Young Artist Interview: Hans Vercauteren
Musicians’ Company Yeoman Young Artist Hans Vercaueren is a multi-award winning Belgian conductor and composer based in London. Talking to the Company, Hans tells us where it all began, what projects he’s working on and how millennial composers are helping to shape the music industry.
Company: You’re a conductor and composer. How and where did it all begin?
Hans: I was 14 when I got into music – fairly late compared to my colleagues. I started on the piano wanting to learn Disney and Elton John songs, but quickly discovered classical music. By the time I was 16, I was familiar with all the great composers, such as Beethoven, Puccini and Mahler, who I loved straight away. I started taking lessons in Belgium with a wonderful teacher called Geert Baetens who taught me everything I needed to know to apply to the Royal Conservatoire Antwerp. Initially I wanted to study conducting but you could only do that as an elective module on the bachelor’s course. Around the same time I’d started writing a lot so I sat the entrance exam for composition. Although I was accepted into the conservatoire for composition, it was my conducting skills that secured my place. Starting late in music meant I had a lot of catching up to do!
Company: Conductor and composer – which role do you identify with most?
Hans: Many people ask me that question, but I identify with both equally. There are times when there’s a lot of conducting work for me, and months when I’m busy composing orchestral works or working on musical theatre. I feel I would miss something if, say, I composed full-time, as both roles are such an integral part of who I am.
Company: How does conducting your own work compare to those of others?
Hans: I hate conducting my own work! I did it for my bachelor’s and final master’s exam with the orchestral group Ensemble XXI because I had to, but personally, I don’t think composers are their own best conductors. It’s hard to defend your own music when you conduct it and better to find someone you trust to work with you.
Company: You’ve conducted several ensembles and operas. How do you coordinate players and singers?
Hans: I’ve conducted full orchestras of 60 musicians and choirs of 100. Standing in front obviously helps to engage them, but the biggest part of being a conductor isn’t necessarily waving a baton, it’s motivating and inspiring the musicians during rehearsals to share one vision so we can deliver a compelling interpretation during performance.
Company: Do you get pre-performance nerves or shaky hands on stage?
Hans: My hands never shake but I do tend to get chatty and jokey before a show. I find the five minutes before going on stage difficult – you just want to get on with it, but there’s usually a speech that drags. The chitter-chatter ends once I’m on stage, and when the first note passes, it’s game on!
Company: How does being a millennial composer compare to being a composer of the past?
Hans: Composing continues to change. The whole industry is now a lot more eclectic, less defined. There’s a lovely phrase my teacher, Errollyn Wallen, taught me ‘we don’t break boundaries, we don’t see any’. Composers are becoming increasingly flexible – those who specify in a certain niche are more the exception today. I avoid being pigeon-holed by getting involved in a broad mix of music projects. This doesn’t necessarily lead to more opportunities as there are many more composers now, but the increasing versatility of composers has certainly raised the quality and playability of musical scores.
Company: What kind of music projects are you involved in right now?
Hans: I’m currently finishing a mini musical about Icarus with Anibal Miranda who is on the MA in Music Theatre at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. We’re aiming to showcase it at the school first, then roll it out to venues and festivals. As we’re both in the final year of education we’ve had the opportunity to use the school resources, which is great. I’m also an Associate with the LSO Soundhub which provides a flexible space for composers to explore, collaborate and experiment. Other current and future projects include quite a few compositions, especially in Belgium towards the end of the year, my work at Swiss Cottage School and a children’s book…
Company: Your book? Tell us more
Hans: I did a teaching degree when I finished my master’s and alongside my other work, and I also do outreach with the Musicians’ Company – I’m currently working at Swiss Cottage School with learners with complex needs. While teaching general music classes back in Belgium, many of which involved songs, I could never find any new songs so I began writing my own, which the kids loved. My sister is a talented graphic designer and has worked with me to create a beautifully illustrated book with 16-20 songs aimed at the junior age range with suggestions on how to teach the songs, along with games you can play.
Company: You mention your work with the Musicians’ Company at Swiss Cottage School. How do you deliver workshops for learners with complex needs?
Hans: I’m currently working with a talented group of seven learners with severe autism following a request for a composer to help them create a small show. Working with them, little by little, and over the course of five sessions with a few others we’re introducing them to a range of music-making activities that will enable them to create their own work. They decide the story – I just give them the tools and guide them, while Company Yeoman, saxophonist Jonathan Radford, helps them play. It’s not easy, but it’s extremely rewarding. One student wasn’t engaging – he didn’t want to sing or play so we asked him what music he liked, then suggested he read over the top of his favourite tune. The most incredible reading voice emerged! Seeing the children’s faces light up when they do something that makes their heart sing is a wonderful moment.
You can find out more about Hans at http://hansvercauteren.com/
Interview by Suzy Willmott @suzywillmott