Last updated: May 5, 2012 12:11 am

Peak performances

Conductor Stephen Barlow talks about his musical career and his new challenge of putting the Buxton Festival on the map

After a performance of Così fan tutte for Glyndebourne’s touring company 30 years ago, Stephen Barlow found his agent waiting backstage. Fishing for compliments, Barlow asked the wise old man what he thought of the way he had conducted. “His answer was, ‘You loved it too much.’ I didn’t know what to make of it at the time,” says Barlow, recalling his experiences as a twentysomething conductor, “but I realise now that it’s a young person’s inclination to ‘love the music too much’. With time you learn to get beyond that, to take more care of the piece instead of [emphasising] what one feels about it.”

At 57, Barlow has reached an age when “taking more care” of the music is paying off. Recent performances of operas by Britten, Strauss and Wagner have revealed his command of the big canvas and a natural understanding of singers. In his early career – as an organ scholar at Cambridge University and as a young conductor – he seemed almost too gifted for his own good. In his thirties and forties, he worked extensively in Europe, North America and Australasia without finding a niche on home territory.

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That is now changing. This summer Barlow takes over as artistic director of the Buxton Festival in Derbyshire. It gives him an opportunity to invest his experience and make a difference in a place that, while full of potential, has struggled to achieve the recognition that many feel is its due.

Situated at the heart of England’s scenic Peak District, Buxton hardly represents the zenith of a conductor’s career. The town itself, once an elegant spa, has seen better days and the festival only recently emerged from a long period of financial instability. But thanks to an ambitious festival board, canny management and refurbishment of its opera house, one of the prettiest in England, Buxton is finally getting noticed.

Barlow says the festival’s chief distinction is its “natural way of welcoming people. Our repertoire is larger than Wexford’s, more intriguing than Opera North’s, and we are able to take more risks than Grange Park and Glyndebourne. [That’s because] our audiences don’t have preconceptions. They are operatic travellers. You don’t come to Buxton for social reasons, but because you’re interested [in the programme].”

Buxton cannot compete with the glamour of the English country house opera scene – no picnics or evening dress – but tickets cost less and standards are often just as high. That is not to say that money is not a problem. With a turnover of £1.4m, the festival is one of the leanest of its kind, and like its northern neighbours, it has been squeezed by the economic downturn.

Despite this, Barlow is irrepressibly upbeat. His 2012 programme – new productions of Strauss’s Intermezzo and Handel’s Jephtha, and a double bill of Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaschei the Immortal – is calculated to appeal to opera cognoscenti. He himself will play piano in recitals, as well as leading a words-and-music presentation inspired by the married life of Richard and Pauline Strauss – which also happens to be the subject of Intermezzo.

Barlow has known Intermezzo since his apprentice years at Glyndebourne and relishes the opportunity to conduct it again. He sees it as a product of Strauss’s “easy genius, slipping from urbane music to something that melts your heart. There’s a sense [in Intermezzo] of Strauss feeling the need to put a marker down about the way he and Pauline were. Everyone found her impossible, so it’s odd to find a great composer writing music about his wife that is open and sensitive.”

It is not simple music to conduct. Barlow talks of the opera’s cinematic quality – “fast, exhilarating, an orchestra on speed. [In his recordings] Strauss leaves the impression you should ride roughshod over the sensitivity and sensibility, but there’s a balance to be had.”

Despite his obvious attachment to Strauss’s score, there is little danger of Barlow “loving the music too much”. His hair may still be as long and unkempt as it was in his twenties, but he now has a clearer idea of his priorities. “When I was young I never had any idea of where I was aiming to be. All I ever wanted was to be a musician. The adrenaline of being in demand, and the joy of preparing music, kept me going – but in the end it’s not enough. You need something more.”

Such considerations came to a head about a decade ago. Barlow concluded that he was travelling too much and needed to retrench. He went back to composing. King, his opera about Thomas Becket and Henry II of England, was premiered in Canterbury Cathedral in 2006. He has also rediscovered his love of the piano.

“When you make a decision like that,” he says, “people quite rightly wonder what it is you’re doing – they don’t know how to place you. I love conducting and I adore orchestras and singers but the life of chasing an ambitious career is a very singular one. Fundamentally it’s the music and musicians that I enjoy most.

“You can’t always design where it’s going to come together best but Buxton sums up many of the elements that have been consistent throughout my musical life. I’m happy to be here.”

Booking for the Buxton Festival (July 7-25) is now open, www.buxtonfestival.co.uk

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