INTERVIEW: International conductor David Curtis

David Curtis photographed at his Stratford home. Photo Mark Williamson

Conductor David Curtis, who was artistic director of Stratford’s world-renowned Orchestra of the Swan, surprised many when he announced he was leaving the orchestra that he founded 22 years ago. Here he tells Gill Sutherland what he’s up to.

Tell us about your decision to leave the Orchestra of the Swan.

“It may have seemed sudden but it was something my wife Val and I had been chatting about for six months beforehand. I think we felt that the 21st anniversary, which was last year, was a real milestone for the orchestra and when we got to the end of that year we started to think ‘what next?’. Do I carry on forever with the orchestra or is it a good time to start thinking there are other challenges and other ideas I want to do?

“There’s never an easy time to make a move, but I did it once before: I played in the Coull string quartet for 33 years — obviously that overlapped with the orchestra — and made a leap of faith to leave that to commit full-time to the Orchestra of the Swan, and now I find myself making another leap of faith.”

What was the response to the announcement that you were leaving?

“Everyone understands and appreciates that after 22 years I might want to do something different. I’ve had a lot of messages from players being very supportive… And we had a party here [at the Curtis’ Evesham Road home] for 30 of the longest-standing supporters who have been with us since we first started, and again everyone is supportive, it was a lovely occasion, although it is sad!

“I think it’s best to go while the orchestra is riding high; the orchestra has a great reputation, players and staff. Hopefully someone can come in and take it even further.”

What are you going off to do?

“A variety of things really, I’ve got various offers and options.

“Just after I made the announcement that I was to leave the orchestra and I was out in Singapore for four days. On the first day I had an evening with the Kids’ Philharmonic, which is an orchestra set up for children from deprived backgrounds, and ended up at a local family restaurant, the only Westerner there. The next couple of days I spent time at the Singapore Conservatory, taking a class with conducting students and working with them one-to-one; before going on to work with the Chamber Orchestra at the American school in Singapore. Sitting on the flight on the way home from Singapore after that incredibly rewarding time I thought ‘yes I have made the right decision’.

“I really enjoy standing in front of an orchestra [David is just back from conducting a symphony orchestra in Hungary as we speak] but the teaching and coaching and working with student orchestras is something I really enjoy and there are more opportunities that I would like to explore, including possible work in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“What I want to do is to take a bit of time to reflect and think as well as these other projects. Working for the Orchestra of the Swan has been all-consuming, so while I’m not retiring to my house in France to grow vegetables just yet, I’m enjoying some thinking time!”

Remind us how the Orchestra of the Swan first started.

“I was asked by the then director of Stratford Music Festival, Stuart Beare, if I could put together an orchestra so his daughter could play the Mathias violin concerto. I said ‘yeah sure’ and literally phoned round a pile of friends and asked them to play. We didn’t have a budget to conduct, so I did it. It really was just a group of friends coming together and having a good time… we enjoyed it and did the same thing the following year.

“Then I thought if we were in Germany a town the size of Stratford would have an orchestra, an opera as well as a theatre. So I thought maybe we could put together a series of concerts so we did six. I persuaded the great pianist Allan Schiller to come and do a series of piano concertos and that is really when we took off.

“I remember at some point we had a concert booked but didn’t have a name. We tried all sorts of permutations using ‘Stratford’ and ‘Midland’, and we were talking about it over several bottles of wine one night at our house with a bunch of us, and someone — it might have been me, I can’t remember — pointed out there were swans everywhere in Stratford, we were all tired and wanted to go to bed, and so we said fine that will do and became Orchestra of the Swan!”

What work are you most proud of?

“I think the orchestra has achieved far more than I could have possibly imagined – great recordings, commissioing 80 new compositions, we’ve been on Radio 3 and 4, on the Southbank Show; particularly in the last ten years or so worked with some of the leading soloists in the country, including Peter Donahue, and playing with the band James at the Albert Hall was a real highlight.

“But of all we have done the one thing I’d pick out as the pinnacle would be our work devising opera at Welcombe Hills, a special educational needs school. I think the creativity that the students brought to the project was fantastic, and we were so surprised by their potential, and that’s what is so rewarding about working with youth orchestras and students — helping people achieve more than they thought they could. That’s a special achievement and a real legacy.

“Sometimes people ask what do you do, and without wanting to sound facilie or glib I would like to say I make people’s lives better; and I think that’s the power of music — whether that’s giving a fantastic performance so people float out of the concert hall or going into a care home and working with dementia patients, music has a real power to transform people’s lives.”

Finally, Desert Island Discs-style, can you name three of your favourite composers, and what piece of music would you save from the waves?

“Past composers it would have to be Bach, particularly the solo violins sonatas. I think his music more than any other transcends time and space and there’s something very universal about it that no other music quite achieves; then Mozart — particularly the piano concertos and operas; and lastly I’d go for Brahms — although ask me tomorrow and it could be somebody else! I’d save Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No 41). The last movement is just a miraculous joyous piece of music… it was my penultimate performance with the Orchestra of the Swan.