Portrait of the artist: John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

'Being accepted is the biggest challenge. Every time you stand in front of a new orchestra, you are on trial'

What got you started?

The fact that music was woven into my family life. We sang grace before meals, and we had a choir. Music wasn't something arty or exceptional – it was just what we did.

What was your big breakthrough?

It was on 5 March 1964, at 4.10pm, when I conducted the Monteverdi vespers for the first time in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. It was a do-or-die venture, to see whether I could bring out all the colours in Monteverdi's music using polite English singers. The performance had enough going for it to encourage me.

What have you sacrificed for your art?

The security of a nine-to-five job. Being a musician is precarious, and the people who employ you – however enthusiastic they sound – are capricious.

What piece of music would work as the soundtrack to your life?

A Beethoven symphony, numbers two or four. They encapsulate the vast contours of one's life – the high points and the moments of gloom and distress.

What advice would you give a young conductor?

Only do it if there's a flame inside you that just won't go out.

What's your favourite film?

My Cousin Vinny. It makes me hoot with laughter.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Getting accepted as a serious musician. Every time you stand in front of a new orchestra as a guest conductor, you're on trial.

What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Learn the grammar and do the chores. It was implicit in the work of my teacher, [French professor] Nadia Boulanger. She taught us to ask ourselves what right we had to call ourselves musicians.

Which living artists do you most admire?

Howard Hodgkin, Philip Pullman and Mariss Jansons.

What's the greatest threat to music today?

Aural bombardment, whether it's Muzak in lifts or the sound of aeroplanes.

Complete this sentence: At heart I'm just a frustrated . . .


Is there an art form you don't relate to?

Classical ballet. The rhythm of the music doesn't line up with the dancing.

What work of art would you most like to own?

Anything by Goya. He sums up everything you want to know about his period – a time of revolution, Beethoven and the horrors of war.

In short

Born: Dorset, 1943.

Career: Founded the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. His album Bach's Brandenburg Concertos is out now on SDG.

High point: "Conducting Berlioz's great opera The Trojans in Paris in 2003."

Low point: "Being called up at short notice in 1969 to conduct the BBC Northern orchestra. I hadn't had time to learn the scores."


Laura Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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