Graduate of the Month: Geoffrey Paterson

Geoffrey Paterson is carving out a flourishing career as a conductor of international repute. As he returns to his alma mater to lead the RCS Symphony Orchestra in concert, the 34-year-old chats to Mark Good about his musical upbringing and life on the podium say hello to February’s Graduate of the Month.

There is a certain pizzazz associated with being a high-flying conductor, regularly trotting around the globe, gliding into concert halls and opera houses to rapturous applause. Underneath the elegance of an orchestra and maestro in full flight is the furious paddling of many hours of intensive score preparation as a conductor becomes immersed in the life and work of its composer. For Geoffrey Paterson, that groundwork started young very young.

“My Dad sang and my Mum plays piano and viola,” he said. “Before I was born, Mum was taking me to regular orchestra rehearsals. When I was a child, she taught me to play piano and it escalated quite quickly.”

Eager to follow in her footsteps, Geoffrey started learning violin, switching to viola. Soon he was a member of the National Youth Orchestra, relishing the experience to make music with other people. He was also taking his first steps as a composer, developing his own musical voice while poring over his favourite scores.

The step to the conductor’s podium seemed a natural transition, with Geoffrey staging his first concert at the age of 17 in a programme which included Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks. It was an experience which proved invaluable, he said. “That concert was a real success, even after a six hour rehearsal. I must have been holding my baton rather tightly though I couldn’t even pick up a pen for a week afterwards.”

Upon leaving school (and equipped with knowledge on how to minimise tension in the body when conducting), Geoffrey studied at Cambridge University where he also took composition lessons with Alexander Goehr. He organised concerts throughout, coaxing friends into playing for him while he honed his technique with the baton. A spell as a teacher followed while he planned his next move. Attention soon turned to Glasgow and the Royal Conservatoire.

“I knew a few people who had studied conducting at what was then the RSAMD and they spoke very highly of the course. I have Scottish roots but I had never really spent time there so there was a romantic element too.”

In 2006, the dream became a reality and Geoffrey enrolled as a fully-fledged Masters conducting student. In his first week, he was preparing the orchestra for the imminent arrival of Israeli conductor, Ilan Volkov, the beginning of an intensive two year period during which scores came thick and fast.

“The sheer volume of conducting was amazing,” Geoffrey said. “Alasdair Mitchell was my conducting professor. Any performing musician is trying to get into the composer’s head Alasdair impressed that upon me so strongly. The humility he brought to the composer’s work every time is something that has stayed with me.”

Geoffrey continued: “The regular experience in front of real ensembles was invaluable. With opera, for example, it is about understanding the process and how to offer support to the singers. Tim Dean, who was then Head of Opera, was wonderful with the opportunities that he gave me.

“The conducting hours I racked up and the trust placed in me was incredible. I was new to Glasgow, let alone the RSAMD, but in conducting you learn the job by doing the job and that’s exactly what happened during my two years there.”

Such was his thirst for opera that Geoffrey worked as a répétiteur at the National Opera Studio after his studies at the Royal Conservatoire before becoming part of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at the Royal Opera House. Since then his career has taken him everywhere from Glyndebourne to Opera North and the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in Germany.

Pulling together the various strands of an opera, from the orchestra in the pit and singers on stage to the wider creative and production team, is an environment he relishes. “I am a collaborator at heart. What I love about the opera world is that opportunity to be a team player. It is a very fulfilling experience.”

The next few months brings a multitude of exciting projects, with ever more concerts covering core symphonic repertoire to add to the contemporary work with which he enjoys strong ties. It all makes for an exciting 2017/2018 season; highlights include the world premiere of Tansy Davies’ new opera, Cave, with the Royal Opera House and London Sinfonietta; debuts with the Orchestre National de Lille, National Orchestra of Belgium and Basel Sinfonietta; and appearances with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Music Theatre Wales and Red Note Ensemble. Geoffrey will also continue to appear regularly with the London Sinfonietta.

It all makes for an unrelenting schedule but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Geoffrey Paterson conducts The Firebird with the RCS Symphony Orchestra on Friday 16 February in the City Halls Glasgow. Tickets are available on ourBox Office.

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