By Linda Robertson
Described as ‘one of the most interesting conductors of his generation’, graduate Ryan Bancroft is captivating audiences around the world. The principal conductor of BBC National Orchestra of Wales and incoming artist in association at Finland’s Tapiola Sinfonietta talks music, movement, and more with Linda Robertson.
Ryan Bancroft’s arms glide through the air, shoulders shrugging, head bobbing, his hands a blur of movement. Music seems to flow through him — his face and body becoming more animated as the orchestra picks up pace and the percussion kicks in.
The buzz of live performance feels even more intense, for this concert is the first time he has stepped on stage in six months. It’s a series of firsts — his debut as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW), the first time the orchestra has come together to play since the Covid-19 lockdown in March, and the first full prom to come from Wales, from the orchestra’s home at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff.
Broadcast in September, the same month he officially took up his BBC NOW role, American Dreams couldn’t have been more fitting for this California native, with its vibrant programme that took in everything from jazz to a world premiere from composer Gavin Higgins, and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite, written for Martha Graham’s ballet company.
‘An energetic yet graceful conductor’ in a concert that ‘packed an emotional punch’ noted The Guardian. The Times wrote that this Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate has ‘an infectious and appealing grin, although his mobile, baton-free hands, vital for keeping track of rhythms and emotions, are better still. Even the little finger of his right hand is expressive.’
How did it feel to return to the stage for his first gig post-lockdown 1.0?
“Like a lot of people, work shut down after March and my very first concert back was my Proms debut with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.”
“It was a pretty big programme for not having done anything for six months and it was an international broadcast … no pressure at all,” he laughs. “It was hectic but it was a lot of fun and such a privilege to perform with them.”
He’s on the phone from Finland, where he’s quarantining before working with the Tapiola Sinfonietta where, from autumn next year, he’ll take up the post of Artist in Association. Before that, he was in Scotland to work with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for the first time and managed to pop into RCS to talk to current conducting students.
For someone who spends most of the year travelling, it’s a relief to get back on the road and back to what he loves best: “I’ve been counting my blessings,” says Ryan. “It has been really nice to work with these great orchestras and lovely people during this time.”
Born in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles as a child, Ryan’s first foray into the arts was through ballet and he picked up the trumpet aged around seven.
“When I started playing, I knew that I was going to be a musician because I enjoyed it so much.”
He studied trumpet at the California Institute of the Arts, alongside additional studies in harp, flute, cello, and Ghanaian music and dance. While you don’t need a dance background to be a conductor, it certainly helps. Communication, connection and expression — conducting, like dance, relies on the body to engage with audiences.
For Ryan, music and movement are intrinsically linked. Music-making is as much about the physical as it is listening, and dance ‘absolutely’ informs his musical life. He even taught Ghanaian dance in LA.
“Dance makes you so unbelievably aware of your body and anatomy and the fact that the body is a tool for sending a message,” he says. “I became hyper-aware of my body and what it was doing and how to effectively give information with it.”
His move into conducting came in 2010, following the death of his father: “My father passed away at the beginning of that year so I decided to put on a concert of Mozart’s Requiem which was his favourite piece. I had done a couple of things here and there but never put together anything myself.
“The performance, with an ensemble of friends, was for a really sombre occasion but through the process of rehearsing, it started to feel really authentic and interesting and endless, in a way. I profoundly felt the feeling of ‘wow, I’m not good at this but I love it.’ And that feeling has never really left!” he laughs.
When he expressed interest in studying conducting, his trumpet teacher in LA told him he had a connection at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “It was John Wallace, who was the Principal at that time, and a trumpet player. Of course, I knew who he was. I put all my eggs in one basket as it was the only school I applied and auditioned for. I flew over to Glasgow and thankfully was accepted.”
Ryan studied a Masters in Music (Distinction) in orchestral conducting from 2013 to 2015. “There was something exotic, actually, about coming from Los Angeles to Glasgow and being surrounded by people who had different accents and experiences.
“I found my foundation with Alasdair Mitchell and, at the same time, learned so much by working with voluntary orchestras. For the first time in my life, I was a conductor and not a trumpet player.”
He loved Scotland and the energy of Glasgow’s vibrant music scene: “One of the things I remember specifically, which was so different from Los Angeles, was that I often saw people walking in the street with instrument cases on their backs. It wasn’t something I grew up with and to be part of that felt so inspiring.”
“I had never done anything like it before. To be given an opportunity like that, from a musician as great as Tim Dean, was incredibly exciting and I learned an immense amount from it. Also, I could constantly see recitals or go to masterclasses with visiting conductors or be involved in something like Bridge Week (a cross-disciplinary RCS performance festival) where people always pulled out the stops for projects.”
He often played trumpet with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and his work with amateur orchestras was instrumental in shaping him as a conductor. There’s a love story in there too – Ryan met his future husband at RCS, Canadian Tyler Smith, from the MA Musical Theatre class of 2014. “We were married outside of Edmonton a couple of months ago. We found a beautiful flower farm and there were six of us due to Covid, of course. It was extremely intimate.”
After graduating, he continued his studies in the Netherlands at the Nationale Master Orkestdirectie through the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague.
“When I was accepted to RCS, I was like okay, I have two years to figure out an understanding of this. I realised that I needed to keep studying so went to the Netherlands and lived there for five years. The Netherlands was intense, working with a different professional orchestra every week. Had I not done the Masters at RCS, it wouldn’t have been a possibility.”
Conducting, he says, is ‘endlessly fascinating’: “Every day I’m figuring out something new. It has amplified what music is about — real-life experiences. When I was primarily a trumpet player, I was so focused on becoming more technically proficient and more intelligent about it. I completely neglected my personal life.”
“At the root of conducting is human experience, communicating and being a people person.”
How does he approach each performance? “I have a mantra, not a serious one and it’s quite cliched but typically before I go on stage I tell myself ‘don’t take life too seriously’. If it goes great, fantastic. If I see this not going so great, then life will go on, it’s not the end of the world.
“Rehearsals are a very intense process and I am a perfectionist. My last thought before a show is ‘just have fun’ and it’s profoundly important to remind myself of that. Music, is of course, important and brings people temporary freedom and changes minds and inspires. It’s supposed to be fun, interesting and exhilarating too.”
Ryan first came to international attention in April 2018, when he won both First Prize and Audience Prize at the Malkö Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen.
He made his debut with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in November 2018, stepping in at short notice for Xian Zhang. Since then, he has racked up an impressive list of credits with orchestras around the world. He has been described as ‘one of the most interesting conductors of his generation’ (HBL Musik) and ‘an open-hearted emotional musician’ (Gramophone).
As our conversation comes to a close, Ryan reflects on what has been a challenging year for the performing arts. “My partner and I talk about this a lot and with friends who are artists. The pandemic is outwith our control and it isn’t easy to see so many things being cancelled. Yet, it’s important to remember that people become artists because they have something to communicate, they have a unique vision of the world, or have a statement to make.
“If you think about major pieces of art over the last millennium, they’ve come out of doubt, insecurity and vulnerability, joy as well. A pandemic can’t take that desire to create and communicate away.”