Opera Scotland

William Conway, conductor and cellist

Posted 3 Jun

The new chamber opera, The Iris Murder, composed by Alasdair Nicolson to words by John Gallas, is to be premiered by a talented team led and conducted by the Scottish conductor Will Conway. OperaScotland's Iain Fraser recently interviewed Will, hearing how his career began, and of the genesis of The Iris Murder.

Did you always want to be a musician?

I took a while to get started. I hadn't really heard any classical music at all until I was 11, and that's when I started playing the cello. Until that point I had no connection with it whatever, through my family or even through my school. It was just a random thing. We were asked "Who wants to play a musical instrument?" I put my hand up and, to cut a long story short, that's where my musical career began. I very quickly became totally immersed and obsessed by it. I knew within a few years that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my career and that's been happening so far.

Your career has taken other turns too?

I started as a cellist and I joined the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1982 straight out of college. I'd finished my studies, got a call from the SCO, got the job there as principal cello and stayed there for 10 years. At the same time I was with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. I was a founding member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and I had the same principal job there and I ran both of them in tandem for 10 years. Then I stopped doing the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, because I needed more time. I wanted to develop a conducting career as well. I left the SCO, kept the Chamber Orchestra of Europe job, which I still have today actually, and started a second career as a conductor.

I've maintained that role, and I also formed my chamber group the Hebrides Ensemble round about the same time. I developed both of those over the last 25 years, doing more and more conducting but still playing my cello a lot as well. It's around 60:40 conducting and playing the cello.

Can you expand on the European aspect?

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe grew out of what is now the European Union Youth Orchestra and I was in the very first one of those as well in 1976. I think we had just joined the Common Market as a country, then, and this orchestra was just something extraordinary. Claudio Abbado directed them and I went from being a schoolboy in Glasgow and playing in the Glasgow Schools Orchestra, suddenly sitting right underneath Claudio Abbado in Holland with this incredible orchestra of musicians around me playing Mahler's 6th Symphony and touring round the best concert halls in Europe. It just could not have been a bigger shift in my experience. When we left the Youth Orchestra we wanted to stay together as a group, so we formed the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which has been in existence now for 35 years this year, and I'm still there. I still share jobs, I do a few months every year with them.

Why start the Hebrides Ensemble?

I wanted to do more chamber music to a very high level and I wanted to do new music and encourage new music to be written. I reckoned if through the Hebrides Ensemble I gave excellent performances of new music, well considered, well prepared and well executed, that would be a real contribution and be really tangible in my home country Scotland. I co-founded this chamber group the Hebrides Ensemble, a flexible sized group, so that we could take on lots of different types of music, specialising in and commissioning new music, as well as playing music from the past and trying to juxtapose the two in different ways. That would allow the new music to be very fresh, of course, but also allow the old music to be seen in a different light through the partnership.

What is the future for opera in Scotland?

Opera in Scotland is flourishing. People are realising that opera and the way it combines all of the arts is very entertaining and the possibilities are endless. Large scale opera is very popular, but even more so smaller scale opera is beginning to flourish. I know of a lot of different companies doing these smaller works. The inevitable cost of putting on large scale opera is huge and is a very difficult thing for people to do without a lot of funding or a lot of backing. Smaller opera is more possible because it's more affordable and we can put it on, but it's still engaging and vital and you can do the job of bigger opera very effectively with small numbers. I think that as a result we are doing very well in Scotland.

What is your plan for future developments?

We've continually commissioned new works and I think we will continue with the projects that involve music, theatre and opera - combining voice and instruments. Whether you call it opera or something else, we will continue to do that. That's a big part of our commitment to music in Scotland.

What is your interest as an audience member- do you go and see opera? Yes, I love conducting opera, of course, my real passion these days. But I do love going to listen and to consider what other artists are doing in opera, particularly new opera and music. In old opera I love finding how new light can be shown on an old piece and brought to life through a fabulous performance and interesting directorial ideas.

What was the last opera you saw?

The last opera I saw was probably the one that I conducted - Carmen!

Why don't we have a better attitude in Scotland to the arts?

I think a lot of things come down to availability and backing, funding. I think there's a finite amount of money to go around. Of course more could be found. But politics don't always allow for the provision within schools for learning instruments, instrumental tuition and being exposed to music and the arts at an early age. Clearly there could be a lot more of that and a lot more could be done to encourage that. I know from a personal point of view that I wouldn't be sitting here right now had I not had the opportunities while I was at school to take up an instrument and be encouraged and be funded to go on through college in Scotland and London and private studies - and then go studying abroad as a conductor. I would not have been able to do anything like that. So I would really like to see much more than is being done at the moment in schools to allow that to flourish again. I think that would possibly change our appreciation and push the numbers of listeners up in Scotland. 

Thanks very much. Listen now to Will talking about the background to the Iris Murder.


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