour.
Mahler is known for his monumental symphonies, what are the particular challenges associated with conducting his music?
Conducting Mahler comes with many complications, but because Mahler himself was a great conductor, his scores are littered with instructions as to how to conduct the piece. Every other bar, there is a marking which says ‘not too fast here, careful not to rush’, or ‘the flutes are the most important instrument here’ – it’s like he’s left you an instruction manual for some flat-pack furniture, and you somehow have to piece it together! Of course in reality there is a great deal more interpretation to do with the music, but from the outset you undoubtedly have a very clear idea of how Mahler wants the music to sound, whereas with many other composers there is substantially more freedom to interpret. You really do feel he is sitting on your shoulder as you conduct his music.
For you, what individuates Mahler 7 from his other symphonies?
It seems to be his least performed symphony, for reasons which are interesting to consider. The 8th symphony also doesn’t get performed very often, but that’s more for practical reasons due to the huge scale that it’s on and the vast number of performers required. The 7th symphony, however, is written for a much more conventional sized orchestra; although it does require quadruple woodwinds, it only calls for 4 horns, 3 trumpets, etc. It is very complex to play, which deters many orchestras from approaching it, and perhaps more significantly, is tricky to understand. It left the audience at the premiere more confused than anything else, with many describing it as incoherent. I think what makes this symphony stand out from Mahler’s others is that it is not always narrative. The two ‘Nachtmusik’ or ‘nightmusic’ movements (the 2nd and 4th) seem to create a mood and to trigger an emotional response, but you feel less like it’s to do with Mahler looking inwards to himself, but rather as a celebration of his compositional genius. We have come to expect Mahler’s music to be almost neurotic and triumphant in equal measure, but this symphony seems to do something quite different.
You’ve worked extensively with youth orchestras as conductor of the Hallé Youth Orchestra, what aspects of these collaborations do you particularly enjoy?
I’m very fortunate to work with some truly wonderful professional orchestras, but it has to be said that my work with young people is something that I find equally, if not more, rewarding. Performances which I do with the HYO are generally full of energy (admittedly, not perfect – what ever is?), and to see the progress which a group of non-specialist young musicians makes over the course of a year is a truly remarkable thing.
What are some of the highlights of your upcoming engagements?
I’m currently working as a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is a true privilege, and is giving me some great opportunities to immerse myself in the life of a really great orchestra. I get to do some concerts of my own with the orchestra in the Spring, which I can’t wait to do. I’m very fortunate to do quite a bit of conducting in Europe, and I’m looking forward to returning to the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, as well as the Luxembourg Philharmonic, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and continuing to work with the wonderful Hallé in Manchester.
OUO performs Mahler’s 7th Symphony at 8pm on Thursday 5th November, at the Sheldonian Theatre.