Christopher Morley talks to conductor and composer Richard Baker as he prepares for a new season.
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group launches its new season on Sunday, and local lad Richard Baker will be conducting an absorbing programme featuring some of the most internationally renowned composers today – Simon Holt (including a world premiere), Rolf Hind and Helmut Lachenmann.
Soloists in the concert will be Rolf Hind himself (piano) and soprano Sarah Leonard.
Baker the conductor was born in Dudley, “into a large, typically warm and close-knit Black Country family from Upper Gornal,” as he tells me.
“My parents moved to North Staffordshire when I was 11, but I spent the first years of my life in Gornal, and my extended family all still live in the area. I think I made my solo performing debut in Upper Gornal Pentecostal Church, in fact.”
Later, Baker became a chorister at Lichfield Cathedral (in the same way that his near-contemporary, CBSO principal guest conductor Edward Gardner was a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral).
“Nobody in my immediate family was musical, but a couple of my primary school teachers spotted that I had a good singing voice, and told the local choirmaster about me,” he said.
“I sang in the parish church choir for a couple of years, and he encouraged my parents to enter me for the voice trials at Lichfield. I think they were very wary. It was another world for them – but I was successful and got a scholarship.
“Being a chorister is an amazing musical education. Kids at that age can learn really advanced musical skills without even realising it. If it hadn’t been for this, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be talking to you now.”
Baker is equally active as a composer as well as a conductor. Is he an instrumentalist, and still keeping up his singing?
‘‘I started composing almost as soon as I could play piano and read music – it seemed completely normal to me, to want to ‘make’ pieces, not just sing or play them,” he says.
“I was an oboist and percussionist later also – playing in youth orchestras is a great training for a conductor, although I rarely play now.
“But conducting is something I’ve always done, first in performances of my own pieces, with groups of friends, and later with fellow students in repertoire that we particularly wanted to hear.”
Baker has been associated with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for almost a decade, originally in quite intricate ways.
“I assisted Thomas Adès on Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit for the Aldeburgh Festival and Almeida Opera in 2002 and conducted the final performance with BCMG in the pit,” he says. “After that, I did quite a few small things – taking rehearsals for Oliver Knussen and Sakari Oramo when their schedules were complicated, for example. Also, because I’m both a composer and a conductor, I’ve often been asked to lead student workshops with the group.”
Then came an opportunity for Baker to jump in at the deep end.
He says: “Yes – my big break came when someone pulled out of a terrifyingly complex programme with only a few days notice. I think by then I’d earned a reputation for being a fast learner, so the phone rang.
“None of the pieces was in my repertoire – I’d stay up late into the night learning scores, and just existed on caffeine and adrenaline for a week. But it went surprisingly well, the ensemble were amazingly supportive and pulled together for me.
“I’ve been working pretty regularly with BCMG since, including writing and conducting a piece to celebrate Pierre Boulez’s visit in 2008. That was pretty nerve-wracking – he’s such a remarkable musician – but he was really kind and complimentary.”
Baker as a composer has a commission in the pipeline for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group to premiere during their 2012/13 season.
“The idea behind the piece is something that’s been gnawing away at me for a very long time – which is pretty normal for me,” says Baker.
“Often, it’s a case of waiting for the right opportunity to realise an idea that’s been at the back of one’s mind for literally years. I won’t say too much now as I’ve only just started writing, and anything could happen.
“But I’m incorporating live electronics for the first time, which is very exciting for me.
“It’s always a pleasure to work with BCMG in front of their fiercely loyal and supportive audience, or on one of their fantastic rural tours, such as playing Tristan Murail in the wilds of Shropshire. There’s an atmosphere here that’s unlike anywhere else. Long may it continue.”
* Richard Baker conducts Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at the CBSO Centre, Berkley Street on Sunday, October 10 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.