Matthew Kofi Waldren is best known for his work as a conductor at Opera Holland Park. As part of our At Home Concert Club on 14th December, he'll be giving his perspective on Verdi's Requiem in a live Twitter Q & A. To get ready for the event, we decided to find out more about his musical background and ambitions for the future. 

AK: Was there much music in your life when you were little? And was it classical music?

MKW: My mum had an eclectic record collection which my brothers and I used to dive into once we got home from school. We would add to it ourselves – buying records in Our Price with our pocket money. There was always a real variety of music being played around the house – Queen, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Vivaldi, Lloyd-Webber. But I was definitely that rare seven-year-old who would come home from school and listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on my cassette player!

Matthew Kofi Waldren © David Myers
Matthew Kofi Waldren
© David Myers
When did you first start performing, and at what age did you realise that music would be your career?

I always loved performing, whether it was singing or playing piano and flute in concerts from the age of about eight, or on the theatrical stage at the Wilde Theatre in Bracknell from the age of about 10. I think I always knew that I would be a musician; it was an intrinsic part of who I was. As a teenager I attended the junior department at the RCM and really started to take my music seriously. I didn't know that I would be a conductor, but I knew that music would be my career.

At what age did you first try conducting and was it love at first sight?

I think that I must have been 18 when I first conducted – a chamber choir at university performing Vaughan-Williams’s Shakespeare Songs amongst other things. And I absolutely loved it immediately. In fact, in retrospect I loved the experience of conducting more than anything I had done in music prior to that. But at that point in time I still thought that singing was where my future lay – mainly because I had been doing it for so long. Realising that conducting was actually what I should be doing was a gradual process. But that process was important for me as I developed as a musician in many other ways during that time.

Did any event kick start your career as a conductor, or has it just been hard graft?

The two probably go hand-in-hand. I have certainly had some wonderful opportunities as a conductor, but they have presented themselves after some serious hard graft! I am certainly a hard worker in everything I do. The job of facilitating fantastic music-making is a real privilege, so I would be doing a disservice to everyone with whom I work, and also the music, if I didn’t work hard. Careers in music can also be tough, so a focused attitude (without taking yourself too seriously) is important. But grasping the opportunities that arise is also crucial. I suppose the opportunity that kick-started my career was my performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto at Opera Holland Park in 2011. People saw that I could do the job and started to offer me work. So I am extraordinarily grateful to that company and its Director of Opera, James Clutton.

Matthew Kofi Waldren © David Myers
Matthew Kofi Waldren
© David Myers
As an ex-singer yourself, do you see opera as a natural fit or are you equally at home conducting orchestral works? 

I do have a natural affinity for the opera stage and the opera pit. I am very at home there, and much of that comes from having been a singer on stage. Understanding voices, the languages, and what a singer requires has been incredibly useful for me. Breathing with the singers also seems to come naturally to me. Having studied for a time as an actor, too, my approach to the music is text and intention-driven. I also love exploring the score to uncover how the composer works as a dramatist – how the harmony, dynamics, orchestration and articulation all serve a specific dramatic and psychological purpose. I suppose I have a 3D understanding of opera. That said, I love working on orchestral works and finding the unwritten narrative or drama in them. I plan and hope to do more orchestral work as my musical journey continues.

Did you do a lot of choral singing at Cambridge?

Yes. For two years I was a choral scholar at Jesus College, singing five services a week, recording CDs and touring Europe and the US. It was a huge part of my life at university.

Have you done much choral conducting or would you like to?

I’ve done less over the past few years. At university I conducted chamber vocal ensembles and was MD of a barbershop group. Professionally, I was Chorus Master at Opera Holland Park for three seasons, preparing the Chorus in over ten operas. As opera conductors we work with choruses all the time. As ENO Mackerras Fellow I’ve had the great joy of getting to know the extraordinary Chorus of English National Opera. If I had the time, amongst a fairly hefty wish list, I would love to found and conduct a professional chamber choir. The choral tradition was hugely important in my musical development, but the work was often primarily sound-driven rather than text-driven. Also, I am more interested in the sound-world being the result of the individual thoughts that give rise to the text and music. 

What do you most want to conduct?

This changes all the time! In the opera, I have a huge affinity with Italian repertoire from mid-late Verdi onwards. Seeing how Verdi developed as a dramatist is fascinating. I have to conduct Otello one day. And I am a total Puccini nut! He is an absolutely extraordinary dramatist, and he completely understood – and was able to express – the human condition. I have conducted one third of Il trittico and would love to do Il tabarro and Suor Angelica. Also, I want to conduct Cavalleria rusticana in my wife’s village in Caltinsetta, Sicily. It is the perfect setting for it.

What has been your most memorable experience as a conductor?

There have been many, but summer 2017 was particularly memorable. I was conducting La rondine at Opera Holland Park, and during our run of shows the company lost a dear colleague, Debbie Lamprell, in the Grenfell Tower blaze. It was a very hard time for a very close-knit company. At our last performance we gave an encore of “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” (“I drink to your beautiful smile”) for Debbie and all the Grenfell Tower victims, with Debbie’s mum and family in attendance. It was the most powerful musical moment in which we – and I think I can speak for the cast, orchestra and audience too – had ever been involved in. Music is such a unifier and expresses the inexpressible. At that difficult moment music gave hope, and was both uplifting and heart-breaking at the same time.

What piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to become a conductor?

I’m going to sound pompous here, but be interested and interesting. Yes, work hard and acquire all the necessary skills. But also be curious about life – art, politics, history, love, drinking, eating, travelling, everything! It is your job to facilitate music which expresses our humanity and human condition. We have to be comfortable expressing all our thoughts, emotions, strengths and vulnerabilities – but we can only do that if we live them and try to understand them. Also, be open and humble – you are there solely to facilitate musicians to produce the best possible music they can, and to inspire the love of music and music-making that all the players, singers and audience have.

What do you do, when you’re not conducting, to relax? Any interesting hobbies?

I enjoy swimming – it’s a time of zen shut-off for me. I love racquet sports but have been struggling to get back into them after a knee injury. Travelling is a huge passion of mine – I get really excited by planning trips to see crazily beautiful places. And I love relaxing at home on the sofa with my wife and our cats. As busy musicians we both relish that relaxing time together!

What music do you listen to when you’re at home?

This evening is likely to be an iPod shuffle special! It will be smattering of 1980s playlists, mixed in with some Dalida, Debussy, Telemann, Aretha Franklin and so on! Tomorrow it is likely to be composers that I want to get to know for future contracts.

You can send your questions to Waldren on Twitter using #concertclub9. Go here to see his upcoming live performances