Conductor Felix Kirkby. Image Credit: Felix Kirkby
Image Credit: Felix Kirkby

In conversation with conductor Felix Kirkby

Felix Kirkby is a student at the University of Oxford, and the conductor of the Oxford Festival Orchestra. That ensemble, in late 2022, successfully put on the first-ever Bruckner symphony played by a student orchestra at the University. One of its core missions is to donate ticket funds to charities supporting young musicians from deprived backgrounds, and to give students the opportunity to play with world-leading musicians.

I spoke with Kirkby, now a Masters student of Theology, about the conception of the OFO, the conductors and musics that have inspired him, and what he wants Oxford students to walk away with after attending one of his concerts. Throughout the interview, I quickly became aware of an intense seriousness at Kirkby’s core, and a further belief in the quasi-divine power of music. He rarely offered up an ‘um’ or a ‘like’, and appeared to be intensely self-aware about everything he was saying. Kirkby is more than cognizant that his seriousness could be mistaken for pompousness, and irritate people – there’s no doubt that it belies someone in their 20s. Mostly, I’m just thankful, because it meant I had to do a lot less work editing this conversation.

Tickets for the Orchestra’s upcoming concert, featuring Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture, 7th Symphony, Bruch’s Violin Concerto, are available here. It will take place on Saturday 25th November.

Martin Alfonsin Larsen: You studied theology at an undergraduate level, and now at a Masters level. What is it about conducting that excites you so much, and how did you get into doing it?

Felix Kirkby: I came to theology in my teens. Before that, I started as a concert pianist. I think the earliest photo I have of myself shows me when I was about probably six months, sitting up on my high-chair, trying to read through a Bach Prelude and Fugue. Music has always been the lodestar of the way I live, and I wanted to try conducting from when I was 12 or 13, when I was a chorister. It only occurred to me that the time, the place, the occasion was early last year, at which point I realised that I didn’t feel at home anywhere else, and then started my own orchestra to give myself the best possible opportunities to pursue it further.

MAL: Could you expand on more on how the Oxford Festival Orchestra was founded, and how it’s evolved since its inception in February 2022?

FK: It started as a very small ensemble. We did a Red Cross charity concert for the war in Ukraine in May 2022, with an orchestra of about 25-30 people. But I realised after I started that the model that I had was highly scalable to accommodate an orchestra of 60 or 70, as well as an orchestra of 20. Over the course of summer last year, I spent far more time than I’d really like to admit putting together a 70 piece orchestra for a performance of Bruckner’s Fifth.

MAL: What does that orchestra look like? Who is it comprised of? Is it mostly music students, or is it people from other backgrounds?

FK: Every single background at Oxford finds some form of representation. We’ve got music students, we’ve got biochemists, classicists. It’s possible to open access to people who normally wouldn’t be able to participate in it or at the very least wouldn’t have the occasion otherwise.

MAL: Your orchestra has, at its core, an ethos of access. Could you elaborate more on the collaborations that you’re trying to facilitate between Oxford musicians and world leading orchestral musicians? What kind of results has that produced?

FK: When I was younger, I grew up in an environment that was culturally privileged in the sense that both of my parents were university professors. There were a lot of books, there was a lot of learning, and a lot of insightful and stimulating conversation, but money was pretty tight. I relied for several years on scholarships, bursaries, and the likes to pay for music lessons that would otherwise be completely and utterly out of reach. I feel that the orchestra now puts me in a position to give something back.

Part of what we do as a charity has been to give student musicians the chance to play with top class performers from London orchestras. It’s always been about convincing people that they want to [come in and play] with people who they’d otherwise never come across.

We’ve already had conversations between current musicians, and those temporary members of the orchestra, about freelancing with London orchestras, on how to find your way in the profession, and more broadly, what it’s really like to play in a top class ensemble. I would like to think that, at the very least, it’s another way of ensuring not only that the facts of playing in an orchestra, but the information about what it’s really like to pursue this in the long term, are equally accessible to anybody, no matter their background.

There is nothing more exciting for me as a conductor to feel that crackling sensation at my fingers, that tells me that I’m not doing anything at all.

MAL: Thinking about the kind of successes you’ve had in those early concerts – for example, during the first ever student performance of a Bruckner symphony – what was your experience of putting those two concerts together? There must have been a lot of work trying to gel together players and acquire a cohesive sound.

FK: In a word, stress.

It was a very interesting challenge, because the orchestra of 20 we convened initially could easily manage itself. When I began dealing with larger ensembles than that, I had to enforce a clear separation between rehearsals and management.

