Anneka Sutcliffe, leader of the Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra interviews Tianyi Lu, newly appointed maestro

When Tianyi Lu came to audition with the Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra, we realised instantly how lucky we were, that this extraordinary young woman wanted to bring her musical skill and vivacious energy to Bristol. We needed someone who could retain our high standards and strong reputation as one of the top amateur orchestras in the city, but we also needed a warm personality who could encourage, inspire and unite us after a time of change. Just that half-hour audition not only advanced us musically but elevated our spirits and stunned everyone in the room. The deciding vote was unanimous.

The idea of females being welcomed to the conductor’s podium is highly topical and still somewhat controversial. A 2014 Bachtrack survey found that in a list of 150 top conductors in the world, only five were women, while last year saw the first ever female conductor to perform at the Proms – the first in 118 years – and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra hit the press with the appointment of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – the only female conductor of a professional orchestra in the UK.

Tianyi LuImage © Anthony Potts

Recently, we have seen streets full of millions of women protesting in the name of equality all over the world and many onlookers have been baffled at their apparent plight in the 21st century. The fact is that despite progress being made in so many areas of public life, full gender equality is still a long way from being attained.

Outdated prejudices are still rife. In 2013, Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko was reported to have said orchestras ‘react better when they have a man in front of them’ and ‘a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.’ This memorable statement has potentially blighted women wishing to pursue a career in conducting. 

Tianyi LuOrchestra percussionist Harriet Riley – image © Roy Campbell-Moore

Perhaps he chose his words badly: orchestras may well react differently when they have a woman in front of them. What if a woman could bring qualities to the role that interpret the music in a way never expressed before? Is that not exactly what classical music needs as we see its funding cut and audience numbers dwindling? A fresh approach that connects people to deep emotions in the great composers’ minds?

This is exactly what Tianyi has been hailed for: her “charm, power and intensity allow her to highlight new elements in the works she performs,” says composer and conductor Ben Lunn. “For a composer to have such a champion is just such a thrill…”

The role of a successful conductor requires not only musical knowledge and experience, but a confident command of a large group of people; the ability to inspire and entertain while conveying the composer’s intention. Advanced communication skills are key: one must be transparent in emotion of every musical phrase and have the ability to form and nurture a trusting relationship with the orchestra. The conductor is an actor and a dancer, taking centre-stage without making a sound, exposing themselves completely. While Tianyi was reluctant for this article to focus on her femininity – she talks deeply of many qualities required in conducting that are remarkable for any person to successfully uphold, man or woman – it’s important to spotlight the issue. Maybe one day we won’t even think of a woman in her role as a ‘female conductor’ – just as an inspiringly brilliant personality, musician and leader…

AS: Tianyi, when did you first know you wanted to conduct?

TL: I was in my second year at the University of Auckland, studying composition. Before then it never even occurred to me that conducting was an option. My teacher suggested that I conduct my own piece I had written for orchestra. I was so shocked! There were no female role models, I had no idea what to do. I just waved my arms around. But it felt like flying, I was like a fish thrown into water for the first time.

Tianyi LuImage © Anthony Potts

And from then on…?

No, even after that day I still gave no thought whatsoever to a career in conducting. It just wasn’t a path that seemed available. I jumped at an opportunity to attend a beginner’s class and the tutor, Eckhardt Stier, picked me out and said “You are not a beginner!” And he offered me free private lessons. When he said that I could do this as a career, my heart blossomed – it was like falling in love. I loved working with the incredible colour of the orchestra and seeing musicians achieve their potential.

“I wasn’t going to be a typical, white male, tyrannical conductor. I wanted to do it in a humble, positive, nurturing way…”

What is conducting all about, for you?

The most important thing I learnt was from John Hopkins. He taught me about humility; it’s not about me, I’m a servant of the music and the musicians. As soon as you make it about yourself, that’s when you become nervous. I’m there to help the musicians to perform the best they possibly can. He had a calm energy but intensely blue eyes which he would fix on mine, and he would say; “conducting is all about the eyes!” John helped me realise that I wasn’t going to be a typical, white male, tyrannical conductor. I wanted to do it in a humble, positive, nurturing way. He had taught me that I could reinvent the role and make it my own.

