Tom Hammond was the first recipient of the Sir Charles Mackerras Junior Fellowship in Conducting at Trinity Laban Conservatoire (2006-08). Ten years on, Graduate Intern (Press & PR) Robyn met with Tom to hear his thoughts on his training, the music profession, and his career.
Tom is enjoying success as an orchestral conductor, music educator, record producer and festival founder, and yet couldn’t be further from the Lofty Maestro caricature I was anticipating. As we chat over Styrofoam cups of coffee in the King Charles’ Court café, he explains how, despite his achievements, he doesn’t subscribe to the Cult of Personality that trails certain individuals in the conducting profession. Instead, Tom believes his job is simply to serve the music.
‘It’s a horrible cliché but it’s true!’ he justifies, ‘The greatest conductors are the ones who actually take a step back.’ One such great is, of course, the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who selected Tom for Trinity Laban’s inaugural Junior Fellowship in Conducting. ‘There he was in his eighties,’ Tom recalls with admiration, ‘but still thinking “every single time I come to something I’m going to approach it like it’s the first time and it’s going to be fresh.”’
Tom expresses how much he learned from his fellowship at Trinity Laban, and clearly enjoyed a wonderful relationship with his mentor – he even had the honour of being the first call Mackerras ever made on a mobile phone, an anecdote Tom shares with a fond chuckle – but Tom didn’t always know how prestigious an opportunity working with Mackerras was. ‘To my shame, I didn’t really know that much about him before…I probably would’ve been incredibly nervous if I had known enough about the incredible breadth of his achievements.’
Perhaps this naivety was due to growing up in the midlands in a place where ‘there wasn’t a huge amount of music going on’. But, as the proverbial black sheep in his non-musical family, Tom went on to study trombone at the Royal Academy of Music. He had an interest in the conducting world throughout his playing career, and only in his early thirties did he hear about the Mackerras fellowship and chose to pursue conducting professionally.
Plagued by ‘terrible imposter syndrome’, Tom worried that he didn’t have a good enough ear to be a conductor, so used the fellowship to improve his skills. Simon Young, Trinity Laban’s Head of Performance Studies at the time, helped him ‘uncover something about myself that I thought I was missing. And now I’m doing CD producing which involves listening to tiny inflections of intonation or ensemble.’
I ask how his producing experience compares to conducting. ‘You’ve got this little barrier when you’re conducting – you have to be driving the car not watching the scenery. It’s amazing what you will hear when you don’t have the distraction of waving your arms.’ Another difference is that he’s not fussy about repertoire as a producer, something that he is zealous about as a conductor, ‘I don’t think anyone should conduct a piece of music they’re not personally convinced is amazing.’
Tom is clearly bonkers for classical music, his eyes shining with childlike delight as he discusses his work. One project he is particularly proud of is the Hertfordshire Festival of Music that he launched in 2015 with composer James Francis Brown. Tom insists that he wasn’t looking to start a high-level classical music festival, but with its picturesque location, cultural history, and core loyal music audience, Hertford seemed too perfect to resist. Originally just a one-day event, it has expanded into an entire week for 2018 and has been backed by local politicians, authority, and individuals. ‘What we want to grow is a really major addition to the music calendar every year and a place where we can nurture new music, home-grown talent, community events, and feature a living composer every year. We’ve got huge ambitions.’
Given Tom’s disapproval of the “boys club” of the music profession, I noted that it was funny that he was, by his own admission, playing the same game, having called on his professional contacts when putting together the festival programme. When I queried how he got such big names, such as Tasmin Little and Dame Emma Kirkby, involved, he deadpanned: ‘Pay them.’ Modestly he continued, ‘I’m lucky to work with some fantastic people.’ But one doubts it is simply luck. ‘We got to know these artists personally and hopefully they like us and see what our vision is. We also offer them quite a lot of flexibility. Each year we work with that principal artist figure and say “let’s develop a theme together”’.
This same generosity abounds when he speaks of his fellow musicians. In fact he speaks so highly of internationally-renowned pianist Stephen Hough – who will be the Featured Artist and Composer of the 2018 festival, and who Tom has previously worked with performing Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 – he sounds like he’s in the deep throes of a bromance: ‘He’s a lovely guy…he can be incredibly easy-going without losing any of the gravitas… in the performance he will bring something extra which is exciting…and he’s genuine as well…and a dry and infectious sense of humour.’
And Tom talks just as animatedly about his ongoing roles with the Palestine Youth Orchestra, Ingenium Academy, and the Yorkshire Young Sinfonia, sounding almost like a proud dad. It is evident that he relishes working with people, whether it’s seasoned pros or aspiring young musicians, and feels strongly about music education and young musicians’ engagement with classical music, wholeheartedly supporting the ethos of music as a tool to foster human connections.
This seems especially important today when, as Tom puts it, ‘Classical Music word is no longer a pastime in which many participate.’ He points to the sector’s necessary and increasing reliance on private funding, and the financial risks associated with pursuing a career in classical music, as reasons why ‘those without resources are excluded.’
To help counteract this, Tom believes that music professionals ‘need to better understand where their audience comes from and find ever increasing ways to feel linked to those they perform to’. It is something that is already part of the ethos at Trinity Laban, which Tom finds deeply encouraging.
We end our chat feeling like we’ve put the world to rights, and I, with tongue firmly in cheek, enquire what his goals are when he grows up. He offers a candid response, ‘frankly just being able to continue to conduct the repertoire that I love until I fall over, I’d be very pleased.’ Wouldn’t we all.
If you’re interested in studying at Trinity Laban, you can find out more at: https://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/study
Written by Robyn Donnelly, Graduate Intern (Press & PR)