Management is running the plumbing of the orchestra, trying to figure out how to get everybody in the right place at the right time, booking venues, organising marketing.

In rehearsals, the paradigm is the opposite. There is nothing more exciting for me as a conductor to feel that crackling sensation at my fingers, that tells me that I’m not doing anything at all. The orchestra has taken the reins: they’re listening to each other; they’re playing like a smaller chamber ensemble.

And within that, what I’m doing is not so much the standard idea of conducting a student orchestra, gesticulating at them like a panicked traffic warden, but rather enabling them to direct their creativity, the force of their inspiration, in the same way. The paradox is that you gain the most control by letting go of any kind of control whatsoever.

MAL: What kind of conductors have you taken inspiration from?

FK: I grew up watching and adoring Leonard Bernstein, but since I started conducting and taking lessons in more technical aspects of the discipline, I’ve had an unhealthy amount of admiration for Carlos Kleiber. There’s a performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, of Mozart’s 36th symphony, where he gets into the slow movement. Most people in that piece go for a disciplined beating pattern, whereas he’s just guiding it. There is no part where the orchestra aren’t perfectly together; the transitions are spectacularly judged.

Some conductors tend to stand in front of the ensemble doing as much as possible, frantically waggling their arms, twirling and gyrating. You tend to get the smoothest sound not by abrogating any kind of clear beats altogether, but knowing exactly when you need to give the orchestra clear beats, which is to say very rarely.

And I think because of that, I’m always uncomfortable with the idea that “well, Beethoven’s boring, Beethoven’s stale, we can just forget about him”. The whole reason we haven’t forgotten about him is that if he’s boring and stale, the conductor’s not doing a good enough job.

MAL: Are there favourite composers for you to conduct?

FK: I started conducting because I wanted to conduct Mahler. But the more I do it, the more I realise how impossible it is to get Mahler to sound good, and how unrealistic the technical demands on the conductor are.

I suppose I’ve ended up specialising, insofar as it’s possible to specialise at this stage, in Beethoven and Bruckner. They wrote great pieces, in the sense that they provide an almost unlimited number of viable interpretations. You can make something different of them every single time.

And I think because of that, I’m always uncomfortable with the idea that “well, Beethoven’s boring, Beethoven’s stale, we can just forget about him”. The whole reason we haven’t forgotten about him is that if he’s boring and stale, the conductor’s not doing a good enough job. I think this as a challenge is only going to become more acute as Beethoven and likewise further drift into our rear-view mirror. What it requires, I suppose, is the ability to give a piece a fresh reading.

I think in much the same way as a great work of literature elicits millions and millions of words of commentary, all of which exist in tension with each other – you get a polyphony of ideas, interpretations – great composers do the same thing. No recording can be seen in a vacuum. It’s always a response to something else. It’s always a development of a tradition. It gives what you could call a very bounded interpretive freedom that forces you to engage with this tradition in interesting and creative ways.

MAL: One of the great strengths of a music degree is that you get to look at music in an academic context, and then you have performance in an external context, with both informing the other. Do you think theology as an academic discipline has informed your conducting in any way?

FK: It’s difficult to verbalise this without sounding horrendously pretentious, so I’ll borrow somebody else’s words. Herbert von Karajan said, “I spent the first 15 years of my career figuring out how to listen. I spent the second 15 years of my career figuring out how to conduct. I spent the rest of my career searching for the truth.”

In rehearsals, you get the sense that the great conductors are constantly probing and searching for some kind of musical truth that lies just beyond the horizon. I can’t make a clear, imaginative connection – I can’t say, “Well, I learned this about violin bowing from studying Kant”. But both conducting and theology revolve around, if I wanted to be provocative about it, a truth that you cannot speak of, and which only reveals itself to you very, very occasionally.

You don’t have to come from moneyed areas to enjoy that. You don’t have to think about music in a certain way. You don’t need an expensive education or anything else. All you need is to listen.

MAL: With time, you’ve also cultivated a following on TikTok, which in the classical music world, is a kind of alternative communication platform. Do you think that there is some kind of inaccessibility within the classical music world that you’re trying to break by doing this, both in the orchestra, and the way that you’ve communicated about it?

FK: Absolutely. Up until about 1992, the paradigm had been that funding the arts was good in its own right. It was something that as a developed country, we simply did for the sake of doing it. But around 30 years ago, you started to get the idea floating around in the water that music was an essential good for people’s physical and mental health, and the sense of community and so on. If music is inherently good with measurable benefits, then of course you need music in as many places as possible.