Tianyi LuImage © Anthony Potts

I’m reminded of a beautiful moment in rehearsal where you said; “When we make a mistake, instead of being grumpy with ourselves, say ‘how fascinating!’” Your forward-focused positive attitude is so infectious – how did you find this drive?

For me, the enjoyment in life itself is working really hard to be good at something and constantly challenging yourself to be better – never stopping, never settling for what you can do now. It’s the most satisfying and rewarding thing. I feel lucky I’m working in a role that challenges me in so many ways. Physically, dealing with your arms and how they move, how your whole body moves. Mentally, dealing with music of incredible complexity. Psychologically and emotionally, dealing with musicians and being respectful of all their own things going on in their lives. You have to be a leader. Personally you’re dealing with your own insecurities, limitations, fears about your own future or ability in the moment. You’re naked on the podium even when you don’t feel brave. You have to be mentally prepared and the nature of music itself is unpredictable and difficult to plan ahead for. 

“My teacher suggested that I conduct my own piece I had written for orchestra. I was so shocked! There were no female role models, I had no idea what to do.”

How do you deal with the feeling of exposure?

It’s about how well you know the music and forgiving yourself for not being perfect – at this stage, this is what you know. You will know way more in 10 years’ time, even in a month’s time. The challenge of any career or endeavour: being able to be at peace with where you are and yet still have the desire to grow. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. You can be very content and not want to improve, or very ambitious and therefore unhappy with what you do – a struggle a lot of artists go through.

Tianyi Lu conducting the RWCMD Conductor’s Orchestra in 2015

A lot of performers feel low after a performance because it wasn’t perfect. But I’m always happy. Benjamin Zander said: “There is no great music making without risk-taking.” Risk-taking naturally implies there will be imperfections. Every single time you do something it will be different, which is why the world is so beautiful – not a single leaf is the same as another leaf yet they could both be perfect. Humans are not perfect. The nature of the human condition is not perfect. I’m the sort of conductor that focuses on bringing the message of the human condition to people. I want to give a true story and I believe truth is not perfect. When I’m conducting, I try to convey a message of humanity through the composer and what they were trying to achieve. If I can get that then it’s a success.

“I’m the sort of conductor that focuses on bringing the message of the human condition to people. I want to give a true story and I believe truth is not perfect…”

How do you do that!?

Allowing the music to move you, asking the right questions – I’m still learning! Music making is an act of compassion. Any art is allowing people to get outside themselves and realise they’re not alone. The act of live music making requires performers, an audience, composer – there are complicated relationships at work. You’re a small part of something very big. I study these pieces and they are so incredible. I’m very small in the face of it all, very humbled. 

Why did you apply to conduct an orchestra in Bristol?

I know how competitive I can be. I’m a workaholic – in Melbourne I wouldn’t allow myself time to do anything other than music. Cooking was the only thing I’d allow myself to do – it was my relaxation. I knew if I lived in London I’d go nuts. I need to be somewhere I can calm down and have space to breathe.

How’s it feel to be part of this changing time for female conductors?

It’s exciting we’re seeing more female conductors – the stats have been appalling. People are more aware and open to it and, in some cases, actively seeking females now. I’m all for being an ambassador but at the end of the day, you have to be good at what you do so I try not to think about it. You can also victimise yourself. In terms of my own mind, I can think; ‘It’s because I’m a woman that I didn’t get in’ and instead I should focus on how I can improve. If anything, I think of it as an advantage – maybe we can channel compassion but I think it’s hard to say if we can bring something more or different.

“We’re all on a spectrum – there are masculine women and feminine men…”

We’re all on a spectrum – there are masculine women and feminine men. I try to avoid those terms. If we’re talking about the traditional ideas of what masculinity can be, it’s not the sort of leadership that empowers people. For me, as Ben Zander says, a conductor’s power lies in making other people powerful.

• See Tianyi Lu in action on 11 March at St George’s with the Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra, conducting Brahms’ 1st Symphony, Beethoven’s Corolian Overture and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, or visit tianyi-lu.com; bristolmetropolitanorchestra.com