It’s the 5th September 2022, a relatively warm Monday morning. I step into this cosy pub in Harrow – where, as I found out the day before, I am to meet and interview the world-class musician and Harrow resident, Welsh conductor Owain Arwel Hughes CBE – who will be conducting Harrow’s Trinity Orchestra on the 1st October 2022, at 7:30 p.m. (pre-concert talk at 7 p.m.), in the Trinity Church, Hindes Road, Harrow HA1 1RX – in a programme of works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. He is, I know, a well-known name to lovers of music – and I feel, understandably, a little nervous as I walk inside and inform the pub staff that I am there to meet someone.
“You’re here to meet Owain, aren’t you?”, the affable young gentleman behind the bar asks me. I nod, explaining my presence, and he soon puts me at ease, showing me my table. I sit and try to prepare, as I realise I am just under half an hour early.
Maestro Arwel Hughes soon walks in, minutes after the unexpected arrival of Ms Sophie Prett, representing the Trinity Orchestra, who explains that she was due to meet the Maestro herself, also. His presence is affable, relaxed, but professional and to-the-point, as – after greeting him – I start the interview by asking him about his early, formative days.
It is well known that he grew up in a musical family, his father having been a choral composer. I ask him about his earliest musical memories, and if (and if so, how) they shaped his musical path. Did he want to be a musician from a young age?
“Obviously, there was music at home”, he tells me. “And my father was in the BBC, so I knew about broadcasting and about the orchestra, which was quite small in those days – and, any excuse I had, I used to go and listen to it, to the orchestra. So, the ‘risk’, or whatever, was always there. But I wasn’t going for music at all.” He tells me how he nevertheless ended up setting up a choir in his school, back in his native Wales. “There was no choir, so I went to the headmaster about it, who told me that, if I was so concerned about it, I should set one up myself”. Oblivious to the fact that the headmaster just wanted to get rid of him, setting up a choir is exactly what he did, “in a room at the back, with plenty of music in it. To me, I didn’t know I was doing something different”, he explains. He is soft-spoken, but clear in what he states, and has that unique Welsh lilt in his accent.
Having also played rugby for his school district, he tells me that he always wanted to go into the ministry. “I wanted to be a Baptist minister”, he says, “so that’s why I went to university; to study philosophy. At Cardiff University, in the first year, you used to do three subjects; I did philosophy, Welsh and music. And that’s when I realised I had this gift, and that I should do something about it.”. He told his father about his decision, expecting disapproval. Instead, his father told him that he’d been waiting for such a long time to hear him say this. “So then I went to the Royal College of Music in London, where Sir Adrian Boult was in charge”, he tells me. The die was indeed cast, the new path was awaiting him.
The Maestro tells me about Sir Adrian Boult, who knew Sir Edward Elgar, and whose lineage stretched back to Johannes Brahms, himself – and about how Sir Adrian, when reaching his octogenarian years, could no longer conduct certain concerts, so he shared them with his young student. I also, however, know that, apart from Sir Adrian Boult, he also studied with Rudolf Kempe and with Bernard Haitink KBE, all of them immensely illustrious, world-famous conductors. So I ask him about the similarities and differences between the three, and what he felt he learned from each of them. Who did he prefer?
“Kempe”, he replies without missing a beat. “Absolutely. So clear. He was the chief conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. You just don’t study with them”, he adds. “You can’t teach conducting. But you get to see how people work, and Kempe was undoubtedly the best”.
He also met Bernard Haitink when the Dutch maestro was in charge of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and also in charge of the London Philharmonic Orchestra – and went to see him rehearse. “We got on very well”, he reminisces. He goes on to talk in-depth about conducting techniques and the differences between the three conductors on a technical and musical level, even – at one stage – borrowing my pen in order to demonstrate to me their various techniques with the baton. I am absolutely fascinated and watch closely, in order to, myself, learn and absorb.
I then ask him about the advice he would give young, aspiring conductors in this day and age. As a young conductor, myself, I sit back, in anticipation of what the Maestro will have to say.
“You shouldn’t really have friends in orchestras”, he states. “They are your working colleagues and, whether you like it or not, you are the boss”. I don’t want to dictate, when I conduct, though – I tell him. “You don’t dictate – you find your own way and you do your job”, he replies. “And be clear – be absolutely clear. And do your work”. There’s no substitute for that, I say, and he agrees. “There is no substitute for that. And be honest, be honest with your players – because you only usually have five minutes with them”. The “five minutes” are obviously a figure of speech, but rehearsals in London are notoriously short, time-wise.
He then states that the best advice for a conductor is to just get out there and conduct, and do it for the right reasons – not because it looks “glamorous” or anything like that. It may sound obvious, to some, but I agree with him that it needs to be stated.
Finally, we talk a little about the local orchestra he will conduct on the 1st October – the Trinity Orchestra. He tells me how interested he genuinely is in supporting the local orchestra, and to help it in any way he can, which is why he agreed to conduct this concert. The passion that this Maestro puts into everything he does, and his genuine excitement at helping out local musicians, shines through clearly. We talk, in particular, about the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (which is the second work on the programme), and which will feature BBC Concert Orchestra Principal Violinist Peter Bussereau as the violin soloist – and what it means to accompany a soloist, as a conductor.
“Accompanying is the real art of conducting”, he states. “You’ve got to really listen, you’ve got to have good ears and to be there to support everyone. And you work together.”
“I’ve had such great service, over the years”, he continues, remembering the wonderful soloists he has worked with, throughout his illustrious career. “Some wonderful singers, too … I mean, in my early days, Wales had some great singers. And then [Dame] Janet Baker, probably one of the greatest singers … just because she had a wonderful way of breathing and singing. We had a wonderful time, especially when we were doing Elgar together”, he reminisces. “She’s also local, isn’t she?”, Ms Prett adds, and he acquiesces. “And then trumpet players like Alison [Balsom] … I have been lucky in many ways. I always enjoy accompanying – it isn’t a chore for me”, he concludes. He obviously enjoys collaborating with other musicians, as he will do again on the 1st October with Peter Bussereau, but – as he says – “we never talked about it, we just did it”.
“Music making should be natural and easy, in the end”, he says. “And the composer always comes first – that has been my maxim from the start. Those were Boult’s words”, he adds. I say that perhaps there should be no ego in conducting. “That’s what it’s about”, he concludes.
I tell him I could talk to him for ages (and there are always more questions to ask, of course), but that – after an hour had imperceptibly passed whilst talking to him – I’d better leave him to the other engagements of his busy day. He smiles and, ever affably, tells me to call him if I need anything else. I take my leave and walk towards the door.
“Well, how was it?”, the gentleman behind the bar asks me, just as I’m about to walk outside. “I felt completely at ease”, I reply, smiling broadly as I say my goodbyes and walk out into the midday Harrow sunshine, feeling richer and wiser for the experience – and looking forward to the 1st October concert, where we will be able to see the Maestro at work, at the helm of Trinity Orchestra, Harrow, conducting classics of the music repertoire. It promises to be a very interesting concert – I do hope that you will join me there.