In my galley-years of service as a critic, I’ve known concerts that have taken place on board ships, or beside ships, or thematically about ships – but I’d never known one underneath a ship. Until, that is, last summer when an enterprising young conductor thought the dry-dock space under the Cutty Sark in Greenwich might be interesting as a makeshift auditorium.


We all sat with the great hulk of the Sark suspended in mid-air above our heads, preferring not to think of what would happen if the engineering failed. For those with fragile nerves it was alarming. But the Philharmonia Orchestra played unfazed through a programme of appropriately sea-related music. And despite the sinister presence of a small army of ship’s figureheads assembled like extras from a horror film behind the performers, it was wonderfully uplifting. As, I’m glad to say, were the assembled struts/nuts/bolts that kept the Sark in place.

The young conductor who made all this happen was Oliver Zeffman, an entrepreneurial tour de force who first drew attention as a teenager devising crazily ambitious concerts of new British music – Maxwell Davies, Adès, Anderson – for a precocious orchestra he’d pulled together from assorted friends. Fast-talking and persuasive, with an endearingly optimistic belief that anything was possible if you tried, he had the can-do qualities to make things like this work. And they did, impressively.

Now 30, he hasn’t wasted the intervening years. And his concert under the Cutty Sark was the culmination of a project to stage filmed performances in visually enticing places – notably museums, which he finds more interesting than concert halls, and accordingly called ‘Music x Museums’. The results have been released by Platoon, four in the collection, available on Apple Music and Viking TV. They’re not your average concert films. And although made by different directors, they follow Zeffman’s line that ‘here’s an orchestra in a hall, here’s a violinist’s fingers on the strings or a percussionist hitting something’ isn’t enough.

‘I wanted a strong visual sense and expressive focus on people’, he says, ‘not so much their fingers, which is why I started out working with Stewart French who specialises in beautiful, intimate fly-on-the-wall documentary style. The Cutty Sark film is by Andy Staples, best-known as a singer but branching out into directing and – in the process – bringing to it a musician’s sensibility. So I can truly say these things look good, and in a way that’s different.’

Sounding good was, needless to say, quite important too, and from the outset Zeffman made a point of choosing prominent collaborators. The first of the four films, shot in the Victoria & Albert Museum, features countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The next two, shot in the British Library and Science Museum, have the Academy again, with pianist Peter Donohoe and the Bach Choir among others. And sharing that claustrophobic space under the Cutty Sark with the Philharmonia is mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly.

‘It was important’, says Zeffman, ‘that the music fitted the surroundings. At the time, the V&A was running an exhibition about masculinity in fashion: “Undressed, Overdressed, and Redressed”. So we thought the gender issues raised by countertenor singing would be suitable. For overdressing we had Lully’s music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Underdressing was the pared-down neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète. And redressing was a Caroline Shaw piece based on a traditional minuet and trio.’

Meanwhile, the British Library programme tied in with a Beethoven exhibition running there; the Science Museum offered ‘ordered chaos’ through the sonic lens of Birtwistle and Terry Riley; and for Cutty Sark it was Elgar’s Sea Pictures.

Getting all this together – from raising the money, finding production partners, collecting venues and contracting artists, through to the conclusion of directing the performances – was no small undertaking. But then Zeffman isn’t short of experience.

He created his orchestra, the Melos Sinfonia, aged just 16 when he was still a Highgate schoolboy in North London. Seven years later – by which time he’d read Russian and History at Durham followed by more pertinent music studies (‘harmony, analysis and useful things like that’) in St Petersburg – he was taking his Sinfonia on tour, to give what was almost the Russian premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (‘Someone got there just before us’). Two years after that, in 2019, he staged the undisputed Russian premiere of the same composer’s Lessons in Love and Violence. And with his star visibly ascendent, he was starting to get serious conducting engagements from mainstream orchestras when Covid struck – the diary emptied, and he found himself wondering what to do. But not for long.

