Meet the Maestro: James Weeks8:00, 20th December 2017
The conductor and composer talks to Toby Deller about thriving on technical challenges, serving the performers, and the relationship between composing and conducting
‘If you think about it, when does a choral conductor have 100 professional – not only top-class, but professional – singers in front of them? Almost never. You’re either dealing with 100 amateurs, which is different, or 20 professionals, which is a smaller group.’
Indeed, as co-founder (with soprano Juliet Fraser) of the vocal ensemble Exaudi, James Weeks is best known as a conductor of a group even smaller than that. But thanks in part to his expertise in programming and performing contemporary music, he is often invited to conduct instrumental ensembles too, so is well placed to observe the differences between the roles of orchestral and choral conductor (he notes, to give one example, how the latter is closer to the activity of the musicians in front of them than the former, who has the principal players of various instruments as intermediaries).
Weeks has just taken up a position in the music department at Durham University that includes running a conducting module, so it is a subject that has preoccupied him recently. ‘What I really want to get across to the students is that technique is not even half of it. So at times during the course we are going to widen the aperture and look at the role of a conductor within a community, within society, what opportunities and responsibilities we have as musical leaders, cultural leaders. The first few sessions will be very basic beating and stuff but we’ll also keep widening it out.’
He was a Cambridge organ scholar and eventually a PhD student at Southampton, and had been a choirboy at school, but his conducting development was almost entirely non-institutional. It began in his teens when he would put little groups together, something that carried on into university.
‘Basically I did a lot of conducting at Cambridge: I conducted the main orchestra there and of course did all my choral things. At that point I thought what I’d really like to find was a conservatoire course where I could focus on composing and conducting, but it seemed not to be possible. So I thought I have to choose my number one thing – composing – and that’s what I did. At that point I’d had one or two conducting lessons, I’d been up and down to the academy and had some lessons every so often, but it wasn’t formal. I basically learned by watching, as so many people do.’
He also had ‘this passion for contemporary music, especially the more outlandish manifestations of it,’ which led to Exaudi. The group celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2017, and its characteristic programming of contemporary and early vocal music was in evidence from its very first concert.
‘We always define ourselves as a contemporary music group but I never saw any reason to be exclusive about that. Combining early and contemporary music has a long pedigree – I’ve still got bootleg tapes off the radio of the Hilliard Ensemble singing in the middle of a Ligeti concert and that sort of thing. Those programmes were the ones that really stimulated me.’
Weeks admits that he enjoys the technical challenges – ‘there’s almost nothing I enjoy more’ – often presented by the music he programmes. ‘For example, works where everything is crotchet equals 176 and no two bars are in the same time signature. Usually what I’m doing is, in terms of conducting, quite easy, but the challenge is in helping the musicians play it well: so, picking it apart, hearing the things that need to be heard and learning it with the musicians. My ethos is to facilitate a performance, so if I’m doing anything which is self-indulgent and not facilitating the performance, then that’s a black mark for me as far as I’m concerned.’
Has conducting influenced his writing, over the years, since one of the reasons for starting the group was to perform his own compositions? (The latest CD is devoted to two major recent pieces, Mala punica and Walled Garden.) ‘I see my practice as holistic: everything feeds into and relates to everything else, not necessarily in ways you’re consciously aware of. I think my experiences with Exaudi in particular have turned me into a more pragmatic composer than I started out as. But I’ve tried not to become too pragmatic because that’s a danger as well: composing, your job is to be idealistic and unreasonable!’