Ivor Setterfield: interview

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On the eve of a major conducting competition, Time Out talks music, maestri and Metalheadz with the pro baton-wielder and Goldie mentor Ivor Setterfield

  • Ivor Setterfield: interview

    Ivor Setterfield © Rob Greig

  • On Thursday, three of the most talented aspiring young conductors will compete before an audience at the Barbican Hall in the biennial Donatella Flick Conducting Competition. Those who enjoyed BBC2’s celebrity series ‘Maestro’ will have the chance to see bona fide musicians sweating it out in front of a panel of judges as they guide the London Symphony Orchestra through pieces by Verdi, Brahms, Ravel and Wagner.

    Someone familiar with both scenarios is professional conductor Ivor Setterfield. A two-time semi-finalist in the competition, he will be familiar to ‘Maestro’ viewers as the mentor to drum ’n’ bass DJ Goldie. It was evident that the pair bonded on the programme; both teary-eyed as Goldie came runner-up to Sue Perkins, having come to love Beethoven and Elgar. It has clearly been a reciprocal cultural exchange, as Setterfield turns up at Time Out HQ wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a gleaming black skull on it. ‘It’s Rare,’ he announces to blank looks, explaining that this fashion range is all the rage with ‘Metalheadz and Goldie’s crew’. He is clearly part of this crew – even as we chat, the DJ leaves a rambling comical message on his mobile phone.

    He speaks enthusiastically of his late night at Fabric’s drum ’n’ bass room. ‘It was intense,’ he recalls, ‘though I did enjoy being in the DJ booth, drinking Champagne with Goldie and all the short-skirted ladies.’ It’s a far cry from St Martin-in-the-Fields, Setterfield’s regular venue, at which his and other ensembles entertain with programmes of Baroque favourites, invariably including Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

    After a quick change, the 42-year-old maestro is in his more familiar white tie and tails. He puts on Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ from the CD he has recorded with his New London Soloists Orchestra and conducts as he is photographed, apologising for being unable to find a baton that Goldie has not broken while conducting over-exuberantly in his mentor’s Kentish Town home.

    An approachable chap, Setterfield has conducted many orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic. He studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music (he produces a surprisingly good countertenor on his new recording), going on to win a conducting scholarship, followed by study in Russia with LSO maestro Valery Gergiev.

    As one would expect from such a professional, Setterfield is very confident and absolutely clear on what his craft is all about. ‘What you are really doing as a conductor is taking all of everyone’s ideas,’ he explains. ‘You are synthesising them, you are listening in a way and then you are leading through gestures, through your face, your body and your intensity.’

    To what purpose? ‘You are trying to make what the composer has trusted by writing down – which is to some extent dead – a living thing, in the same way that the reader of a book makes the text come alive and reads between the lines… It is a very similar role to that of a singer or instrumentalist, except that your instrument is a lot of people.’

    The basics are clear: ‘The baton hand controls tempo; the other hand is for cueing, balancing, expression, colour, loud and soft. But the hands are only part of it; the body – just simply standing differently – reveals your own palette of movements and what they mean to you.’

    Though he has been in the business for 20 years, he has sympathy for junior maestri. ‘It’s a big responsibility for a young conductor,’ he muses. ‘Every one of the players that you are conducting is more experienced than you, and you are going into a situation as a manager. It’s like a business consultant coming in and telling people who have been doing their job for 40 years what to do.’

    It seems that he and Goldie are planning to bring classical music to the kids, and the DJ is hoping to come and conduct Piazolla at St Martin’s, alongside Setterfield conducting Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’. Speaking of which, does he fear becoming sidelined in a Baroque classics ghetto? ‘I love the Baroque ,’ he says, ‘but I would really like to programme more modern music like Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphosen”. But we just couldn’t risk it financially.’

    There is a solution, though, he suggests: ‘You’ll just have to make me famous.’ Gladly, if I don’t have to listen to Pachelbel’s damn Canon again.

    The 2008 Donatella Flick Conducting Competition Final, Barbican Hall ,Oct 2. Ivor Setterfield conducts Fauré’s Requiem, St Martin-in-the-Fields,Oct 7.

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