Tom Hammond talks to Robert Beattie

Tom Hammond (c) Gareth Barton

Tom Hammond is a London-based conductor, recording producer, and Festival Director. As well as being  Music Director/Principal Conductor of the Finchley, Hertford and St Albans Symphony Orchestras, Tom also directs youth orchestras in Hatfield and Watford, and is a Guest Conductor for the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, Palestine, and in this country with the Orchestra of the Swan, which is based in Stratford-upon-Avon. Tom is a founding Artistic Director of the Hertfordshire Festival of Music, an annual summer celebration of classical music held in various venues in Hertfordshire which celebrates its fifth consecutive year in 2020. He has collaborated with many leading artists, including Stephen Hough, Steven Isserlis, Ray Chen, Emma Johnson, Robert Murray, Matthew Sharp, and Ben Goldscheider. I spoke to him about his career to date, forthcoming concerts, his work championing contemporary composers, some of whose works will feature on a new CD scheduled for release next month, and the wide-ranging activities which go on in the Hertfordshire Festival of Music.

Robert Beattie: Can you tell us about your musical background?

Tom Hammond: I studied trombone at the Royal Academy of Music and subsequently worked as a trombone player for 10 years. I always had a strong interest in conducting and when a new conducting fellowship came up at Trinity Laban, I applied for it and got the position. I have spent 12 years conducting so I’ve spent longer working as a conductor than a brass player. I gained good experience of the conducting approaches which work well with orchestral players when I worked as a trombone player. There are more brass players conducting nowadays than there used to be (in the past, conductors tended to be pianists or string players).

RB: Who were the greatest influences on you as a conductor?

TH: Charles Mackerras appointed me to the fellowship in his name at Trinity Laban (I was the first to take this position) and he mentored me for two years. Sir Charles always said that he couldn’t ‘teach’ conducting, so I didn’t stand in a room and have him comment on my hand gestures in the traditional way conductors are sometimes taught. Instead, we met at his home and talked for many hours with scores in hand, and I would also attend rehearsals and recordings when he was in London, and absorbed lots from him in that way. I could take any repertoire to him and he would have insights on the latest research into the composers and works, also plenty of practical suggestions based on his experience. I noted these things in my score, and put ‘SCM’ next to them to remember the source of the advice.

RB: Sir Charles Mackerras became particularly associated with Czech music. Are you also drawn to Czech composers? 

TH: I absolutely love the music of Dvořák, and have conducted most of his major works. Janáček is a composer who hugely excites me, although because his output is largely operatic and/or for huge forces and really difficult to play, I haven’t yet performed anywhere near as much as I would like. I’m hoping to change that! Mackerras was the individual who introduced Janáček to the world outside of the Czech Republic, and quite simply was the master interpreter of his music. Indeed, his advocacy for Czech composers was such that when he passed away in 2010, the headline in the newspapers there was that ‘The last great Czech conductor has died’. Sir Charles was actually Australian.

As well his forensic research and academic approach to music, Sir Charles had that amazing ability to find the ‘sweet spot’ for tempi, and his interpretations were never in the slightest bit boring! I was reminded of this recently when conducting Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations which I initially find a relatively mundane piece, but Mackerras’s recording (with the London Philharmonic Orchestra) brings such excitement and dynamism to it.

RB: You have increasingly become associated with the music of Sibelius and you will shortly be conducting a concert of his music with the Orchestra of the Swan. What draws you to the music of Sibelius and can you tell us about the programme for your forthcoming concert?

TH: I think I’m drawn to Sibelius because his music takes me so far away from our real world. As soon as I hear a note I’m drawn into his world, which is often inspired by nature (such as the finale of Fifth Symphony) or depicts stories from the Kalevala, the Finnish national mythology (for example the Swan of Tuonela, or Pohjola’s Daughter). He can also be deeply, deeply introspective in a way that appeals to that side of my nature (Symphony No.4, the second of his Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra and the magical tone poem The Bard). In a period when European music was becoming dominated by the Second Viennese School and composers such as Mahler, who were expanding both the size of orchestras and the duration of symphonies, Sibelius was still finding beauty in the ‘conventional’ world of diatonic, tonal music, and new colours from the Late Romantic size of orchestra. Symphony No.7 is a perfect example of this; not huge forces (no percussion, no harp, not even a tuba), only twenty or so minutes long, and mostly in C major. It’s not like anything else, despite using what would have been an utterly restrictive palette to many without his genius.

The concert will be in the Playhouse in Stratford-upon-Avon on 21 January. We will be performing a mixture of the composer’s more popular works such as the Swan of Tuonela and Valse Triste, together with lesser-known works, including a selection from the incidental music to The Tempest and the six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra. Tasmin Waley-Cohen is the soloist in the Humoresques, which in my view deserve to be much better known. They are highly virtuosic and in many ways more demanding than his famous Violin Concerto (I also think they are much better, which is quite a controversial thing to say to violinists!). There is a wonderful feeling of tranquility about these pieces, and to me they feel deeply connected to nature.

