You’ve had a 20-year career now. How do you see the opportunities for Black people in classical music evolving—and for conductors in particular?
The world of symphonic and operatic conducting is really different now from how it was 20 years ago. The entertainment industry as a whole is more aware of a need for greater diversity. The recent representation and inclusion rules in the Best Picture category at the Oscars are a case in point. These kinds of initiatives which encourage diversity, even when they are sometimes no more than gestures, will slowly give rise to more visible role models, not just for artists from ethnic or social minorities, but for women as well. But the industry has been trending in that direction for some time.
Marin Alsop, having been at the head of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for a decade and more, is a role model for any talented aspiring female conductor to identify with. Gustavo Dudamel, as a highly successful Latin American conductor, makes that role model available, and we’ve seen what that has done for young conductors from that region in the last decade.
That’s why I work with the Chineke! Orchestra in London, with which I did the BBC Children’s Prom last season. I was extremely proud to have that opportunity, specifically because of the signal it could send to untold numbers of young black artists in the audience, not just in the Albert Hall during the performances, but watching on TV or social media for years and years to come.
Earlier in my career, I was careful to take on engagements for artistic reasons only, not for ulterior reasons or to make any kind of statement. It’s only since I transitioned from being a performing artist to being a performing artist and educator that I’ve become much more at ease with the idea of being a role model. I still apply the same artistic criteria to the engagements I accept, but with an awareness of the potential for those appearances to have a positive impact beyond purely musical or artistic outcomes. Without becoming an activist, I became sensitive to the effect my visibility, in a leadership role on a variety of platforms, could have for a future generation of more diverse classical musicians.
So, for example, while I was on stage for rehearsals at the Albert Hall last summer, even as someone who really does not enjoy social media, I made sure to take pictures of what I was doing, where I was and who I was collaborating with, to post them on Instagram, knowing that my students at the Academy for the Performing Arts might see them and perhaps be energized. Sure enough, some of them messaged me and then followed up with questions about the experience when I was back in Trinidad. It was great.
Your own inspiration came young, at about 7 years old watching a conductor lead an orchestra. Can you tell me about that?
Before I ever saw an orchestra play, I heard an orchestra that blew my mind, and it was the London Symphony Orchestra playing the soundtrack of Star Wars, which I went to see at a cinema in Trinidad. As much as I loved the film itself, I was quite possessed by the sound of the orchestra, and I remember being a little bit out of it for days afterwards because a part of me couldn’t leave the world of the film behind. That had everything to do with the soundtrack. Even today, the orchestra still feels like a magical instrument.
Soon after that, a family friend took me to see an orchestra at Ontario Place in Toronto. We used to spend a lot of summers in Canada because my parents studied there, and my sister and I are Canadian because we were born there. During the concert I leaned over to my Mom and said, “I want to do that! What that guy in the middle is doing!”
Being a good conductor requires some extreme mental gymnastics: being conscious of so many parts, constantly comparing the sound to the ideal in your head. There is a film clip of you rehearsing an orchestra, where you demonstrate some feats of memory, going back to several spots in the score to offer detailed direction to the various players—not only that, but you speak to them in turn in German, French and English.
I had an encounter with a diplomatic family as a young boy. I remember being impressed by the kids who spoke French with their Dad, Spanish with their Mom, and English with me. I was like, “How the hell are they doing that? I don’t even know where to start.”
It happened for me because I’ve repeatedly jumped in the deep end. In 1989, I left university in England and went to Germany on scholarship for a year with only basic German under my belt. I just made a go of it. Over time, I learned German, came to love the country and stayed, eventually becoming fluent.
Then, many years later, when the job at Opéra National de Bordeaux came up, with a certain degree of trepidation, and only high school French, I thought, “All right. You’ve done this before. You can do it again in another language.” And that’s how I became trilingual.
That is what I mean by the effect of having had an inspiration and then a concrete experience to latch onto. I had been inspired by those kids who could speak three languages and I saw that it could be done. Twenty years later, when I had an opportunity to emulate that, and an experience suggesting that I could, I didn’t hesitate.
It cannot be underestimated how inspiration, aspiration and opportunity can be connected in a lifetime; that’s why I invest so much time making that possible for as many young people as I can.