Alfonso Leal del Ojo: “Directing an orchestra is a difficult task”

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Alfonso Leal del Ojo, of the English Concert, traces his career so far, as well as the challenges he faces in his current dual role as orchestra general manager and performer.

Growing up, my family background did not point to an inevitable career in classical music. My dad was the only person moderately interested in classical music, and it certainly wasn’t something you heard around the house. The real change came with Spain’s massive investment in music education in the 80s and 90s. Suddenly local conservatories were popping up everywhere and music education was accessible to everyone. I showed talent, took it seriously and made the most of the opportunities that came my way. Now you find musicians of Spanish origin like me in the most prestigious orchestras in the world. It is a stark contrast to the current path in the UK, which sees the erosion of the very infrastructure meant to enrich and feed our children.

Success as a performer in the music world is a mix of talent (of course), a positive collegiate attitude (who wants to tour with a difficult person?) and a bit of luck! I had all three and soon found myself working with many period instrument bands in London and Europe. When I was named first viola of The English concert in my late twenties, I felt incredibly proud. Who would have guessed that I would be part of the team that made all those recordings that I admired when I was a child in Seville? It was an honor and a privilege, but a nagging thought at the back of my mind crept into ‘did I peak a little too soon?’.

I’ve always had an incorrigible desire to know how things work. This, combined with a healthy dose of stubbornness, meant that getting involved in arts management was only a matter of time. One of the ensembles I was working with at the time, the Irish Baroque Orchestra, was going through a bad patch, and no manager would touch it. The risk of failure was high. I had no management career to kill and I loved the band, so I applied for the position of general manager and managed to turn things around through hard work and perseverance. I was so proud of them for their recent Olivier Prize win for Outstanding Achievement in Opera.

I then spent ten glorious years nurturing the Consort of Dunedin and take them to the international stage. There was a real sense of adventure, and while there were understandably tough times, my knowledge of repertoire, musicians and backers made it easy for me.

I have been with The English concert as GM since 2019, and my stubborn temper has served me well through the pandemic years, although I’m not sure my partner and family agree. I was determined not to remain inactive. The English Concert under the Founder Trevor Pinnock was one of the most recorded vintage instrument ensembles, but I wanted to reinvigorate our production. Harry Bickettour artistic director, has a strong affinity with Handel’s music and we had toured his operas and oratorios around the world, so it seemed natural to chart a course that would allow us to capture these performances.

After the success of our first recording with Linn records, Rodelindawe couldn’t wait to shoot and record Tamerlane, but Covid-19 meant that the international cast we had assembled could not travel to our home. We had to change course, and after a few phone calls and emails, we found ourselves recording The resurrection to Sage Gateshead with vital support from Thorben Dittes and Abigail Pogson. After the challenges of the past two years, he feels so fit to release a piece of music that talks about resurrection. The music is powerful and its message is as relevant today as it was in the 18and A century in which 23-year-old Handel explored and pushed the boundaries that would define him as one of the greatest composers of his time.

I’m not going to lie, leading an orchestra is hard work and wearing two hats can be exhausting at times. Right before a concert, I can be at a reception greeting our supporters and the next minute running backstage to change into concert gear. Inevitably, I also have more control than many of my colleagues in the orchestra. I’d like to think they trust me – I’ve gone the extra mile to make sure I’m available to them – but I’m very aware that they don’t like some of the decisions I make. Although we don’t always agree, I think they understand that I have their best interest at heart.

So what’s next? Our Handel ambitions continue with an upcoming Handel tour and recording Tight. We’ve assembled an amazing cast led by the incredible Canadian-Italian mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo and soon after we start rehearsals for our Garsington residency and other summer festivals. If there’s one thing I think my dual role brings, it’s a real pride in the work we present and I look forward to sharing it with our audience over the next few months.

You can find out more about The English Concert here.

You can find out more about The English Concert’s latest album, The resurrection here.

Handel Tight visits to:

  • London – 5and of may
  • New York – 8and of may
  • Pamplona – 20and of may
  • Newcastle- 25and of may

The English gig appears at Garsington Opera House, Buxton Festival, Cheltenham Day and Edinburgh International Festival this summer.

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