RB: Which other composers would you say you have an affinity with?

TH: I am drawn to a wide variety of composers across a spectrum of different styles and periods. Like many conductors, I love the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven ‘first’. As far as the Romantic period goes, I have a real love for Dvořák’s music and would go as far as saying his music is as important as that of Mozart. I have conducted a wide range of 20th-century music and I am particularly drawn to Poulenc, Ravel, Janáček and Stravinsky. I also like to champion contemporary music, and the three composers who have been most important to me to date are Matthew Taylor, Bernard Hughes and James Frances Brown.

RB: How you would describe the music of these three contemporary composers and what draws you to them?

TH: Bernard Hughes has a chameleon-like quality that is in the same mould as Stravinsky. Some of his works will be appearing on a new CD of world premiere recordings, released by Orchid Classics in February, on which I’m conducting the Orchestra of the Swan, and narrated by Alexander Armstrong (of the BBC’s Pointless quiz show fame). In addition to Bernard’s music, the CD will feature music by John Ireland, Judith Weir’s Thread (inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry) and Malcolm Arnold’s Toy Symphony. [RB.  Can you say a bit more about these pieces?]

Matthew Taylor is very much a symphonic composer. He was great friends with the composer, writer and broadcaster Robert Simpson, and is strongly influenced by Carl Nielsen and Malcolm Arnold, amongst others. There is a Beethovenian quality about his music in that it is often driven and muscular while maintaining a rich humanity, and a sense of humour that’s hard to find in contemporary music. He writes brilliantly for any instrument, developing a deep understanding of how they work and performers always enjoy playing what he writes, which is a rare skill at this time in music

James Francis Brown’s music is conventionally tonal and melodic, while at the same time being highly imaginative and influenced by landscapes and nature. He takes me into a similar imaginative space as Sibelius, and I think is one of the most important voices of our day. He hasn’t written as much as I would like, but I think that will change in the near future.

RB: I’m a huge admirer of Nielsen’s symphonies so I will be investigating Matthew Taylor and the other composer whom you mention. In addition to your work as a conductor you are also the co- founder and co- Artistic Director of the Hertfordshire Festival of Music. Can you tell us about how the idea for the Festival about and what music will feature at next year’s Festival?

TH: Hertford itself is an historic town and, in spite of being only 29 miles from central London, it feels very much like you’ve left the city behind; it is surrounded by lovely countryside. Hertford, and indeed Hertfordshire, is exceptionally rich in musical activity, with a plethora of choirs, orchestras, music clubs and so forth. However, until James [Francis Brown] and I started HFoM, it didn’t have a ‘concentrated’ Festival of classical music, and one to which we hope to draw people from outside of the county to attend. 2020 will be the fifth year of HFoM, and takes place in June so that (hopefully!) our audiences can enjoy the pleasures of the county in the sunshine, and leave concerts still in daylight. We try to make it as ‘customer friendly’ as possible, for example starting some performances earlier so that people have time to eat and relax afterwards. The concerts are all at international standard and so far we have featured leading artists such as Tasmin Little, Emma Kirkby, Stephen Hough and Steven Isserlis.

RB:  What activities will feature at this year’s Festival?

TH: The Festival will last for just over week and will feature a series of events in Hertford, Potters Bar, Hemel Hempstead and Hitchin, concluding with a concert in St Albans. Chloë Hanslip will be performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Hertford as part of an orchestral concert, and a recital with pianist Danny Driver at Queenswood School, where she will also give a Masterclass.

In addition to the concerts, the Festival promotes outreach and education work. In 2020 and 2021 we are planning to focus on work with people living with dementia, with specially trained members of the Orchestra of the Swan visiting care homes and dementia ‘cafés’ to make music with the residents and their families. Playing music for people with dementia can have incredibly effects on mood and memory for people with dementia, and it is seen by the Alzheimer’s Society and others as a positive intervention. Music reaches into parts of the memory in a way that words alone cannot.

RB: Chloë Hanslip is a terrific player – I heard her giving a superb performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto at the Cadogan Hall in London. Your work with music and dementia sounds very interesting and worthwhile. What projects have you planned for the future?

TH: I will be taking part in the Malcolm Arnold centenary celebrations in 2021 by programming as much as possible in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. Malcolm is often known for his lighter music and film scores, but his more ‘serious’ works are also worth getting to know. I have been fortunate to get to know members of his family and those who knew him well when he was alive, and as a result have been inspired to explore his symphonic music in particular. I hope there will be opportunities to play these works to a wider audience, they are simply amazing.

RB: I am a fan of Malcolm Arnold myself so I look forward to hearing more of his music. Thank you very much for talking to us.

Robert Beattie

Intimate Voices with Orchestra of the Swan and Tamsin Waley-Cohen, conducted by Tom Hammond, is on 21 January at the Playhouse, Stratford-upon-Avon. Further information and tickets click here.

Leave a Comment