Ambitious Birmingham musician James Ham talks to Christopher Morley about his desires to be a full-time conductor.
James Ham is a young conductor of immense enterprise as he follows his dream.
The 27-year-old University of Birmingham graduate already has a huge portfolio of achievements, including undergoing conducting tuition at the world-renowned St Petersburg Conservatoire.
“There are a number of reasons why I went there,” James explains.
“It’s a great course, with a proven history of producing great conductors. And more importantly, you get a lot of practical experience, with the orchestra every week, and lessons with our professor.
“And it was a chance to experience another culture, which I think is quite important, one that has contributed quite enormously to western classical music in the last 150 years. Also on the personal level it’s been nice to live abroad, and to grow and develop as a human being.”
How has James been able to subsidise these studies?
“Firstly, when I graduated from Birmingham University I was working for two or three years, teaching there and at Birmingham Junior Conservatoire.
"And the point about St Petersburg is that the cost of living is quite a lot less than it is here. So firstly the fees, and then I live in student accommodation which is very, very cheap, so that helps.”
James’s first conducting teacher was Denise Ham, which prompts the obvious question, was his mother then his first conducting teacher?
“No, no, that’s just coincidence so far as the name goes! Denise Ham – we just happen to share the same surname.
"I was a pupil of the Junior Conservatoire, and she conducted the orchestra. So when I became interested in conducting I started to get tuition from her. She was then teaching at the Royal Academy of Music in London as well.
“She studied with George Hurst, himself a great conductor but also a big figure in terms of conducting-teaching in this country, and she was also a cellist and pianist.”
James, whose mother comes from Hong Kong and whose father is English-born of Chinese descent, went to grammar school in Rugby and had private musical tuition, first on piano and then flute, an instrument on which he has won several accolades, including reaching the Midlands final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.
He pays tribute to the support of his parents as he works on his conducting ambitions and said he was fortunate to get through university and a Master’s degree without facing huge fees.
The Master’s degree was a very interesting project, James explains. It focused on late Beethoven and the cultural and philosophical trends current at the period, exploring the German word “Ruhe” (a particular kind of peace). “It’s quite difficult to translate,” he adds.
James has no plans to go back into teaching, but he certainly has his heart set on becoming a full-time conductor. As part of his aim, James has formed the Apollo Sinfonia, an orchestra of highly-talented young adults which has already given several concerts to great acclaim.
“It started three years ago, and it was essentially myself and friends from Birmingham University and Birmingham Conservatoire.
“Since then it’s grown a bit, so now we have musicians who are not only connected with the Conservatoire and the university, but from other colleges elsewhere, and who come up for the weekend, it’s very good of them to do that.
"They’re able to stay with friends they have still in Birmingham, and they help each other out. It’s a very nice atmosphere!”
There is a huge number of orchestras similar to the Apollo Sinfonia proliferating in the Birmingham area, and I ask James if there is room for all of them.
“I think in Birmingham, yes. I don’t think there are as many here as there are in London, where it’s very fiercely competitive. I can’t speak for the others, but in our terms we try to offer a high standard of playing, focussing on mainly giving a platform for young musicians, to promote them to a local audience, and trying to keep the price of tickets down, as these are charity concerts.”
Apollo Sinfonia performs in aid of charity Cure Parkinson's Trust.
“We’d been looking to work with a charity,” James explains. “My brother wrote an article in his school magazine as an alumnus of the school; it was read by the managing director of Cure Parkinsons, who happened to be a former pupil of the same school, and one day a phone call came through, and it just went on from there.
"Of course, they are helping to promote the event, and I think it’s a good situation for both of us. They get extra funding, and we get the extra promotion they offer. And it’s good that the young musicians are helping.”
* The Apollo Sinfonia performs Sibelius, Grieg and Tchaikovsky at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham on Sunday, September 18 (7pm). Details on 01923 264 976.