Revisiting Love Classics and interviewing Timothy Henty, inspired gentleman and conductor

What a pity would it be to enjoy and review a concert and miss interviewing its conductor. That, thankfully, isn’t the case as maestro Henty took up the time to agreeably revisit his Valentine performance at Barbican. I grabbed the occasion to ask Timothy a few personal and reflective questions, thinking them a perfect insight for former and future audiences into the architectecture of their musical bliss.

Did you enjoy the Valentine’s Love Classics concert a lot?

Very much indeed! I thought that the atmosphere was warm and positive, both in the audience and on stage, which creates a Goldilocks Zone for music making. Added to that, it was my debut at the Barbican Centre (I have been wanting to perform there for about twenty years!) and to top it off, my wife Louise (a violist) was playing in the orchestra. It was the first time we’d worked together after the birth of our first son back in June. We ended up being stranded in London afterwards until 3am due to the lack of trains, and so were forced to let our hair down at a late night bar, which was the only place that was open and warm! So yes, a very special evening all round.

Choosing Lara’s Theme for an encore was such a wonderful idea! How did you come up with it?

I’m delighted this went down well, and indeed the audience seemed to agree with you. I’ll come clean, however – it wasn’t me who put the programme together but Raymond Gubbay, the celebrated concert promoter who presented the evening, and who formed the fantastic London Concert Orchestra back in 1976. He is famous for having great insight when it comes to audiences and that makes him a delight to work for, as you can be very confident about the programme when you’re on stage.

This is a surprisingly common arrangement across the world – of course, there are many concerts that I programme with complete autonomy, but more often than not a programme will be devised in collaboration between conductor, soloist and promoter. Providing each party is strong in mind but open to opinions and flexibility, this working process invariably creates a concert programme that is better than any one individual’s ideas.

What is your main instrument?

I am a percussionist first and foremost. I also play the piano – but you won’t catch me performing anything on it! The piano is a useful tool for a conductor who works with singers like me…although some sympathy from the singer is required!

What have you been working on lately?

I’m lucky to travel a lot in my career, and recently I’ve been conducting a modern dance/opera collaboration in Sweden, a ballet in Switzerland, Britten and Finzi in Belfast and Tchaikovsky in Dartford.

Are you busy as a composer and conductor?

I’m lucky to have both a diverse and growing career as a conductor that is keeping me busier each season. I’m less of a composer, though, and more of an arranger and editor. In terms of editing (though I wouldn’t call myself an expert in anything) I specialise in 19th mainly Gilbert and Sullivan. As an arranger, it’s a lot more diverse and I’ve recently written some pop and funk arrangements for a performance at Cadogan Hall. I had to think about that one: it’s not music that I perform myself, but it’s invigorating to inhabit different musical styles.

Tell us about the genesis of your musical formation.

I started percussion at around 6 years old, and shortly after I started going to concerts, thanks to some forward thinking parents. I was instantly hooked. It was the theatre that really got me, however, and I still feel that the orchestra pit is one of the most magical places in the world. By the time I was ten years old, I was playing in local amateur operatic society performances, which further enriched a passion for (under) the stage. I’ve never lost that childish excitement about working in theatres, and I now happily spend a large portion of my conducting career performing with opera and ballet companies across Europe.

On the stage, you have a very passionate and strong engagement while conducting. Where does this come from?

I think the quote from your review is that I “jump and hop a bit”! Oh dear! My wife used to tell me off for this, but thought I was a little more restrained at the Barbican! I can’t help it really; it’s so easy to get lost in the music. The energy that an orchestra creates is immense, particularly when you’re on top of it. For me, that makes me want to give energy back, and I like to think it to be creating a symbiotic relationship between conductor and orchestra. I certainly think that an orchestra responds to different energies, and that this is one of the central things that a conductor can contribute to a performance.

What are your commitments for the year to come?

It continues to be really diverse, which is great. I’m currently in Switzerland, but I’ll be off to Brazil in a couple of weeks to conduct Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Villa Lobos. After that, some highlights include Berlioz and Mozart in Durham, Gilbert and Sullivan in Dublin and a concert of Ella Fitzgerald with the jazz diva Claire Martin in Jersey.

Which detail do you like most in classical music?

What a question! Clarity. A beautiful piece of classical music does to my ears what a great piece of art will do to my eyes, or a chef will do to my taste buds. Why classical music should move me above other genres is not an easy question to answer – and indeed, I love all kinds of good music.

But there’s clarity in classical music I find hard to reap elsewhere. It’s not elitist – and I loathe the notion that any art has to drag that hateful word along – but it does take a bit of effort to listen to properly, in the same way that some paintings take time to appreciate and think about. I encourage anyone who hasn’t given classical music a shot to give it your attention, and in my opinion, the best way to do that is to experience it live. I recall several people coming up to me after concerts saying that they’d never been to see an orchestra before, and how much they had got out of it.

Quote the funniest moment you’ve had, or that you witnessed on a stage.

Well, more embarrassing. As a young musician I started off as a percussionist, and was asked to play the crash cymbals in a piece. After I’d played, I put the cymbals back on their stand, which promptly broke. The cymbals went cheese rolling their way down a very steep, raked concert platform and into the lap of an elderly lady in the front row, who had been asleep! Check the equipment, Tim…

Can you foresee a reassuring future for classical music?

With proactive effort. If we’re to avoid watering down classical music to a porridge of violins and drum machines, whilst appealing to as wide an audience as possible, classical music needs to be ‘permitted’ in our society. The education sector is doing great work, but what we really need is to see more classical music (and art in general, actually) feeding into our mainstream media. It needs to be something that we can all appreciate, so we can acknowledge that, say, Beethoven can make as great a difference to people’s emotional wellbeing as Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Keats or Escoffier.

What would you advice to a young classical musician in the world of today?

Love classical music. I was privileged to have spent some time in my early career teaching music, and I encountered many young musicians who ‘played the violin’ or ‘studied the flute’. It was a rare delight to find someone who really wanted to ‘learn music’ by going to concerts, listening to new pieces (not just those of their chosen instrument) and personally deriving joy from the whole experience. Fast forward from youngster to professional: the music business is a pretty stringent place at times, and particularly now. If you don’t honestly love the music itself, I imagine it can be an unwelcoming work environment to say the least. But, if you really love the music, it is, in my opinion, the best job in the world.

Author: Francois Mauld d'Aymee

Francois trains to become a classical singer at the same time he runs a tutoring company in Central London. He loves opera as much as any other kind of classical music, never missing an occasion to attend the great performances.