The Human Factor

James Feddeck is one of the most exciting musicians of his generation. Ahead of his performance with the APO, Tabatha McFadyen discussed what fascinates him about his role as a conductor. 

I had promised James Feddeck’s agents that I would take up no more than 20 minutes of his time. Partway through our conversation, I thought it prudent to do a quick time check and was horrified to discover that we had gone on for the better part of an hour.

It had become less ‘conventional interview’, more ‘sprawling exchange of ideas’. As well as being one of the most erudite, self-effacing, and deeply passionate musicians I’ve ever come across, Feddeck’s mind simply teems with refreshingly humble, original ideas about the music-making process. Although I felt guilty that I had blatantly lied to his representation, I defy anybody to keep a conversation with him to a neat 20-minute fact-finding mission.

It fits with how his musical journey began. In his own words, he came from a “completely non-musical” family. “There was a great love of music,” he explains, “but no one was actually a musician.”

Does he envy those of his colleagues who stem from great musical dynasties? Not at all. “I consider [my background] a great gift, because I had absolutely no pressure to do anything except what I wanted to do, and what I loved to do.”

And it turns out what he wanted to do was, well, almost everything. His extraordinary musical abilities were apparent very early on. As well as being a pianist and an oboist, he was also an organist and a church-musician, eventually being hired by his church in New York to lead the entire musical programme – at the age of 11.

Whilst telling me this, his self-effacing nature appears, and he wants to clarify his point in sharing his early biography for me: “I had all these things, and no one ever said to me: ‘you have to make decisions’, so I just did everything, and I loved it. I think my happiest times were those where I followed each moment exactly where it led without any other pressure.”

However, the world of classical music has a clear preference towards acute specialisation, so things became more complicated once Feddeck was older and wanted to continue his studies. “That was an enormous difficulty. Most places asked ‘well, what are you? Are you a pianist? Are you an organist? Are you an oboist?’ And my answer was always just… yes.”

There was one college that saw fit to think outside the box – the famed Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. They saw Feddeck’s difficulties in deciding on a specialisation as something to be encouraged rather than a problem to be solved. “They basically said: just come here and do whatever you want.

“I will be eternally grateful to Oberlin because I felt no great pressure to have any path determined for me and I was able to do so many things at the highest level. So, I did the only reasonable thing and I abandoned everything, and I started to conduct because I couldn’t make a decision.”

He credits his introduction to conducting to Oberlin being a small, relatively remote student town. When somebody suggested that they rehearse a Brahms symphony on Saturday and get dressed up and perform it on Sunday, it wasn’t as though many of the students had competing plans. “It was the most exciting thing we had to do, and it gave me my first opportunities to conduct.”

As soon as we go down the path of discussing the strange alchemy that is conducting, Feddeck lights up. (In retrospect, I think this might be the moment that my 20-minute promise bit the dust.)

“I was immediately fascinated by the whole process. As a conductor you kind of have to be everything. You have your own craft and your own skill, but you also have to have the knowledge of the repertoire, a certain knowledge of the instruments and you have to be a psychologist. You have to be aware of a group and the human factors – how are they feeling? How do I motivate people? How do I get the best out of people? I was really intrigued by all that. I was intrigued first of course by the music, and that I think is what I’m most devoted to, but I think a close second is the human factor.”

As Feddeck has continued along this path, his knowledge of what binds a conductor and orchestra has deepened, but he still seems to approach it from a position of fascinated humility.

“Look at an orchestra like APO – you have some of the best people in the world playing in that orchestra. Can I really know more than everyone put together? I mean, it’s mathematically impossible. So, what is my responsibility then? My responsibility is to them; to try to get the best from them, and to try to offer, from my own study and my own relationship to the music, a new perspective.”

That human factor seems to a key motivator in so many ways for Feddeck. Take for example, the way he approached his role as Principal Conductor of Orchestra i Pomeriggi Musicali in Milan during the pandemic. “We played concerts every week… When the public was not allowed to come, we put things out on the internet for free.” The lack of a paid-viewing experience was non-negotiable, as far as he was concerned. “I saw it as an opportunity to spread everything as far as we can as freely as possible. Why give anyone a reason not to tune in?”

It also affects how he spends the last ten minutes before the opening of a concert. At that moment, he’s not in his dressing room pouring over his scores, he’s surreptitiously out in the foyer, gauging the vibe of the audience. “I love to see what the energy of the people is who are coming to listen to us. They are the experience – if I’m just there conducting and the orchestra’s just playing and there’s no audience, it’s not a concert. We need an audience in order to elevate our energy, elevate our attention; to complete the circuit, we need an audience. So, as the catalyst of this event on stage, I need to know what the audience is feeling like.”

And what has he discovered about audiences during his time in the foyer and the podium? “You know, all the time in this ‘business’” – he visibly shudders at the word – “we always talk about relevance: how can we be more relevant or more appealing or what is the public looking for? For me, the public is looking for what everyone is always looking for which is an experience which makes us better, makes us united, makes us part of something great. We need to have elevated experiences with others. I’m more convinced of that now than I ever was.”

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