Douglas Boyd: A Life in Music
Music’s ability to dig deep into the human condition matters to Douglas Boyd. The conductor, born in Glasgow in 1959, discovered its infinite power during his time as principal oboist of the Chamber of Orchestra of Europe, where he observed at close range the probing musicianship of conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Bernard Haitink and Paavo Berglund. His work today as Artistic Director of Garsington Opera and as a guest conductor with leading orchestras worldwide is sustained in part by what he learned from them. Yet it flows above all from his innate curiosity, freedom of mind and unshakeable connection to the pure joy of making music.
In many ways Douglas Boyd’s decision to become a conductor was inevitable. “I always had the itch to conduct and it never went away,” he recalls. “As I was approaching forty, I thought I don’t want to look back in my old age and say, ‘I’ve wanted to conduct for all these years but did nothing about it’. I decided to give it a go, but making the transition from playing to conducting almost happened by chance.”
While learning about the psychology of leading rehearsals while conducting young musicians at London’s Royal Academy of Music and the University of Cambridge, Boyd – known throughout the music profession as Dougie – suggested to several orchestras that they might consider hiring him as concerto soloist and conductor. Manchester Camerata liked the proposal. They invited him to play-direct Mozart’s Oboe Concerto and conduct a Schubert symphony at Ellesmere Port Civic Hall. The orchestra’s players were so impressed that they asked Boyd to become its next Chief Conductor and Artistic Director. He was formally appointed in 2001 and repaid their faith over the next ten years by raising the Manchester Camerata’s national and international status.
“It was an incredibly happy time for me,” he notes. “I made lifelong friends there and received tremendous support from a marvellous group of musicians. Because of the work I’d done in Classical repertoire as a player, we began exploring Beethoven together and things clicked.” Those explorations led to a Beethoven cycle at Bridgewater Hall, recorded live for the Avie label, and reaped a weighty harvest of critical acclaim. ‘The switch of roles [from oboist to conductor] has clearly refocused [Boyd’s] interest in the music and rekindled it: an experience the orchestra evidently shares,’ observed Gramophone in its review of the fourth and seventh symphonies. Albums devoted to works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev as well as chamber arrangements of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Symphony No.4, confirmed that Boyd and his Mancunians were an ideal match.
A glance at the Boyd biography reveals the apparent ease with which he exchanged one musical career for another. He played his final concert with the COE and Claudio Abbado in 2002 and packed his instrument away to focus fully on conducting. Two years later he was named as one of St Paul Chamber Orchestra’s inaugural Artistic Partners and remained in post until the 2009-10 season, when he launched his tenure as Principal Conductor of Switzerland’s oldest symphony orchestra, the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur (2009-2016). In addition, he has served as Principal Guest Conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the City of London Sinfonia. From 2015 to 2020, he was Music Director of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris, resident at the Philharmonie de Paris and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Over the past decade Douglas Boyd’s guest conducting credits have included engagements with, among others, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Budapest Festival Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Gürzenich Orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de Lyon, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich. He is set to lead Garsington Opera’s debut at the 2022 Edinburgh International Festival with a new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka before returning to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at the start of the 2022-23 season to conduct Beethoven’s nine symphonies.
Boyd’s career progress has drawn rock-solid encouragement and support from his wife, the cellist Sally Pendlebury, and their three children. It has also been shaped by formative oboe lessons in London and Paris with Janet Craxton and Maurice Bourgue and by his love of music-making with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. “I’m glad that I was able to learn from working with the greatest soloists and conductors of our time, rather than going down the usual route of studying to be a conductor at music college,” he reflects. “It was the best education you could get! We’d work with Claudio Abbado one week, the next with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the week after that with Murray Perahia and on it went. Looking back now, I can see that it was an incredible privilege to play with one of the world’s great orchestras.”
Abbado, who rarely spoke in rehearsal, and Harnoncourt, who explained every nuance in forensic detail, showed how great performances could arise from totally contrasting conducting styles. “They were two of the biggest influences on me and on a whole generation, but they could not have been more different. I realised from watching them and other exceptional conductors that it’s essential to be yourself. To stand up in any kind of leadership role needs self-belief, especially to do something as demanding as conducting your fellow musicians. Conducting is as much about the psychology of the group as about the music. It’s about making players and singers feel empowered while communicating the truth about a composition as you see it.”
Those values are clearly reflected in Boyd’s plans for Garsington Opera. The company has flourished under his leadership and is set to expand in future with a proposed £15 million Arts Hub at its home in rural Buckinghamshire. The new development, the conductor observes, will enable Garsington to offer a year-round schedule of education work, an ambition close to his heart. “I became attracted to Garsington when working as guest conductor at its original home near Oxford,” Boyd recalls. “When they asked me to become Artistic Director at its stunning new home on the Wormsley estate in Buckinghamshire, I felt that this was a company which had not only a wonderful ethos and passion but also an almost limitless potential”
Since his arrival in post in November 2212, Garsington Opera has reinforced its commitment to excellence, appointed the Philharmonia and English Concert as its resident orchestras, invested heavily in an impressive young artists programme, and presented productions in collaboration with Santa Fe Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Boyd has broadened the annual summer festival’s repertoire to include works as diverse as Eugene Onegin and Death in Venice, the first UK performances of Rossini’s Maometto secondo and Offenbach’s Fantasio, and the world premiere of David Sawer’s The Skating Rink. The company has also mounted semi-staged performances at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Philharmonie de Paris; Garsington’s Edinburgh Festival debut, meanwhile, marks another major company milestone.
Douglas Boyd’s encyclopaedic knowledge of his art and craft rests on twenty years as a founder-member of the COE and twenty more as a full-time conductor. “I feel that I’m doing my best work now but that things are still developing,” he observes. “You could say that the garden is never finished! Something has deepened over the years. I think it’s called life!”
© Andrew Stewart 2022
Douglas Boyd: A Life in Music