Interview: Nicolas Zekulin

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First published in The Herald on 1 March, 2017

When Nicolas Zekulin was a music undergraduate at the University of Calgary, he co-hosted a regular 6am jazz programme on the local student radio station. The show was called Cereal Focus, and as well as playing “the most out-there” records he could lay his hands on — hour-long bootleg Coltrane solos for drivetime, anyone? — Zekulin would invent mock-serious critiques of breakfast cereals and read them out in elaborate detail. More than 20 years later, he still gets stopped on the street when he’s visiting his parents back in Calgary and asked what he had for breakfast that morning. (His default choice nowadays, he revealed to The Herald, is Stoats porridge oats served a la Canadiana with nuts and maple syrup. No salt.)

Last month, Zekulin took over from Joan Gibson as Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland. For anyone who crossed paths with him during his previous job — he spent 12 years as head of artistic planning at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland — news of the appointment came as a inspired choice. Zekulin has the extravert qualities to enliven programming, make connections between NYOS and other institutions, invigorate young musicians. I suspect it’s those same qualities (enthusiasm, charm, energy, cheek) that meant he got away with reading out breakfast cereal reviews on jazz show.

It’s still early days to know where Zekulin will take the NYOS family. I meet him for coffee on Day 12 of his new job, and though he’s entirely positive about the scope of this year’s spring and summer concerts, those programmes were devised long before his arrival. That the overall theme is ‘The Americas’ is entirely coincidental both to his appointment, he points out, and to a certain presidential election.

Instead he talks through the broader issues that have been weighing on his mind since winning the post. “We’ve been talking constantly about grassroots,” he says. ”NYOS has got to reach beyond musicians of privilege. Did you know we have a collection of eighth size and quarter size string instruments? They’re just sitting there. We used to go out and hand them to tiny musicians who would never get to hear an orchestra, let alone play in one, and we had the schemes in place for follow-up work to get them started.”

He mentions ‘the NYOS pathway’ — a route intended for musicians aged 8 – 25 to progress through the organisation’s various ensembles, from training to junior to symphonic to near-professional level. “A young person who is passionate about orchestral or jazz music can see the way ahead,” he says. “There’s something to strive for. It’s great. But let’s face it, we’re receiving players who are getting their instruments and tuition elsewhere. We’re an add-on. They come either from a well-off background or they live in a local authority that is able and willing to provide these things through schools. Unfortunately that opportunity is diminishing all the time, even though the massive intrinsic benefit of the arts for young people has been proven a thousand times.”

Zekulin wonders aloud what NYOS can do to fill the gap. “We can’t be all things to all people,” he acknowledges, then catches himself for wanting exactly that. He wants to reach out to minorities. He wants all children to have access to the kind of select provision that Sistema offers its Big Noise communities. He wants NYOS to revive its early-years outreach work. “The worst thing would be to hand a child an instrument for an hour and then take it away again. But we can use the clout we have to be advocates. We can go into schools more than we do. We can work with local authorities. And the health system — I love the idea that the youngest in our society can connect with the oldest in a meaningful way.”

That word, connection, comes up a lot. We discuss the challenge of getting the balance right: of pushing gifted young musicians to achieve high levels of technical excellence while encouraging them to connect beyond their practice rooms. He recognises that the current format of NYOS courses provides focused training during school holidays, but doesn’t leave much time for the extracurricular outreach he’d like to see more of. ”Elite,” he says. “Now that’s a term I’d like to reclaim. We use the word ‘elite’ in sports all the time and it doesn’t get confused with ‘elitism’. Music should be the same. We need the elite level of craft and discipline, but artists also need to have humanity. I want to tell our young people: you have a gift. You’re lucky to have that talent or that drive — preferably both — and it’s your privilege to be able to share it with people who don’t have it, or don’t know that they do.”

Zekulin’s own connection with Scotland began with a chance romance. Born in Toronto, raised in Calgary, he studied as a baritone and performed with various Toronto ensembles including Tafelmusik Baroque Choir, Aradia Ensemble and Opera Atelier. It was in Toronto that he met the Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill — “for anyone else trying to work with us it must have been disgusting; we kept gazing at each other all the time” — and she brought him back to Glasgow. The couple’s son is now old enough to have developed his own football affiliations, despite his father’s protestations.

Zekulin is likely to inject international perspective and connections to NYOS. He emphasises the importance of touring, however expensive, as a defining experience for young musicians, and sites his own memories of adolescent trips with youth choirs. (“Three weeks in Australia? With girls?!”) He says he had been considering a US tour for NYOS in the next couple of years — the Scottish ex-pat network is tremendously handy for funding — but has shelved that plan for the foreseeable and is looking at Canada or Europe as alternatives.

Day 12, he keeps reminding himself, but his ambitions are big and lateral. He hopes to target the early-professional stage, to extend the work of NYOS’s top ensembles Camerata and Futures to become more regular and more visible. He mentions London’s young professional Southbank Sinfonia as a model, and how the National Opera Studio works in partnership with Arts Council England and the UK’s opera companies. It’s an intriguing notion: could Scotland’s core-funded orchestras team up to contribute to a training ensemble for young professionals? He notes the indefensible absence of NYOS from the Edinburgh International Festival — in the orchestra’s near 40-year existence, it has performed at EIF only once, and that was back in the 1980s. I suspect we won’t have to wait long for that to change. “2018 has been designated the Year of Young People in Scotland,” he says, “and yep, I intend to take absolute full advantage of that.”

The NYOS Junior, Senior and Symphony orchestras and the NYOS Jazz Collective all perform in Scotland in April. See www.nyos.co.uk for details