Story of a classical music maestro

Owain Arwel Hughes is one of the world’s best known conductors. In a new book he talks about his life in music. Chris Bond spoke to him.

OWAIN Arwel Hughes grew up in Cardiff surrounded by music.

The valleys of South Wales are, of course, renowned for their choirs, but add the fact that his father was a composer who went on to become head of music at the BBC and it’s perhaps not surprising that he dedicated his life to music.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In a remarkable career spanning more than 40 years, Hughes has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, the Halle and the BBC Concert Orchestra and shared the stage with the likes of Pavarotti, Bryn Terfel and Shirley Bassey. He recounts all this in his autobiography, My Life in Music, in which he charts his rise from a humble school choir to performing in front of members of the Royal family and a packed house at Cardiff Arms Park.

Despite his proclivity for music, though, he very nearly became a Baptist Minister. “I knew I had this musical talent but it was a really difficult decision to make and I didn’t know what to do,” he says. After much soul searching he decided to pursue a musical career. “I remember telling my father as he sat reading his newspaper at the kitchen table and him saying ‘I’ve been waiting for you to say that.’”

Hughes grew up during the 60s, but it was classical music, rather than rock n’ roll, that he was drawn to. “I started conducting with the school choir and classical and pastoral music just seemed very natural to me,” he says.

Having then made the decision to follow a musical career, he set out to make his dream come true. “I was pretty clear in my mind that my talent was for conducting, but you need to be able to practise. If you’re a musician, you can carry your instrument round with you but you can’t do that with an orchestra.”

In 1964, he was offered a place at London’s Royal College of Music to study conducting under the tutelage of Sir Adrian Boult. “He was amazing – with someone like that you just listen and watch. I learned sitting at the feet of a master who had a direct link back to Brahms through his own mentor, Nikisch, and who was friends with Vaughan Williams and Elgar. He had a unique insight into these composers.”

This gave him the platform from which to launch his career and over the next decade he spent time working with a number of prestigious orchestras including several at the BBC and the Hallé.

Then in 1980 he took over as conductor of the world renowned Huddersfield Choral Society. “I had been a guest conductor with them before and one day I was requested to meet with the committee of the choir. They said they felt their standards had dropped a bit and they said ‘we enjoy what you do, will you help to put us back where we belong?’”

He agreed and looks back on his time there with real fondness. “I had a great time. I appointed the first female chorus master in their history and together we brought them back up,” he says. “I’ve played at some great venues in Huddersfield and Leeds and I’ve always had a very close connection with Yorkshire.”

As one of the world’s leading conductors he has led performances of great works by the likes of Brahms, Beethoven and Rachmaninov.

“When I’m conducting great works I find that they consume me, my first concert with the Hallé was Brahms Fourth Symphony and that piece of music has become an important part of my career.”

Now in his 70th year, he looks back on his career with pride. “Being a conductor can be tough and it can be very lonely because you’re the boss. There’s a lot of pressure and responsibility, but it’s also incredibly exciting and when I stop and think about it all I don’t think music was a choice for me, it was my destiny.”

My Life in Music, published by University of Wales Press, is out now priced £24.99

Hughes: The life of a conductor

Owain Arwel Hughes was born in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales, in 1942.

As a young man he considered becoming a Baptist minister before dedicating his career to music.

Hughes studied at the Royal College of Music where his mentor was the legendary conductor Adrian Boult.

He was conductor of the Huddersfield Choral Society between 1980 and 1986.

Hughes has worked with such famous names as Bryn Terfel, Pavarotti and Dame Shirley Bassey.

In 2004, he was awarded an OBE for his services to music and charity, followed by a CBE in 2009.