James Burton, one of the most admired conductors in the U.K. and Europe, has just begun his tenure as Tanglewood Festival Chorus Conductor and Boston Symphony Orchestra Choral Director. He accepted the position after the Chorus underwent a two-year search for the successor to its founder, John Oliver.
Maestro Burton took time to speak with HuffPost about his love of conducting and his approach to his new role.
Michael: What made you decide to accept the position?
James: When I was invited to think about taking the job, it was not a difficult decision, because there’s so much on offer here. There’s a wonderful opportunity to work with one of the great symphony orchestras in a wonderful hall, with a great chorus that has a proud history, and take everything on to a new chapter, and look forward to the future and build new things. I think there was a real thirst from everybody to be looking forward and a curiosity about what I might bring and have to offer.
Michael: What are the challenges you face coming in? It’s a big chorus.
James: It certainly is. There are advantages to that, in that every time we do a project there’s a slightly different group of people and everyone is pleased to see each other again. It feels like it’s a reunion of a very big family.
And of course, with every project and every concert, we’re building towards the next achievement. I was very keen to meet everybody and to hear everyone sing and get to know everyone. We’re just in that sort of transition stage at the moment of me getting to know the members and working out the best way to go forward.
Michael: With a change in leadership comes the concern that “a new broom sweeps clean.” How do you address that concern?
James: Absolutely. I feel that it’s the same across the board whether it be a business, a school, a sports team, an orchestra, whatever. Inevitably, when trust has been put in someone to lead the organization, that has to be 100% embraced by everybody there. Inevitably, there will be a nuanced look at life. I like to think that in great organizations which are successful, it’s down to great leadership. Sometimes that’s about the training and motivation of the existing workforce, if you like. It’s sad to me to feel that there’s this sort of human condition of fear that what people are doing now isn’t acceptable to the new leadership, when absolutely no message has been sent to the members that that is the case.
My firm belief is that the chorus is the chorus and over time we can address issues of approach to things like I would like people to approach this particular aspect of either musical performance or vocal technique in a different way or a new way. Then you hope that people can step up to that challenge. My initial instinct as an educator is just to provide education and training and see how people cope with that.
I’ve done this before with a big chorus in Manchester when I worked with the Halle Orchestra. It was exactly the same fear when I arrived. But it’s misplaced, I feel. People don’t need to worry. They just need to sing really well and enjoy their singing because that’s what we’re looking for people to do. I’m looking forward to helping them do that.
Michael: It sounds as though the skill sets required for your role extend far beyond music toward organizational and human psychology. How do you acquire those skills?
James: I suppose from the university of life! I think conducting as an art form is highly complex, highly personal.
In terms of how to get the best out of people, I look back to how I was brought up by my parents and the way I was taught at my schools. I was very lucky with both of those things, and those very important early influences over me still have a far reaching influence. Ultimately, to be a conductor, obviously there’s a skill set which is musically required.
Every conductor will be different. Some conductors can be introspective, some can be overly extroverted or whatever, but the basic musical skills are there. Then it’s about the chemistry and how it fits with that particular audience or city in this case, and so on.
I feel very lucky that whatever I brought as a person, as well as my conducting, has been embraced and I feel very much encouraged by everybody here.
Michael: How do you approach a choral rehearsal?
James: I’m acutely aware of how difficult life can be for people in their workplaces, or in their families. When you’ve got a group of 100 people in front of you, no doubt someone has had a much worse day than you. I feel that it’s part of my job to not only teach and cajole them to sing brilliantly the music that we are studying, but also to help music become a haven for them in their lives so that it’s a place to which they can go and always feel that they are nourished and enriched.
Music never answers back or criticizes, and it never punishes. I think that’s why it’s such a great thing for anyone to do at any level. This is true whether it be on stage at Symphony Hall or in their local church choir or in a group of friends who get together and play string quartet. The phone’s not ringing, or shouldn’t ring. Humor is part of that. I like laughter. It’s one of the greatest sounds apart from music that there is.