Alpesh Chauhan is a 25 year old conductor with some highly respected orchestras snapping at his heels. It can be difficult to form a mental picture of an up-and-coming conducting whiz-kid before that first encounter. Yet when I meet Chauhan in the cafe of his Florence hotel, the scene that awaits is in retrospect the obvious one. He is buried in his smartphone, “having endless phone calls and messages to decide on future repertoire and projects,” he explains. The looming cuboid structure of the Opera di Firenze set beyond the cafe window, where Chauhan is to make his debut with a fiendish programme the following day, appears to be of little distraction.

Alpesh Chauhan © operaomnia.co.uk
Alpesh Chauhan
© operaomnia.co.uk

It is probably wise that Chauhan is keeping on top of his admin. His rise from schoolboy cellist to sought after conductor has been steep. Birmingham has been a focal point, where Chauhan started out as a cellist in the CBSO's youth orchestra before returning to support Andris Nelsons at the CBSO itself, first as a Conducting Fellow and then as Assistant Conductor. Manchester has also played its part: Chauhan got the conducting bug whilst a student at the RNCM, ultimately winning a place on the conducting Masters course in a switch from his undergraduate studies on the cello. But it was with a number of high profile stand-ins for ailing directors, with the likes of The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the CBSO, that Chauhan achieved a wider reach.

“The last month or so has been crazy,” he beams. “In six weeks I have conducted my first Berio, my first Dutilleux, Rach 2, Brahms 1, La mer, Symphonie fantastique…” The voice trails off. His repertoire is broad, and his schedule intense. In those six weeks alone, he has followed a travel itinerary that would challenge Phileas Fogg’s: Glasgow's Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice, Parma's Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, Birmingham with the CBSO and, in his final stop before a well-earned rest, Florence with the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

How does he keep on top of it all? “You can't carry any baggage,” he explains. “You have to be very relaxed, calm, cool. Just absorb and take in some new orchestras!” The cool approach is in evidence when I catch Chauhan in rehearsal after the interview, but it is also matched with an irrepressible energy. His hyperactive body buzzes from section to section. His instructions and descriptions come in an efficacious splurge of Italian and English. “Do you know chickens?” he quizzes. “Imagine chickens here!” his head pecking the air. And later, “No! It's chickens with their legs chopped off!” Faces are bemused, intrigued. Chauhan is no austere maestro. Have they seen anything like him before?

Chauhan has learnt much of his trade during his time at the CBSO. “You pick up so much from watching Nelsons. About caring about the musicians. About caring what they think.” He learnt not to over-rehearse, recalling that on tour former Music Director Andris Nelsons would spend just 20 minutes with the orchestra to tweak and refine their playing before each concert. This meant that players didn't get tired, and that real, spontaneous music-making could be saved for the performance itself. “Orchestras want to be flirted with,” Chauhan explains. “It's got to be like love. You hit it off and it works. The only way to do that is to keep things going and keep things alive.”

But when it comes to repertoire choices, Chauhan seems closer to the flair of Sir Simon Rattle than to the safer approach  of Andris Nelsons. I mention tomorrow's programme - an eye-catching mix of Berio, Dutilleux and Beethoven - and Chauhan's eyes light up, his hands sparkling into action. “The Berio gets you in your seats, and the Dutilleux is just crazy,” he says. “After that, the Beethoven sounds like a different piece.” This is programmatic alchemy, and it is on show throughout Chauhan's work. In his recent concert with the CBSO, Golijov's tango-inspired Azul served to make Shostakovich's Symphony no.15 sound “incredibly contemporary”, whilst Debussy's La mer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland rendered Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique “even more fantastique”.

It is remarkable that Chauhan has enjoyed such success in Italy (“A Director with a Capital D” harked the magazine Amadeus) when you consider that musical tastes tend towards the conservative here, and  that young foreign conductors generally don't get a look in unless they are household names. Chauhan's programming is different. Is it a concertedly so? A pitch at programmers eager to offer something new? “Absolutely not! Well yes, but only for the audience.” Brahms' and Beethoven's symphonies “are bibles,” Chauhan clarifies, but he is also keen to challenge the audience by doing more than churn out the same old combinations of accepted symphonic masterpieces. 'I love Shostakovich, and so I programme a lot of their music. But I programme other things around that, which inform my Shostakovich and Brahms'.

Alpesh Chauhan rehearsing the CBSO © operaomnia.co.uk
Alpesh Chauhan rehearsing the CBSO
© operaomnia.co.uk

But tough programmes have another function as far as Chauhan is concerned. Combining fiendish Dutilleux with Beethoven means that “the Beethoven comes so much more easily” whilst the sheer scale of his concert at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (it was up there on his list of “scariest programmes to date”) had the effect of making players focus more intensely. I  wrongly assume that this is about throwing yourself in at the deep end. Chauhan corrects me, explaining that his professional decisions are sometimes risky but always carefully considered. He remembers being asked to stand in for Donald Runnicles at short notice with a programme that was largely new to him (“I don't know what you are going to say to this,” came his manager's voice down the phone.). That conversation became a tortuous 45 minutes of toing and froing and weighing up the options.

He agreed to conduct the concert, locked himself away and studied. It was a gamble that paid off, and Chauhan went down a storm. Well-informed risk has clearly been key to his major career decisions. It is also at work in his music-making, and is the source of its ability to thrill. Attending Chauhan's concert in Florence, the performance of Dutilleux's Baudelaire-inspired Tout un monde lontain in particular was an edge-of-your-seat experience. Players are responsive to this conductor, and Chauhan is similarly appreciative to be working with them. “When you allow Italian musicians to play real sound - suonare - you see their eyes light up and the room warms.”

The wine and food isn't bad either, Chauhan adds. Yet he is tellingly acquiescent when he concedes that he won't manage to enjoy much of Florence this time around.  “It would be a shame not to do things well. All of that will come.” Chauhan seems confident that Italy will play a substantial part in his future. No doubt this is good news for those passionate musicians he will work with, as well as for the audiences this remarkable conductor is seeking to challenge.