Alpesh Chauhan came home from school one day with a cello under his arm – now he’s being tipped as the next Sir Simon Rattle. He talks to David Johns about his love of music and Brum
A word of advice. If you’re around seven or eight years of age and decide you want to play an instrument, choose one that’s a bit easier to lug home than a cello. “Mum and dad were a bit surprised when I stumbled through the front door with it from school,” remembers Alpesh Chauhan. “They weren’t into music at all and wondered quite what was going on.” The sudden conversion to the cello came earlier that day when Alpesh was one of the bright young faces among pupils attending morning assembly at Hall Green Junior School. The ‘guest visitor’ was local music teacher and cellist Veronica Raven from Birmingham Music Service. “She’s a bit of a legend and I remember it was amazing to listen to her. From that moment I knew it was what I wanted to do,” says Alpesh. “I spoke to her – and the next thing is that I was given a cello to take home!”
Fast forward 15 years or so, and the lad who fell in love with the cello is now winning rave reviews conducting some of the greatest orchestras in the world, including our own City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The highly talented 25-year-old has been creating quite a buzz since becoming assistant conductor at the CBSO in 2014. Such is his impact that critics are tipping him as the ‘next big thing’ with comparisons being made to the young Sir Simon Rattle, another CBSO star who has gone on to achieve legendary status. Maybe as a result of his humble beginnings, Alpesh isn’t getting carried away with the accolades however. “In career terms, I’m still on the landing strip, haven’t even lifted off yet,” he says. “Obviously you aspire to lead a great orchestra, but that’s a long way off and there’s lots still to learn. I am passionate about what I do and I love and live every minute for music. I just work as hard as I can and I am very thankful at how things are working out. “I owe everything to the amazing opportunities I’ve been given since I fell in love with music as a child. I’ve had so much help from so many people over the years especially Birmingham Music Service which is the best in the country for encouraging and getting children to play instruments. They help tens of thousands of children, kids just like I was.”
Alpesh learned to play the cello while at Hall Green and then Handsworth Grammar School before studying the instrument with the CBSO’s co-principal cellist Ulrich Heinen. He joined the CBSO’s highly-rated Youth Orchestra in 2005 and rose through the ranks to become leader of the cellists before gaining a place on the prestigious conducting course at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. He returned to Birmingham as the CBSO’s first conducting fellow before taking up his present role as assistant conductor – a position that has taken on extra responsibilities since the departure of the orchestra’s much-loved musical director Andris Nelsons. “When I was in secondary school I knew I wanted to conduct,” he explains. “I started out conducting little groups of musicians at school.” Today he leads considerably bigger ensembles, whether in Birmingham or across the UK and Europe. As we spoke Alpesh was hard at work having been asked at short notice to conduct leading orchestras in Italy and Germany in the weeks ahead. “As assistant at ther CBSO I spend a lot of time with them, but all conductors are freelancers so I have the opportunity to conduct elsewhere too,” he explains. His credits include the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic in Manchester and Netherlands Symphony Orchestra as well as other leading orchestras in France and Italy.
“All this means that I don’t get to play cello much now, which is a bit of a shame because I want to play it. I love the instrument. But my time is completely taken up studying scores. As a conductor you have to know the scores so well. When I first started I had a little space on my desk for the scores, then it became a shelf, then two shelves, and now it’s a huge bookcase full of scores!” This incredible work ethic and attention to detail, as well a huge amount of natural talent, has led to BBC’s Music Magazine naming him as one of their rising stars in the Greatest Artists of Tomorrow. Alpesh also appeared recently in a new film celebrating Birmingham released to coincide with the opening of the new John Lewis store at Grand Central. It’s a far cry from the little lad carrying his first cello home from school – but Alpesh has a message from any youngster with the same dream. “Any kid who really, really loves music can come through,” he says. “It’s not easy, it’s tough, but there is so much in Birmingham to help you make it. Believe me, it’s true, you can make it happen!”