Today, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales appointed its new conductor, Ryan Bancroft. He talks to Ivan Hewett about Ghanaian dancing, classical composers of colour and how his parents' first date sowed the seeds of his music career
In every story of a musician who’s dazzled the world with their talent and is set on the road to success, there’s always a key moment, a chance happening which unlocked a door to the future.
In the case of Ryan Bancroft, the 29-year-old African-American conductor who has just been appointed as Chief Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, there were two. The first came when he was a boy of ten or 11, who - after an abortive attempt to take up the violin – was playing the trumpet in those quintessentially American forms of collective music-making, the school wind band and marching band. At his modest home in Long Beach California he was surrounded by the music enjoyed by other members of his family – smooth jazz in the case of his painter-and-decorator father, prog-rock in the case of his hospice care-worker mother, hip-hop in the case of his two brothers. “My first encounter with classical music happened in a strange way,” he says, “It was when my family got a computer for the very first time. There was a small music playing program on the computer which it had a one-minute clip from the Scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and I remember as a kid listening to that clip ad nauseam. And for a few years that was the only part that Symphony I heard. To this day I think back to that experience, every time I hear that piece.”
The other key moment came a decade later, when Bancroft, now a 19-year-old trumpet student at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), stepped onto the conductor’s podium for the first time. As Bancroft explains, this only happened because of an event that took place before he was born. “It was all to do with my Dad,” he says. “He and my Mom met for their first date, and he took her to see the film Amadeus. He didn’t know anything about classical music at all, but thanks to that movie, the one piece of classical music that he knew and absolutely loved was Mozart's Requiem. So when my Dad passed away in 2009 [at just 54], I thought the best way to mark his passing would be to put on a performance of Mozart's Requiem with all my college friends, incorporating all the college’s choirs and orchestra. Then I thought, well who is going to conduct this performance? And it seemed to me I just had to do it. This was a celebration of my father after all, I didn't just want to hide away in the trumpet section. So I took on the job, and through the rehearsal process and talking with people, the experience actually became genuinely authentic and endlessly interesting."
It doesn’t take long to realise that Ryan Bancroft has huge curiosity about music and the arts in general. He must surely be the only conductor alive who names Ghanaian dancing as a formative influence. How on earth did that happen? “The CalArts class in Ghanaian dancing took place right down the corridor from my trumpet class,” he says with a laugh, “so I thought, well let’s try this. I soon discovered the absolutely fascinating about Ghanaian music and dance is that if you're going to dance you are also going to drum, and vice versa. No one is ever just a drummer not a dancer, or just a dancer and not a drummer. You don't become a specialist in the Western sense. I think this taught me a big lesson about conducting, because it made me think about the way gesture works expressively, as well as thinking about the sound that results from the gesture. If I hadn't had that dance background, my music-making would probably be completely different today."
The other thing that strikes you about Bancroft is his steely determination. After his six years at CalArts he moved to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for two years on a scholarship, and then came an offer of a place on a prestigious conducting course in the Netherlands. For this he had to raise all the money himself, which seemed an impossible task. Did he ever think about giving up? “Not really. When it comes to what I feel is right and is going to help me to grow as a musician I am quite relentless. I never allowed myself to say, "you know, I don't think I can do this any more".
I wonder whether as an African-American he’s found obstacles placed in his way. “Not at all, but that may because at a glance I don’t seem African-American, my mother was actually white. In any case things are changing, classical music is becoming more diverse which is very exciting to me. We’re discovering these really interesting composers of colour like Joseph Bologne and Florence Price.” He’s looking forward to moving to Wales next season, when he takes on his new role with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. “I made my debut with the orchestra last November, when we did a tour of North Wales. I was driven all the way from Cardiff up to Aberystwyth and Bangor and Llandudno, and I was stunned by how beautiful the country is, and talking to people, I was very struck by how down-to-earth audiences are, and the musicians as well. They don't feel that they are better than other people, just because they are musicians. That's very exciting to me because it means that we are open to discussions about things, we can look at things in a fresh way not hampered by an elitist view of the art form. Though of course in terms of the musical standards of what we do, we want to be as elitist as possible!”
Ryan Bancroft conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Maida Vale Studio on November 22 (bbc.co.uk/symphonyorchestra), and appears with saxophonist Jess Gillam and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at Brangwyn Hall Swansea on May 8 (brangwyn.co.uk)