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By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine

On December 6, 2021, California Institute of the Arts alum Ryan Bancroft was officially appointed chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1902. His tenure is to begin with the 2023–24 season. Two days later, Bancroft made his debut as incoming chief conductor when he led the orchestra for the 2021 Nobel Prize Concert at the Konserthuset Stockholm in front of a live, in-person audience including Nobel Prize laureates and Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf. The prestigious event was livestreamed through YouTube to a worldwide audience in hi-def video and audiophile sound.

In Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Excelsior! overture, Saint-Saëns’ first Cello Concerto with Sol Gabetta, British composer Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers (2017), and, most spectacularly, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, Bancroft positioned himself and the orchestra in the music’s natural flow. He didn’t use a baton; instead, he used his physical grace and hand signals to project the narrative arc to the audience. The episodes in Capriccio unfolded with a relaxed gait that caught the splashes of color in the score with delicacy and grace: the sexy charm of the solo riffs in the opening Alborada transformed into something deeper in the Scena e canto gitano as Bancroft gave the orchestra as much time
as was necessary to make the music sound authentically, proudly spontaneous. At the end, the audience applauded for more than five minutes.

Bancroft was born in San Francisco and grew up in Los Angeles. He studied at the California Institute of the Arts, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and in the Netherlands for five years at the Nationale Master Orkestdirectie. Bancroft lives in London and serves as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and artist in association with the Tapiola Sinfonietta. He was recently announced the winner of the UK’s Royal Philharmonic Society Conductor Award for 2021.

Before returning to Stockholm on March 30, Bancroft was scheduled to conduct the symphonies of Baltimore, Birmingham, Houston, and Toronto, and the BBC in Cardiff. In June he is scheduled to lead a concert performance of West Side Story at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I caught up with Bancroft a few days after the New Year. 

What inspired you to become a conductor?

The inspiration to be a conductor wasn’t necessarily a sudden spark but rather a series of fortunate and unfortunate events that took place over time. I was really fortunate to be able to have wonderful conductors in my public school programs while I was a child. They encouraged me to be curious about the music world. My music director in middle school in particular, Paul Curtis, emboldened me to look deeper into the worlds of music. He introduced me to many instruments, generously allowed me to borrow them for extended periods of time, and introduced me to the Rite of Spring. As pivotal as those moments were, it took a performance on the 19th of March 2010 that solidified the deal. My father unfortunately had passed of heart problems on the 9th of January of that same year. Due to this, I found myself needing to honor his memory in some way. I put on a performance of Mozart’s Requiem played by a group of my peers. It was an incredibly moving experience and I have yet to listen to the piece since. As sombre as it was, it showed me a new way of music making, a more collaborative and spontaneous way of performing. I was hooked.


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You were a musician first—how did you make the leap to conductor?

I had my very first conducting lesson with my trumpet teacher, mentor, and guru, Edward Carroll. I was fortunate enough to sub occasionally as a trumpet player with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and was able to watch wonderful performances come to life. Dance was also a huge part of my training. I was extremely fortunate to be able to study Ghanaian music and dance with Beatrice Dzidzogbe Lawluvi, Yeko Ladzekpo-Cole, and Andrew Grueschow—this shaped me more as a musician than anything else.

Can you talk about the conductors you most admire?

I’m most in awe of the myriad young conductors out there that have chosen this as their path. It is a brave and humbling thing to be able to stand amongst your peers and try your hardest to make a difference. This is absolutely no different than the brave and humbling act it takes to sit or stand in the orchestra, which is one that should be respected by all conductors alike. At the end of the day, we are all just trying to do a good job. That being said, I hold a flame close to my heart for Claudio Abbado. He really figured it out.

What do you think it takes to do the job of conductor well?

Trust and empathy are the two characteristics I find most vital to getting a job done well. Preparation is a given, musicianship is a given, focus is a given, but trust and empathy are where true collaboration begins. With trust and empathy, compromise is never necessary because we all realize that it is through communication and sharing ideas that the most exciting art occurs.


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What did it mean to be appointed chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra? 

I’m moved, elated, overjoyed, and all other superlatives in between. This is an orchestra that knows how to set a gold standard of music making and takes very seriously music’s ability to communicate to people like you and me. No moment is taken for granted. 

What are your plans with the orchestra?

In my inaugural concert as chief conductor, we will perform Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström’s seminal High Mass, modeled on Bach’s Mass in B minor, for the first time in the orchestra’s history. I know this will be the first of many memorable performances together, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for us. My plan overall with the RSPO is to further my journey of learning how to listen more deeply and more intently. I’m endlessly inspired by the individuals of the orchestra and how much responsibility each member takes to make the performances personal and unique. I’m also looking forward to bringing music that inspires me, communicating this inspiration, and sharing something meaningful.

Another thing that is pretty incredible is that I will have wonderful access to an area of repertoire that is absolutely exciting: Swedish music! There is still so much that I do not know, so it feels like being a child in a toy shop on Christmas Eve. Above all, I’m grateful to be able to have a new musical home in Stockholm.