Just do it

Young conductor Oliver Zeffman has received critical praise for his interpretation of George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, performed with ensemble Melos Sinfonia. The Times gave the recent concert five stars, while The Guardian described his conducting as “impressively lucid”. Here, in an exclusive interview with IAM, he explains how he came to form Melos Sinfonia, and gives advice for young musicians looking to make a name for themselves. 

Most 16-year-olds are so preoccupied with the process of growing up that they don’t have time for much else. Oliver Zeffman, however, wasn’t like most 16-year-olds. Whilst others worried about their appearances and social media accounts, Zeffman was forming the Melos Sinfonia ensemble and conducting its first ever concert. Now, seven years and numerous concerts later, the ensemble and Zeffman has just performed George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin in the UK and Russia.

“I was in my school orchestra and I played in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra,” recalls Zeffman. “But I wanted to be a conductor – and you can’t really learn to conduct without an orchestra. If you want to learn the piano you buy a piano, but you can’t go out and buy an orchestra. So I set one up with some friends of mine from school and put on our first concert.”

That first concert was, by Zeffman’s own admission, “terrible”, however, with each performance he and the orchestra “got better and better”. That was in part thanks to a school friend whose dad was a principal player at the LSO. “At the first rehearsal for that initial concert, I hadn’t learnt the music well enough. He made it very clear to me and everyone else that I was ill-prepared. I deserved his disapproval; the next day I came back having studied the score in more depth. You learn from people who can give you honest criticism.”

And while that first concert was in a small church, and cost just a couple of hundred pounds, soon he was trying to tackle far trickier projects: “A couple of years later I decided to take Mozart’s The Impresario to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We had to raise serious money – GBP9,000 (€10,200) – from friends and relatives. Then the following year we did a bigger opera, The Bear by William Walton, which we paired with two new chamber operas. We ran a competition for new works and I thought we’d get four or five entries but we received more than 50. As this was a more ambitious project, we needed to raise GBP20,000.”

Oliver Zeffman © Andy Staples
Oliver Zeffman © Andy Staples

Zeffman says he approached “hundreds” of foundations and eventually had the money to take the show on tour. This can-do approach has won him a lot of fans, as well as representation with HarrisonParrott, but the conductor himself remains disarmingly modest about his achievements.

“Doing all these concerts was not difficult necessarily,” he says. “There is no big secret to it other than it requires lots and lots of messaging and emails. I don’t know how people did it in the days before Facebook and emails and mobile phones. When Simon Rattle set up an orchestra in his teens, he probably had to send letters or call up the players’ house phones and their mums would say ‘oh they’re not in at the moment’. Yes, the organisation can be tedious, but it is necessary if you’re just starting out and want to do some conducting – because no one is going to invite you to come and conduct the LSO when you’re 16.”

What advice would Zeffman give to a 16-year-old today who wants the chance to brandish a conductor’s baton? “There isn’t any clever secret to it, you just have to do it. Ask your friends at school to come and play with you and put on a concert. It will probably be rubbish, but you’ll enjoy it and you’ll get better and better.

“If you want some money, look who supports the LSO, the opera house and all those institutions and write to them. Find the trustees and email them. Some will ignore you, some will be nice and come and meet you. So long as you are excited about your project, and you can share that with other people, you’ll find someone out there willing to support you.”

This article is an abridged version of a full feature that appeared in the October 2017 edition of IAM. To subscribe to the magazine and read the full article click here