Highgate’s entrepreneurial young conductor

Oliver Zeffman had his own music group while he was at school. He ‘s fast becoming a teenage wunderkind

There was a time when budding young conductors served apprenticeships with old-established orchestras, waiting for opportunities to step in should the maestro fall ill or his flights get cancelled.

But these days you’re more likely to make it as an entrepreneur, setting up your own projects with your own ensemble like Oliver Zeffman, who’s just taken his own Melos Sinfonia up to the Edinburgh Fringe with a touring production of Mozart’s The Impresario and returns with them to Hampstead next month for a concert that involves more Mozart plus iconic items of Americana.

What’s impressive about Zeffman is that he’s only 19 and founded his group in 2010 when he was in the lower sixth at Highgate School. He’s now at Durham University, about to start his second year. And for the record, he’s not even reading music. His degree will be in history and Russian.

“I didn’t do music A-level either,” he says, “which is something I slightly regret. But I’m not convinced that a formal education in music is really that useful for someone who wants to conduct. I think you learn most by actually doing it – or at least, by watching how other people do it, sitting in on rehearsals, seeing how performances get put together.”

To that extent, he’s been lucky in his contacts. Well-known names like Edward Gardner, Paul Daniel and the head of music at the Royal Opera, David Syrus, have all given him advice and access to rehearsals. And he’s now set up a second orchestra in Durham where, he says, “there’s a music faculty but no major professional input, so I’m trying to pull people in from outside to give masterclasses and perform with us. I’m hoping that Sir Thomas Allen, who has just been made the Durham chancellor, will give us time.”

Meanwhile, it’s all hands to the pumps at Edinburgh where his Sinfonia are giving nine performances of The Impresario in a new singing translation which attempts to address the problems of a piece that’s meant to be funny but usually isn’t.

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As things stand, he doesn’t just conduct the group: he’s the administrator, transport manager, librarian and fundraiser – although he says: “I am looking for someone to take over some of these other tasks. I’ve been relying on my family and friends. But if the orchestra is going to develop we need to sort things out, especially the money.”

With Sinfonia trustees like international banking regulator David Green, he’s likely to pick up some good advice in that direction too.

Zeffman’s Hampstead concert plays at Rosslyn Hill Chapel on Friday, September 14, at 7.30pm and includes Mozart’s 40th Symphony, Copland’s Quiet Place and Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Tickets on the door.