Whereas if you frame classical music as something that’s essentially epiphanic, creating a sense of almost earth shattering awe – listening to Mahler’s 2nd symphony on the radio, Beethoven’s 9th, Bach’s St John Passion, Scriabin’s 5th [piano sonata] – these chance encounters turn what might previously be casual listeners into converts. All you need to experience that is a Spotify playlist. It’s the ultimate in democratic disciplines, especially in the sense that I don’t think any of us as listeners, musicians, and conductors can lay claim to understand how these components did what they did. How did Mahler sit down and write the second movement of his Resurrection in 48 hours? I’ve got no idea.

That all feeds into the sense that a concert is, as much as anything else, a pilgrimage. It’s a special occasion – a source of awe. You don’t have to come from moneyed areas to enjoy that. You don’t have to think about music in a certain way. You don’t need an expensive education or anything else. All you need is to listen.

And you can see how this classical vernacular has been changing over the last five or 10 years. Nobody has yet responded to the changing landscape of social media and media more generally in a musical context.

MAL: Building on what you said, it’s become a question not of what can humanities do for us – it’s a question of how much money can we get from a job if we have a humanities degree. Obviously, the answer is going to be less than a STEM degree because you don’t get the skills of a STEM degree. Is there a flaw in the way that we examine the benefits of classical music in general, and how do you think we can go about fixing that?

FK: There’s absolutely a problem in the way that we approach classical music because, as you say, we’re moving more and more towards a world where everything needs to be measurable. Everything needs to be made to conform to an impact assessment.

What can be done about that? I don’t think it’s a solution that will be top down. I don’t think you’ll be able to get the change in policy which magically means that people frame classical music in a different way. The problem is far too complex and deep rooted. What I think is needed instead is something like what Bernstein did in the 40s or 50s, with his public music concerts, but also more generally, the idea that classical music is something you really can access from your sitting room. There are no barriers to access, save for internet access, or in his case, a television. Classical music needs to learn to speak in the vernacular.

And you can see how this classical vernacular has been changing over the last five or 10 years. Nobody has yet responded to the changing landscape of social media and media more generally in a musical context.

One of the things I’ve tried to do with this has been to smuggle interesting pieces of music across the vernacular borders. The captions might be horrendous. The idea of a video, if I’m being honest, is a bit cliche and conceited, but the music in the background will be a Weber overture that doesn’t often get performed, or a strange bit of Dvorak’s 9th symphony or something neglected in Britain. It’s intended to hook people in, to expose them to something that might just make one or two of them think, “Oh, I need to give this a listen”. So that they can then experience a kind of epiphany.

MAL: I think it comes back to that concept of vernacular, and approaching people in a language that they’re familiar with. Are there any other ways that you tried to do that?

FK: My concert programmes try to do something a little bit off the beaten track. In a standard programme, you will get, for the sake of example, “Anton Bruckner was born in the 1820s, taught harmonium, was an organist and wrote some music, the Fifth Symphony does this- listen to the first movement”. As far as I’m concerned, an audience is no more likely to be interested in that than they are an apocalyptic Cornmarket Street preacher.

What I’ve instead tried to do is justify the decisions that I made as interpretive decisions by explaining the emotional narrative that drives my conception. I feel that an audience will be far more likely to engage with a piece of music and appreciate it as they would if the conductor offers them some kind of explanation as to how they are navigating it. It’s a way of encouraging people to project themselves and their own lives into this glorious, incredible sound, rather than engaging with it since they were physicists trying to solve an equation.

MAL: The way you speak about music almost feels to me like there’s a divinity to it that you perceive. If you could only provoke one reaction from this concert, amongst Oxford’s entire student body, what would that reaction be?

There’s this sort of stunned silence before everybody relaxes at the same time. What you’re really doing is enabling people to enjoy the music.

FK: I would want to make somebody feel something so intensely that when they hop in their car the next morning to go to work, the first thing they think of is, “oh, let’s get Beethoven’s Seventh on Spotify”. I want to mediate between the audience and the orchestra such that I can vanish into the orchestra with my gestures and enjoy the music as I would if I were sitting 10 rows back. When that really works, I think you can feel it.

You can feel it most of all in the silence after a few sections where everybody is holding their breath. Nobody wants to move, nobody wants to break the silence. I always say I can tell when a concert is going well, because I can take more time to unplug the power. There’s this sort of stunned silence before everybody relaxes at the same time. What you’re really doing is enabling people to enjoy the music.

This conversation was edited for concision and clarity.