Life & Culture

Oliver Zeffman: Making things happen

The music stopped for conductor Oliver Zeffman when the pandemic hit, but he soon thought of new projects, he tells Jenni Frazer


Oliver Zeffman introduces himself and laughs — I think — at his own life-story —“born in north London, grew up in Tufnell Park, went to Highgate School, played the violin from when I was four…” His brother Henry writes for The Times and their sister is at law school.

Zeffman speaks very fast, but does not, on Zoom at any rate, wave his arms about. That movement is reserved for his professional life, in which the 28-year-old is one of Britain’s most admired and innovative musical conductors.

We are in discussion because he has just released the second of his two major projects of the last couple of years, an extraordinary film, Live at the V&A, made in the newly refurbished Raphael Court of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The acclaimed violinist Viktoria Mullova returns to play, for the first time in 30 years, with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF), and the resulting film, as the camera swoops and flows with the rise and fall of the music, is exquisite.

The viewer’s eye falls on the remarkably confident Zeffman, then Mullova and the ASMF musicians, and then on the glorious Raphael Cartoons, glowing as freshly as the day they were painted in 1515. The Cartoons, depicting biblical scenes, are among the glories of Renaissance art and are on permanent loan to the V&A from the Queen. Last year, taking advantage of the lockdown closure, the V&A revamped the Raphael Court, with its improvements including upgraded acoustics. It is plain that it was a joy to play in the space — Zeffman says the acoustics are “now more resonant than in most concert halls”.

Music runs like a river through Zeffman’s family. His mother plays the violin and the piano, and one relative was the pianist Solomon, an internationally famous musician in his day, who was known only by one name before it became fashionable. (His surname was Cutner.)

Solomon was first a child prodigy and then returned to performing as an adult. His career was cut short when he suffered a massive, and paralysing, stroke in 1956, but before that he had recorded a great deal and Zeffman has heard many of the recordings. Cheerfully, he says he has no plans to be known only by his first name: “It’s much more a collaborative process today, not like when the conductor was only addressed as ‘Maestro’. In any case, I can’t make a sound without the orchestra. And they do call me ‘Oliver’, and that’s as it should be”.

Zeffman went first to Durham University, where he studied history and Russian, and then to the St Petersburg Conservatoire during his academic year abroad. Back in the UK he went to the Royal Academy of Music and his fluent Russian has played a strong part in his musical career since then, often leading him to work with Russian musicians or conduct in Russia itself.

Last season, for example, before the pandemic struck, Zeffman, as associate conductor of the London Chamber Orchestra, toured at the Mariinsky Theatre’s Stars of the White Nights Festival.

But then lockdown was imposed, and Zeffman found himself facing a situation previously unthinkable — “to all intents and purposes, music had stopped. You couldn’t meet anyone, you couldn’t see anyone. So I tried to think of something which was feasible, and which was also artistically valid and engaging — I didn’t think there was much point in doing something for the sake of it. There’s only so many times you can do musicians playing in their bedrooms on Zoom. It’s nice for the first couple of weeks, and builds morale, but it’s not really a very interesting way of making music, either for the performers, or the audience.”

He decided to look at how to present opera, as much for its dramatic and visual content as for the sound. But then he thought about commissioning new material, rather than reworking something already written.

He was conscious that in the absence of live audiences during lockdown, some opera houses had chosen to “stick a camera in front of performers and just stream that. But it doesn’t really work”.

Instead, Zeffman came up with a novel idea; he would commission eight different new pieces from eight composers, and persuade eight singers to perform. The pieces — collectively known as Eight Songs from Isolation — variously chart the experience of working in the music world under restrictions. They are woven together as an opera.

And Zeffman, with his mile-a-minute enthusiasm, believes that even when lockdown is finally lifted and it is permissible once again for people to sing and play in front of a live audience, there will be a place for what he calls “digital stuff”, alongside live performance.

Because no-one could meet, Zeffman took his project to Apple and the entire process was recorded on iPhones. Undoubtedly this makes Eight Songs the world’s first, and so far only, mobile phone opera.

The resultant 40-minute film began with each composer being asked to write a two-to-five-minute song, and at the same time for a performer to be assigned to each composer “so that they would know who they were writing for”. Zeffman and director, Billy Boyd Cape, did not put the composers in touch with each other.

Instead, they assembled all the material and then chose the order of appearance. “It’s not really a narrative link, but it is an emotional arc of their experiences. There’s a variety of musical styles and I was genuinely very excited at what we received”.

He is aware that as a young man in a fiercely competitive world, his achievement in persuading leading composers such as Thomas Adès, or singers such as Iestyn Davies, to take part in such a project, might well have not come off. But Zeffman just smiles. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get. But I’d like to think that, without seeming too self-congratulatory, people see me as doing exciting things. And frankly, even the most famous composers and singers in the world, in March last year, had had most things cancelled. If you’re offering an interesting project, with an interesting distribution partner, Apple, meaning that people would see it, and an appropriate fee, which I was — it’s good work.”

Fifty people worked on creating Eight Songs, with those participating coming from Berlin, Budapest, Kherson, London, Meknes, Mexico City, Munich, New York, St Petersburg, San Diego and Shanghai. The project — with its ingenuity in its response to the pandemic and lockdown — attracted considerable international attention. And so Zeffman received a positive response when he began talks with the V&A last year about the possibility of filming music in one of the museum’s grand spaces.

“We were actually talking about filming in front of a live audience” — because social distancing would still be required and audiences would be necessarily smaller. “In a museum, we could have an audience set up in a way that feels intentional, without lots of empty seats. And, also, doing a concert in a really stunning visual space is also very exciting”.

This time, as well as Apple, Marquee TV and Platoon, a record label company, came on board, and a new director, Stewart French. “We recorded it as a live performance, because we wanted that kind of feeling, even though there wasn’t an audience. When you’re watching the film, it was important for us that we didn’t edit it heavily post-production to change the sound — we wanted people to see it and have the experience of hearing the music as though they were in the Raphael Court ”.

The musicians were “very excited” to be able to play at the V&A, Zeffman says. “It was a real privilege”. The music — Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto and Honegger’s Pastorale d’été, plus two solo Bach works from Mullova and the ASMF performing Arvo Pärt’s Fratres — perfectly fits both the occasion and the space.

Zeffman thinks it will take some time for things to go back to the 2019 round of concerts and touring, even when lockdown is finally lifted.

“I do think there will be more scope for doing things which are a bit different, and I think there will also be time in audience’s diaries. I think there is something in exploring music in non-concert spaces” — but he’s not ready to “jinx” matters by saying where.

Nor is he ready to name an orchestra with which he would love to play, though my bet is that Oliver Zeffman is a name to watch.

“I’d rather try and make things happen, than sit at home and worry”, he says. And, with a final cheerful shout-out to his grandmother Shirley, 96, Zeffman zips off, to plan a new assault on the classical music world.


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