story by Kyle MacMillan
photo by Per Morton
With his youthful looks, quick laugh, and down-to-earth manner, Ryan Bancroft easily defies the stereotypes often associated with conductors of classical music.
Add those winning qualities to his obvious skills with the baton, and it is easy to understand why the 32-year-old American conductor is enjoying a blossoming career in Europe with two small but important posts and a third more significant one on the way in 2023-24: chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
“It just so happens that a lot of the work that I initially got was over here,” Bancroft said from his home in London, “but I have been coming more and more to the States and also to Canada and really enjoying that.”
This summer, he will make his Colorado Music Festival debut and what will be his first trip to the state. When he received the invitation, the conductor didn’t need a lot of convincing. “A summer in Colorado? That sounds amazing, so I’m happy to come,” he said.
He will lead two programs. His first set of concerts, July 21 and 22, will include Florence Price’s long-overlooked Violin Concerto No. 2 and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, and his July 24 line-up will be entirely devoted to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, including the celebrated composer’s Symphony No. 39. “Mozart has always been a favorite composer of mine,” the conductor said, “due mostly to the fact that the first CD I ever received from my parents was a ‘Best of Mozart’ recording.”
Bancroft grew up in Los Angeles and came to conducting about 11 years ago through an odd twist of events. His father died when he was studying trumpet at the California Institute of the Arts, and as a tribute, he decided to organize a concert featuring Mozart’s Requiem – his dad’s favorite work.
He recruited an orchestra and choir from his fellow CalArts students and led the performance in a church in Santa Clarita, a city just north of Los Angeles, discovering that he liked conducting and seemingly had a knack for it. “Through something quite terrible, something good came out of it,” he said.
He went on to receive a master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and continued his studies in Amsterdam. “I was strongly encouraged to take my studies to Europe due to the fact that a vast majority of the music I was interested in at the time came from this side of the pond,” Bancroft said. “I was lucky to get into several programs in Europe and eventually ended up staying.”
His big breakthrough came in 2018 when he won both first prize and the audience prize at the Malko Competition in Copenhagen, an international conducting contest that the symphonic world follows closely for new talent. “I can measure everything before that and everything after that as two completely times in my life,” Bancroft said. “It completely catapults you onto the world stage and gives umpteen opportunities for everyone involved in the competition.”
As a result of his Malko victory, the conductor gained all-important representation by an agent and the help of a career consultant for a year. “That was vital, because otherwise I probably would have gone crazy,” he said.
Because his conducting studies and many of his early engagements were in Europe, he has lived there for about 10 years. Making London his home now allows him to jump on a train for work at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, where he serves as principal conductor, and to catch quick flights for other engagements across the continent, including those as artist in association at the Tapiola Sinfonietta in Finland starting this season.
Bancroft had a “soft spot in his heart” for Sibelius even before he took up the Finnish post, but his time there has affected how he approaches works like the composer’s Second Symphony, which he will lead in Boulder. “Every time I go to Finland,” he said, “I feel I learn more bit by bit about many different Finnish musics, Sibelius included. There really is a quiet intensity about the place that is quite infectious.”
In addition to his first appearance with the Baltimore Symphony in January, Bancroft has made guest-conducting debuts in recent seasons with major orchestras like the BBC Symphony, Danish National Symphony and Rotterdam Philharmonic. And more are scheduled for 2022-23, including one with the Atlanta Symphony.
Is it challenging to lead well-established orchestras as a young, budding conductor?
“There’s definitely more responsibility,” he said, “now that I have the good fortune to go to these really wonderful ensembles, but that also means that I have to be absolutely prepared. I’m not Semyon Bychkov or Herbert Blomstedt, who have been doing this for decades and decades and have far more experience than I do.
“There are still quite a lot of pieces that I have not done, and there are pieces that I’m doing for the first time constantly. So, in that way, there is still this base level of manageable fear that I have going into a lot of concerts. The job of an artist, in my case a conductor, is simply a difficult job. It’s not meant to be a super-easy job. It’s meant for us to put it on the line, to go in the ring and do the match. If it were easy, would I be that interested in it anymore? Probably not.”
2022 Festival attendees can hear Ryan Bancroft conduct two separate programs this summer at Chautauqua Auditorium: July 21/22 and July 24. Tickets are on sale now.