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Birmingham conductor right at home in Parma

Former CBSO assistant conductor Alpesh Chauhan is enjoying the delights of being at the helm of an Italian orchestra... including the Parma ham and prosecco!

Alpesh Chauhan

It’s a foggy November night in the Italian city of Parma and the Auditorium Paganini – home of the city’s orchestra, the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini – is buzzing.

The concert hall is a towering glass box, slotted inside the yellow walls of a disused sugar factory by Italy’s superstar architect Renzo Piano – the man who designed the Shard in London.

But the conductor who silences the crowd with the opening onslaught of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem is a Brummie: Alpesh Chauhan, an alumnus of Handsworth Grammar School and since the start of the 2017-18 season, principal conductor of this very Italian orchestra.

How Italian? Well put it this way: the post-concert party serves whole wheels of parmesan cheese, chilled prosecco and Parma ham, sliced before your eyes. I could get used to this, and Chauhan already has.

“You’ve got to try the ham,” he enthuses. “It’s culatello, the real prime cut; they don’t export it to England. It’s so beautiful; really sweet”.

You get the distinct sense that, at 27, he’s fallen on his feet – and of course he’s not the first Englishman to enjoy la dolce vita. But that’s to overlook what we’ve just experienced: an orchestra playing to the very limits of its powers in the Sinfonia da Requiem, followed by a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem that’s unlike any I’ve heard before.

Part of that’s down to the sound of the Parma orchestra. There’s an edge to their sound, as well as a sweetness; and each player shapes their melodies as if they’re singing. The chorus – borrowed from the opera house in nearby Piacenza (imagine a city the size of Worcester having year-round opera) – charges the words of the Requiem with fiery intensity. And at the front, in his unshowy way, Chauhan is shaping their response: moving it forward, building Brahms’s long, soaring phrases into something bigger than the sum of their parts.

We’re a long way from Brum. But at the same time, we’re not so far at all. Chauhan was the CBSO’s assistant conductor from 2014 to 2016, and he’s still a regular at Symphony Hall (he conducted the CBSO Benevolent Fund concert this October).

It’s barely more than a decade since he first held a baton in earnest – in Lucy Akehurst’s Bournville String Orchestra, and shortly afterwards under the mentorship of Michael Seal in the CBSO Youth Orchestra. And it was just a decade earlier that he discovered classical music, when he saw his future teacher Veronica Raven demonstrating the cello in an assembly at Hall Green Primary School.

“That same day I went home with a cello,” he recalls. “Something just clicked for me. My parents saw that straight away, and they said ‘OK, if you want to do this, why not?’. Western classical music wasn’t part of our life at home then, but there was always Bollywood music going on, which is so orchestral that the leap from that to Tchaikovsky and Puccini was actually quite small.

“It’s all so heart-on-sleeve. A teacher at my secondary school let me have some old orchestral scores, and I started looking at them and thinking ‘wow, OK: what’s going on here?’”

And so he took his first steps onto the conductor’s podium – first with the Birmingham Schools Symphony Orchestra, later at the Royal Northern College of Music, and then with the CBSO. Birmingham has always looked after local talent. But what happened next seems to have taken everyone by surprise. Called into Parma at the last minute in 2015 after another conductor cancelled, once again something seems to have just clicked. “He was amazing, really amazing” says Rosetta Cucchi, the artistic director of the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, and Chauhan’s new boss. “Parma is a welcoming town, especially for someone like Alpesh, who is curious. He loves wine, he loves food, and he can take musicians out for dinner and be friends. But when they are in rehearsal there is no question: he is the maestro.”

The local critics are already impressed: one review hails this “fantastic English maestro…born to conduct”.

Like any Birmingham musician, Chauhan knows just how much an orchestra can do for a city. But he’s worked hard to get this far: and he’s about to work a lot harder. “It’s the first time a local critic has actually called the orchestra ‘our orchestra’. That was incredibly heart-warming for me: the city’s falling in love with their orchestra, they’re taking ownership. So we don’t sit back and relax: we go on from there, to the next level. And we’re really ready to go!”

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