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Enyi Okpara joins the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as Cavella Assistant Conductor

Ahead of his appointment, BliM talked with the young conductor about his hopes for his career and the future of classical music.  

Enyi Okpara from London has been announced as Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Calleva Assistant Conductor ahead of its 2024/25 season. Two days of auditions took place at Lighthouse, Poole with 8 finalists competing for the position. The winner was selected by a vote from the Orchestra’s musicians. The bursary-supported training position is designed to provide a platform to launch a professional career through performance opportunities and mentoring, including from the Orchestra’s world-leading guest conductors and musicians. The role, which received 120 applications, provides a platform to build professional experience and development, is supported by incoming Chief Conductor Mark Wigglesworth, Principal Guest Conductor Chloé van Soeterstède, and Associate Guest Conductor David Hill.

Currently based in London, Okpara studied for an MA in Orchestral Conducting with Sian Edwards at the Royal Academy of Music, where he held the Derek Butler Award. He is Conductor-in-Residence with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO), alongside positions with Camden Youth Choir, Elysium Music, ARK Music, and Havant Symphony Orchestra. In the wake of his appointment, the Black Lives in Music Team sat down with Enyi to discuss his aspirations now and in the future of the role.

Could you have imagined you’d have been at this stage in your career five (or even less) years ago? Talk to me a bit about your journey thus far. 

I started my musical life at 5, and I was involved in lots of youth music-making when I was younger. I played in my local youth orchestra and did a bunch of other extracurriculars. But I think the conversation about conducting only really started when I got to university. I was very fortunate to run the Bristol University Symphonia for about three years and that was the first proper experience. I just loved it and I had the best time doing it and met some wonderful people.

I think it also helped that I went to The London Oratory School and they had a very strong extracurricular music team and a very strong musical culture. So I’d always been very into playing and performing music but the plan wasn’t necessarily to do it professionally. It was only when COVID happened actually, when a friend of mine said to me, ‘You’ll know whether you miss conducting when the pandemic’s over’ and I did end up missing it a lot. I missed working with people, and the whole people aspect, which is a big part of this work.

I applied for the Timothy Masters at the Academy, and for the last few years, I’ve been studying with Sian Edwards at the Royal Academy of Music. She’s been a real inspiration and just amazing in supporting me musically. That’s essentially how this kind of all started – five years ago I never would have been able to imagine that I’d be here now.

What would you say to other hopeful conductors who are perhaps hoping to follow a similar trajectory and get into this position?

Take every opportunity as it comes because there’s always something to learn from it. One of the reasons for this journey I’ve been on is because I’ve had a really lovely support network. That has come through family, meeting lots of different people, friends, and mentors; there’s always someone cheering you on. I think especially in an audition setting or any sort of setting when you’re up against other people, it’s very easy to go in and see it as an exam, or as a test. But that’s not necessarily the case. You’ll find that the people on the other side are people who are rooting for you will have your best interests at heart and just want to see you do well. So take every opportunity that comes your way in stride. And always remember there’s always something to learn from it all, good or bad.

Have you been able to digest everything yet?

It’s been a whirlwind. I feel quite fortunate, the people who applied were whittled down from about one hundred or so people to eight who would then go on to do a live audition. After the second day of auditions, it came down to four of us and we all got a phone call telling us whether we made it through and I was very lucky to have done so. But in the midst of all of that going on, as I’m sure you’ll know, was also my first concert with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. So I’ve had a very hectic week or so. Emotions were sort of running high. It has been a mixture of nerves, excitement and just thinking ‘Wow, the next 12 months are really going to be quite big.’

What do those next 12 months and beyond look like for you? What are you most looking forward to?

I’m finishing my master’s at the Royal Academy of Music, so that’s quite a journey in and of itself and I’m looking forward to that. The thing I’m excited about with the Bournemouth in particular is being able to bridge that gap between being a student conductor and being a young professional conductor. The BSO have had several conductors before and they have a culture of looking after their young conductors, so I’m looking forward to some memorable performances with them. Also, the opportunity to work with some really inspirational conductors: Mark Wigglesworth, the new Chief Conductor of Performance at the Orchestra, who has emailed me already and who I’ve yet to meet is someone I’m really looking forward to working with. He’s someone I’ve only heard good things about. There’s a lot of learning for me to do and I’m looking forward to taking in as much as possible over the next year or two.

I’m really passionate about two things: trying to inspire the next generation of young musicians, through lots of side-by-side projects and getting them involved in classical music-making in a way that is accessible to them. But also increasing accessibility of classical music and particularly conducting.

I think it’s quite difficult to get into conducting and I know lots of people who want to get into conducting and would make very good conductors but just don’t have the resources to sit down and do that. My hope for classical music is that that changes. Now it’s a balance between obviously trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t but I am a big believer that if everyone had the opportunity and wanted to conduct themselves they should have the support. But it’s quite difficult if you don’t have the options to begin with.

I hope we get a sort of wider range of people sorts of different backgrounds. Also the conversations about conducting and wanting to conduct can happen either slightly earlier – from when you turn 15 or 17 at least – or when you’re in school. I think making sure that concerts are accessible for people to watch is equally as important. I come from a family where no one is a musician and actually, one of the things I’m always excited about is the BSO Pops Concerts that happen in the winter. The BSO do a lot of Christmas concerts and a host of others and that’s the one, I think for members of my family, for example, that I want to invite them to. There’s got to be an appeal, for most orchestras, in some way to target those particular people. It’s such an important part of what we do as classical musicians which is not just appealing to the converted but trying to widen the accessibility as much as possible.

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