The Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, held every two years, was founded in 1990 by philanthropist Donatella Flick. Ahead of the three rounds which will crown the 2016 winner, between the 15th and 17th November, Bachtrack's insider Nicole Wilson meets the competitors who will have to prove their talent conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

© Andy Staples
© Andy Staples

Are your parents musical?

My dad is an amateur singer and horn player; my uncle played the trumpet and piano, and it was his instrument I started on and my mum was very musical but only made it as far as the third violin section in her school orchestra! We got her to sing Christmas carols once and she could hold her own really well in four parts but she never wanted to take it further. So it runs in the family but none of them are professional musicians.

Did you want to be a conductor as a child?

No, not at all. In a way I also came to it late. I was going to be a cartoonist as a kid, that’s what I wanted to do. I was always doing little caricatures. And then when I was 15 we played Tchaikovsky Symphony No 5 at Snape Maltings in the Suffolk Youth Orchestra. For two nights after the concert I couldn’t sleep, it was the most exciting thing I’d ever experienced in my life. It was like a drug. From that moment on music was my thing.

Conducting didn’t come until much later. I first conducted at the end of my first year at university in Birmingham. I was taking a Masters degree in composition after which I went to the Royal Academy of Music and started a PhD which I abandoned pretty quickly. It was there I started properly conducting.

What was the first group you conducted?

In my last year at Birmingham I did some undergraduate teaching – I had a group of first year students who would write for the ensemble that was within our group and we’d play through those and so I would conduct them.

How did you get your professional career going?

I just went out into the world and went to people’s rehearsals. My first job was conducting a light opera society in north London, then I got a job with a choral society, then a couple of amateur orchestras… and at the same time was starting my own chamber orchestra, The Orchestra of St Paul’s, which in February will be 10. We’ve done 130 odd concerts and played Casablanca in the RFH and we’ve just done Psycho at the Roundhouse. I’m massively into films with live orchestra, that’s my latest obsession.

Maybe that’s your cartoonist coming back out?

I’ve never considered that, maybe! The thing I really like about it is that in almost any concert situation it’s the spontaneity. You do all your rehearsal planning but actually in the moment the oboist makes a little shape, or something happens, or the acoustic affects how you see the piece at that particular time… it’s about inspiration, things that just happen in the moment, that makes it really special.

The films are the complete opposite of that. It’s just trying to reproduce as faithfully as you can what you hear on the film soundtrack. Some of them have a clock that goes round so you can synchronise, but some of them have no clock so you just have to learn how the film goes and take it from visual cues, so when someone blinks, that’s my cue to conduct. It’s a strange experience. But I think because of that, being so different from being a normal concert, it’s one of the things I really enjoy about it.