Artist of the month: Stephanie Childress8:22, 8th August 2019
Offered at place at Cambridge at just 16, conductor and violinist Stephanie Childress has never been afraid to push her limits. She speaks to Toby Deller ahead of her Proms debut
‘If I had to dedicate my life to one thing it would be opera,’ says conductor and violinist Stephanie Childress. ‘I love the symphonic repertoire, and pouring my heart out over a Beethoven symphony is also absolutely great, but opera is just the thing that got me into this journey in the first place. I love getting into a libretto as well – I love literature, that’s where my French side seeps in. I love reading and I love dissecting libretti and how it comes in with the music, and I think that extra layer of words beyond the music adds a whole new dimension.’
It is neither opera nor conducting that bring her to the Proms for her individual debut – she will be playing the solo part in The Lark Ascending with Southbank Sinfonia on 25 August, having performed there as a National Youth Orchestra member in previous years, including once as leader. Words, however, are central to the concert, more precisely the endangered natural vocabulary of Robert Macfarlane’s book The Lost Words.
‘The Proms: it’s just a magical place – that huge stage, that huge auditorium, all those people. I’m really enjoying the fact it’s a children’s Prom as well because the book is based on is a fantastic idea. Children’s dictionaries are losing words, like bluebell and otter; nature-related words. Macfarlane has combined them into this beautiful book. What better way to get people back to nature’?
As for her own childhood, Childress was born and lived in London although, having a French mother, she was also able to spend time in France and she also attended the French lycée in Kensington. ‘I come from a very non-musical family and my parents are a bit older than my friends’ parents. My dad’s American and he grew up with the Beach Boys haze of the 60s and 70s, and my mum was more a 70s and 80s rocker: she used to follow Queen around when they were doing their university gigs back in the day. So we’re very hard on Queen and Tina Turner, Dolly Parton – a really weird mish-mash! I always had music around, but that kind of music, and I loved memorising lyrics and listening to songs over and over again.’
The idea of playing the violin came courtesy of a Nigel Kennedy concert she attended as a four year old in Carcassonne. Beguiled by the spectacle, she asked if she could learn the instrument, which she started when she was six. ‘It was really an uphill challenge,’ she admits. ‘I think a lot of people, especially when you start children young, if you have good teaching and have parents who rigorously help you practise, it can be quite easy to get to a certain level. But for me, I honestly think learning the violin is the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I’ve had something like nine violin teachers – nothing was working. I joined the Junior Royal College [of Music], I was always at the back of orchestras and found it really miserable for a very long time. I then found an interesting teacher called Remus Azoitei who’s a fantastic Romanian player.’
Just as Azoitei was galvanising her violin playing, she came across Ed Gardner (then at English National Opera), who was conducting the now discontinued Barbican Young Orchestra in which she participated.
Before that I was wondering, what am I going to do with my life? Anything but music…
‘I was 12; I was so tiny, so incredibly shy, a complete wallflower. But I said to him: I’m interested in conducting and what you do; can I come to the ENO and watch some rehearsals? He said: of course. Funnily enough I did that with the Royal Opera House but they chucked me out after a few rehearsals! But Ed and the ENO were always so welcoming to me as a youngster. They were doing a great season that year: Der Rosenkavalier, Billy Budd and Death in Venice and I went to rehearsals of all three and I just fell in love with opera. It just hit me really hard and that’s when I realised, aged about 13, that I really wanted to be a musician, a conductor. Before that I was wondering, what am I going to do with my life? Anything but music….’
The crossover to conducting began in earnest at Cambridge University. Bored with school and wanting time to practise, she dropped out after her GCSEs, took A levels in a year and was accepted at St John’s College as a 16 year old. ‘I had a really great time; I look back on my university days with a lot of fondness. No one really knew I was 16 – obviously the musicians knew and it came out eventually, but you know… I had lots of fun!’
That included conducting The Rape of Lucretia in her second year. ‘If I learnt anything on that show apart from Britten’s music and Ronald Duncan’s amazing although disjointed libretto, it’s how to put something together. That’s something that Cambridge really taught me: the student style of just putting things together. Making your own budget, asking for money, getting players together, putting the chairs out for rehearsal, renting music, props…’ And, she sighs, ‘Britten’s music! I would love to conduct all of Britten’s operas. I think I would be as happy as Larry.’
In the meantime, next season includes a trip to Dresden Philharmonie to conduct and assist David Zinman and, in February, she returns to ENO, in a more official capacity now, as assistant conductor for Verdi’s Luisa Miller. And, proving that the do-it-yourself ethic has not left her since she has graduated, she is also planning more concerts with her own group, Orchestra Rheia.
‘When I was at university I defined success as being able to walk into a rehearsal where I hadn’t booked the players, hadn’t set the chairs up and hadn’t booked the music. I don’t want to be doing that forever, but I like the idea of passion projects and being able things I want to do.’
On leaving school
A lot of people thought I was crazy. When I dropped out of school, lots of my mum’s friends from my school stopped talking to her: they thought it was a really cocky, arrogant thing to do. It really wasn’t; it was just a different path. Obviously when I got into Cambridge they started talking to her again.
On conducting vs the violin
I always say that violin was a hobby and conducting was more of a passion and I never really wanted to be a violinist in the first place. It’s only when I discovered conducting that I realised I wanted to be a musician because before that I think the two main career aspirations were spy and architect. Those two would have been pretty groovy.
Even now when I say I want to be a conductor everyone automatically says: what a shame, you’re such a good violinist. And I don’t really like hearing that! It was never an option for me, it’s just that everyone else sees it as the primary function of what I’m doing at the minute.’
All music-making can sometimes be very lonely, even if you’re part of an orchestra because you’ve spent so much time in your youth practising by yourself and stuff like that. But for me conducting is the sort of collaboration that I want to be a part of. I always found it a bit tricky with chamber music because you’ve just got to find the right players – either that or everyone’s trying to be a soloist and playing on top of each other. But I sort of really enjoyed orchestral playing when I was in my teens because it got me closer to conducting, and I got to work with some really great conductors when I was with NYO.