Friday, 28 June 2019

INTERVIEW: with Director Of Music at Chetham's School, Manchester, Mr Stephen Threlfall.

What a lovely way to spend a too-warm-for-June morning, chatting with the extremely personable Stephen Threlfall, the Director Of Music at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester.

I'm not allowed to say his "imminent retirement", and so, after banning the use of the 'R-word' we will simply say that he is leaving Chetham's this summer to pursue projects which would perhaps not have been open to him had he still been a part of the school. He will of course, he assures me, still be working very closely with the school and helping out wherever he can, but, being a freelancer - something he is looking forward to as he has never been freelance before - he can also look forward to working with and collaborating with many other musicians and ensembles too. Maybe even playing cello with the BBC Philharmonic again, which was where it all started for Threlfall.

I asked him what brought him to conducting, and his reply was that he simply wanted to learn more. Being a cellist in a large orchestra was all well and good but he was curious, and wanted to understand the other instruments, know what it was like to stand in front, and one day simply asked if he could give it a go! This is something that as a teacher he now instills into all his students; that they must always question, always be curious, watch and listen to everything and learn from everything and never stop being inquisitive.

Had it been his father's will, then he would have ended up continuing the family building business with his brothers, but of course, fate intervened as he knew from a very early age that music was his destiny. One of his earliest memories is when he was at primary school and listening to 'The Lord Is My Shepherd' being sung in two-part harmony and understanding that this was the path he wished to follow. Outside of music, he is a very keen cyclist, he loves to cook, and is a 'true Blue'; -  a keen supporter of Manchester City Football team. And his musical awakening was, by self admission, perhaps a little topsy-turvey since, as an adolescent he would have said that 'Pictures At An Exhibition' was by Emerson, Lake And Palmer long before he knew it to be by Russian composer Mussorgsky.

Stephen Threlfall has been with Chetham's for 24 years, and in that time he has seen great changes and been a truly influential figure. Of all the wonderful things that have happened under his directorship he is most proud of the new building and the opening of The Stoller Hall. He has greatly enjoyed watching the progress and fulfilment of his young charges, and expressed real joy at being able to see them again in later life coming back to the school to teach, give masterclasses or just simply inspire the current students. He has managed to juggle teaching children with conducting world-class orchestras, and after asking him which side of his work he enjoys the better, he said both. One is not able to exist without the other, and believes in a holistic approach to his work.

As well as the BBC Philharmonic he has a great affection for and is genuinely indebted to many individuals and organisations along the way, but he made special mention of The Greater Manchester Music Hub, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Boosey and Hawkes, and Sir Edward Thomas Downes, whose conductors' course in 1986 was the catalyst for Threlfall to take up conducting professionally. His favourite music comes from the late Romantic and the 20th century periods of music, citing Gustav Mahler, Leos Janacek and William Walton among his favourites, as he indeed still keeps a very close friendship with the Walton estate, and would perhaps state Mahler's 10th symphony as being his all-time favourite piece of music.

After speaking with Stephen Threlfall it is abundantly clear that he is a man of great optimism, full of life and with a huge heart and passion for bringing music, in all its wondrous and varied forms, to as many as possible. It is this sharing of knowledge, the outreaching and engaging that makes him tick, and hopefully, this is something that he will continue doing for many years to come, bringing musical joy to all.

For his final concert as Director of Music, Stephen Threlfall will be conducting not his favourite Mahler, but Mahler's huge, nay epic, choral Symphony no 8 at The Bridgewater Hall with the Chetham's Symphony Orchestra, Chetham's Chorus and guest soloists on Friday 5th July. Details of this can be found here...

Interviewed by Matthew Dougall
on - 28/6/19

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