Conducting The First Movement
Nothing seems to phase Euan Shields, the 24 year-old Japanese-American musician who has just conducted Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra and in doing so bagged a top conducting prize as well as an assistantship with one of the UK’s top orchestras. He has agreed to get up early to talk to me via Zoom from his home in New York.
This level-headed conductor is undoubtedly a high flyer who has seen off more than 200 candidates from six continents to win the Siemens Hallé International Conductors Competition 2023 held at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, last month and is now set to become assistant to Sir Mark Elder CH CBE, the Hallé‘s Music Director as well as taking over the directorship of the Hallé Youth Orchestra. Eight semi-finalists were whittled down to three after an intense three days, but the emotional highlight for Shields was leaving the podium after conducting Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the Hallé Orchestra.
“Walking off of the stage after conducting the Elgar with the Hallé Orchestra was really exciting especially as this orchestra has a long history performing Elgar’s music – including with the composer himself.”
“Just being able to share my thoughts and feelings about the music through the orchestra and realizing that they are also interested in and receptive to my ideas was great. They also brought so much experience and expertise to the table. The process of collaboration that happened in those thirty minutes left me amazed and excited.”
It must be a daunting experience, one where nerves could get the better of you. He took the famous ninth variation, ‘Nimrod’, slightly faster than the orchestra was expecting. I remind Shields that Bernstein is renowned for one of the slowest interpretations on record. He smiles and though I don’t want to sound patronising, I am intrigued at his approach in influencing an experienced orchestra to get on board.
“That was one of the demons I was fighting. I am a 24-year-old conductor and still a student, while the Hallé orchestra has a rich tradition of playing this old war horse in so many different ways. I just tried to set all the narratives aside in preparation. In its most simple form, conducting is about interpreting a score as honestly as possible, and communicating that vision with the orchestra. I tried to think about the meaning behind each variation, making it personal to me, which meant finding a moment in my life for a story that resonated.”
“When I stood up in front of the orchestra I took a deep breath and tried to simply show the sounds I heard in my head,” at this moment Shields waved his hands as if conducting, before moving on to tell me about his approach to scores starting with asking himself three questions:
“What kind of sounds did the composer have in mind?
“What do the musicians need to do to produce these sounds?
“To make that happen, what do the musicians need to see from me?
His composure, coolness, and capability is as impressive as his knowledge, explaining the rationale behind his tempo choice. According to Shields, Elgar was influenced by the German school of composition, which treats tempo markings such as ‘andante’ and ‘adagio’ as a feeling rather than a definitive speed.
“For me, ‘Nimrod’represents hope and an affirmation of life. I wanted to bring out a vast landscape of sound through its interweaving and unending counterpoint.”
In addition to a chosen work, the finalists all had to perform Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro.
I suggest that this posed a different challenge of standing out from the other candidates.
“Standing out from the other candidates was the least of my concern, because orchestras sound so different with every conductor anyways. I was focused on conveying the message of the opera, which often involves servants outsmarting and making fools out of their masters.”
“When I started off the overture in pianissimo, I had a feeling that the orchestra and I were setting a mischievous tone, foreshadowing the surprise fortissimos and sforzandos that permeate the work.”
It’s not hard to see why the orchestra warmed to Shields – he exudes a cheerful disposition and noticeably feels empathy for the orchestra musicians.
“Empathy is especially important. The orchestra is often a mirror of the conductor in front of them so I try to be as authentically myself as I can. If I am trying to be someone else then I’m communicating with them that I’m a conductor who is trying to be someone else.
So my mindset is that there’s no musician on the planet that doesn’t want to give their best. That’s something that the whole orchestra has in common with me – this shared goal turns rehearsal into a communal effort. The question I ask is how can I bring out the best of everything that’s in front of me to create something that’s unique to this specific collaboration, and no matter what stage you are at, every musician has a time when they are completely in awe of the music and it touches something deep inside them.”
Even so I reiterate my point about nerves.
“I was most nervous going into the rehearsal because most of the work to shape the interpretation needs to be accomplished then. For the concert, it was more about letting go and enjoying it.”
He follows up with a wonderful way to describe the feeling exactly.
“I’m the type of person who, when I go to an amusement park and wait in line for the rollercoaster – that’s the worst part – I get butterflies in my stomach.
“Once I hop onto the vehicle, the rest is just fun. Similarly, once I walk onto the podium the nerves dissipate and I’m solely focused on connecting with the musicians.”
Shields is articulate, the answers flow, there is thought in how he responds to questions such as when I asked why he chose Manchester over other competitions.
“My decisions on where to apply were based around the people working there. The two previous assistants for the Hallé, Jonathon Heyward and Delyana Lazarova, had been my musical role models for many years, and I hugely admired the work of the Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder.”
There have been two main influences in Shields’ life and his answer once again shows his level-headedness.
Musically – David Robertson, the American conductor who conducts the Juilliard Orchestra, with whom Shields works directly on a weekly basis.
“A lot of my current philosophy about conducting comes from David. He constantly challenges his students to be lifelong learners, and inspires us with his deep knowledge in literature, history, and practically everything. He is passionate about every piece of music he teaches us, and it’s contagious.”
“The Juilliard community is one that is serious, supportive, and friendly. People work hard, but also love having a fun time. My conducting peers and I get to conduct the lab orchestra every week under the guidance of David Robertson and guest teachers. The members of the orchestra give very helpful feedback and have monitored my growth over the last two years. I feel deeply grateful for their time and enthusiasm.”
Outside of music, Shields tells me that his grandfather on his mother’s side, who lives in Osaka (Japan), has been highly influential in his life. Shields grew up in Japan until he was about 13 before emigrating to the US.
“The transition to life in the US was difficult – I was so attached to my family and friends in Japan. I had to reinvent myself and build a new community. Ever since I was little, my grandfather, a very philosophical person, always taught me about the importance of hard work, selflessness, and being an honourable person. In my period of adjustment, I held on to his teachings.”
“My grandfather was born in Jeju Island to Korean parents and immigrated from Korea to Japan as a young child. Growing up as a child in Japan he faced a lot of discrimination and prejudice. Shortly after WWII there was a lot of tension between the two countries.
“He told me a lot of stories last summer of his childhood and his experience as an older man building a diverse yet tightly knit community of individuals from different backgrounds. Community has become important to me and that’s the main reason I began conducting in high school. Through conducting I learned how to cultivate an environment where people from all walks of life feel included and connected.
“An orchestra is a microcosm of society – everyone comes together from different parts of their lives representing different ranges and timbres of sound in the orchestra to create something harmonious.”
In September he starts his apprenticeship with the Hallé Orchestra, so catch a performance if you see his name on a poster. For now I will leave him to complete his studies this spring and immerse himself in new repertoire.
I look forward to saying to my friends in a few years’ time, I interviewed Euan Shields when he started out on the first movement of his career to conduct one of the top orchestras in the world.
Each then performed a substantial orchestral work: Pablo Urbina, 34, from Spain, had arguably the hardest task with Sibelius’s Symphony No 3. The organic growth and the work’s obdurate formal puzzles were skilfully unlocked by Urbina, drawing a buoyant response from the players. Agata Zając, 27, from Poland, showed flair and command in Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, surfing its technical challenges and rising to the challenge of the work’s grand close.
Published: April 15, 2023