‘I’m not someone who sits waiting for things to happen,’ he says with understatement. ‘People everywhere were posting videos of themselves performing in their bedrooms, and that was OK for a time but not the most interesting way to make music. I wanted a project that went further.’ And the project was ‘Eight Songs from Isolation’ – named with obvious reference to Maxwell Davies, and arguably no less mad than his kingly songs in its ambition to procure new works from leading composers around the world and allocate them to leading performers for filming on iPhones.

He didn’t hold back on big names, pairing the likes of Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly with Iestyn Davies, Sarah Connolly or Toby Spence. And in accordance with his life philosophy that ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’, he took the project to Apple Music in conjunction with Marquee TV. Who said yes.

‘If you convince other people you have ideas and they’re exciting, it seems to work,’ says Zeffman. ‘And, of course, the circumstances helped. In normal times, I’d never have got someone like Adès on board: but the project was interesting, and as I’d raised the money, I was able to pay proper commission fees. Call me a wheeler-dealer if you like – and personally I don’t like because it sounds shabby – but my father’s a lawyer; it’s in my genes. And I really do believe in the things I try to get money for.’

More like this

As ‘Eight Songs’ hit the internet, drawing worldwide hits, a follow-up took shape in Zeffman’s mind involving an exquisitely filmed, Covid-conscious, audience-free concert at the V&A in which he conducted violinist Viktoria Mullova. And the success of that one-off event in turn led to the ‘Music x Museums’ series. Which brings Zeffman’s career up to date.

By his own admission, his diary right now isn’t as full as it should be – largely because he had invested time and effort building connections in Russia that aren’t useful as things stand. But his work is picking up in France. And here in Britain he has another project pending: a Barbican concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in July to mark Pride week.

As ever, he has big names lined up: the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, bass-baritone Davóne Tines, pianists Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy… performing music by Tchaikovsky, Poulenc and a new commission from a living gay composer of distinction (there’s no shortage).

Zeffman is himself gay, which explains his motivation; and he’s keen to stress that ‘although Yannick Nézet-Séguin did a Pride concert in Philadelphia last year, this is – so far as I can tell – the first by a major orchestra in Europe.’ But you might just ask why such a thing is needed, when gay artists and composers aren’t exactly underrepresented or uncelebrated in the Western classical tradition. Zeffman’s answer: that’s a reason in itself.

‘Classical music owes a lot to LGBT people, it’s worth saying so, and Pride is the moment for it. So why not? I can’t say I’ve ever experienced prejudice as a conductor: orchestras these days tend to be less macho than in the past, which is great. But it’s not great everywhere. Recently in Florida, the King’s Singers had a concert cancelled because the promoter learned that one of them was gay: and that’s America, home of liberal democracy. It’s not too great in Russia these days either. So yes, there’s purpose in a classical Pride concert. And it’s also a chance to engage with people outside the core audience for classical music, who wouldn’t normally come to a Barbican orchestral event but might if they’re drawn by the LGBT connection.’

Somebody who sadly won’t be drawn is Elton John, who was approached but isn’t free. Clearly the ‘If you don’t ask…’ rule isn’t entirely foolproof. But with Zeffman, it comes close.

On Friday 7 July 2023, Oliver Zeffman and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra present the first Classical Pride concert given by a major orchestra in Europe at London's Barbican, featuring an LGTBQ+ community chorus and soloists Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, Nicky Spence, Davóne Tines and Ella Taylor. Presented by the broadcaster and DJ Nick Grimshaw, the programme explores music by LGBTQ+ composers, from Tchaikovsky to Poulenc and Bernstein, Caroline Shaw and a new commission from Julian Anderson.

On 30 June 2023 Platoon releases an EP of Caroline Shaw’s 'Is a Rose'. Oliver Zeffman leads the Philharmonia, and soloists Nicky Spence (tenor), Davoné Tines (bass-baritone) and Ella Taylor (soprano) through Shaw's three-part song cycle. Also included as a bonus track is a new arrangement of 'Renaissance', the theme to the second season of HBO's The White Lotus.


Photo: Rebecca Reid


Michael WhiteJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine