Sinfonia Viva’s Frank Zielhorst looks ahead to the new concert season

Frank Zielhorst in concert Photo: Chris Webb

Frank Zielhorst in concert Photo: Chris Webb - Credit: Archant

Sinfonia Viva’s new principal conductor and artistic leader Frank Zielhorst is looking forward to the challenge of the new concert season

Frank Zielhorst Photo: Nigel Apperley

Frank Zielhorst Photo: Nigel Apperley - Credit: Archant

Frank Zielhorst was determined to put the music first at his debut concert as Sinfonia Viva’s principal conductor. The Dutch musician therefore literally stepped out of the shadows after the concert had effectively begun, eschewing the applause a typical entrance would have elicited.

He says: ‘For my first concert in March I programmed it so that the first piece started in a part of the cathedral where no-one in the audience could see what was going on, in complete darkness, and when that was finished I was already at the front of the orchestra and we started the rest of the concert off in the light.

‘It had a symbolic meaning as I always wanted my tenure as principal conductor to start with the music, not applause for me entering. I thought that was very important.’

Frank comes from a musical family and his father is the conductor of a choir. He started playing music before he reached school age and knew he wanted to be a conductor well before his teens. ‘My father always taught me, and my brothers, music and I started playing the violin when I was four. When I was ten I saw a conductor on the television and told everybody that was what I wanted to do. It was like my dad but with an orchestra and that was different.’

His dream never changed although he admits there were doubts that he could achieve his ambitions.

He said: ‘There are dark moments in one’s education when you think “I will never make it” so I realise that I’m incredibly lucky to be in this position. I was fortunate to make the right contacts and be pushed along by the right people. I had great help from people who believed in me.

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‘I guess I still don’t know if I will make it but I’m happy for the next few years to be working with Viva.’

Frank started working with Viva in 2016 as a guest conductor and on an educational project. The natural affinity between Frank and Sinfonia Viva led to his appointment as principal conductor when the job became vacant at the start of the year.

Frank Zielhorst Photo: Chris Webb

Frank Zielhorst Photo: Chris Webb - Credit: Archant

He said: ‘I like the orchestra very much and they seem to like me, so we decided to make the partnership official. It’s quite a broad role and as well as being the principal conductor I’m also the artistic leader – which means I’m involved with the programming of the concerts and developing the orchestra in terms of improving its individual qualities and also looking at where we play. We are based in Derby but we are the orchestra for the East Midlands, so we want to perform in Nottingham and Leicester and we are exploring different options throughout the area. That means talking to venues and promoters about concerts and educational projects.’

And although he hasn’t been able to spend too much time in Derby so far, that will change as his new role develops. ‘Derby is a lovely city. The cathedral is a wonderful place to perform with such a beautiful acoustic and a great atmosphere. In the coming months we will also perform more at the Guildhall, which is a nice intimate space and also has a wonderful acoustic. The audiences are very warm and I already feel that there is a good connection and that I’m very welcome.

‘In terms of programming, I want there to be always something unknown or surprising in the concerts. It might be a forgotten piece from the Romantic period or something composed recently but it will always sit with other more familiar pieces in the programme. For me, it’s like a chef creating a menu. I want an interesting balanced diet for the audience.

‘The first job is always to convince the orchestra and make sure they know which style is required and understand my vision of the programme and how the pieces are related to each other. Once the orchestra has given me a huge vote of confidence it’s then important we take the audience along with this programming. I try to introduce the pieces and use the programme notes to make sure the audience understands what we are doing.’

In October, Sinfonia Viva will be at the Guildhall taking part in the annual Derby Folk Festival and then Frank will be conducting the Italian Symphony at the Cathedral.

Viva’s leader Benedict Holland will take control of the Viva musicians on 5th October in the Guildhall.

Frank said: ‘There are a lot of classical pieces based on folk music and I’m really excited that it will feature Arutiunian’s Violin Concerto which is based on Armenian folk tunes.’

The Cathedral concert is on 17th October. Frank says: ‘The Italian Symphony is the most joyous and most baroque symphony that Mendelssohn wrote. The last movement is a wonderful tarantella. We have four different flavours in the programme which complement and intensify each other.’

Frank may now be settling into life with Viva, but he says he will still be nervous when he steps out in front of the Derby audience. ‘The nerves are always there. It’s part of getting the adrenaline going. Every musician and performer has their own ritual before a show to get in the right mood to perform that piece of art. The way I think about the start of each performance is that it’s already part of the concert. It doesn’t always have to start with the orchestra tuning up, me coming on stage and taking a bow.’

And what is it that he loves about conducting?

‘It’s all the colours that are present in an orchestra – different sounds from different combinations of instruments. An orchestra is such a wonderful organism. My philosophy as a conductor is to make music together with everyone. As a violinist I always preferred to make chamber music rather than play on my own and as a conductor I want to be part of the orchestra’s breathing, not be at the helm and say, “this is how we do it.” That works well with Viva as it’s an orchestra that can perform perfectly well without a conductor but still loves to make music with me – that makes us a perfect match. It’s a band with fantastic individual qualities – great music making – and it’s a joy to be working with everyone.

‘One of the qualities I like about Sinfonia Viva is the sense that there is chamber music on stage, people really play together and make something happen with each other rather than just looking at me for guidance – and that inspires me enormously.’

Frank hopes that he and the orchestra can grow together artistically, ‘I would hope to perform more often,’ he says. ‘At the moment it’s eight symphonic concerts a year plus very important work in classrooms and in communities. I would like to develop the number of concerts we give, both conducted and unconducted, and develop the artistic quality of the orchestra. It’s going to be exciting.’