Conductor Oliver Zeffman is a force of nature: as well as bringing characteristic ardour to each of his performances, he uses his talents to take classical music to new realms, and rarely takes no for an answer. His enthusiasm has helped him stage ground-breaking concerts and commission vital new pieces of music that anyone less driven might struggle to get off the ground.

It certainly helps that Zeffman, 31, has enough passion and charisma to sweep even the most ardent classical music traditionalist along for the ride, his words racing to overtake each other as he enthuses about the projects that prompted BBC Music Magazine to describe him as an “entrepreneurial tour de force”.

He also has a remarkable work ethic. At the age of just 16, after an energetic letter-writing campaign to raise funds from arts institutions, Zeffman created his own orchestra to help him learn his art, demonstrating a flair for leadership that belied his years.

“I started playing the violin when I was about four, then at school I played in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra,” Zeffman says. “At some point I decided that conducting looked way more fun than sitting with a violin, scrubbing away.”

Zeffman quickly came up with a solution, leading some friends from school and the youth orchestra to create the Melos Sinfonia. One of Zeffman’s early tours was with the orchestra’s celebrated concert staging of George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s opera Written on Skin. He has since focused on ambitious projects that, at their heart, aim to bring classical music to a wider audience.


While studying history and Russian at university, Zeffman took a year out to study at the St Petersburg State Conservatory, followed by a year at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

“I have ideas that I think are interesting and artistically valid, so I try to make them happen,” Zeffman says. “As a conductor, your job is to have some kind of vision for the music and convince everybody else of that vision.

“In an orchestra, I could be faced with a room of 100 very good musicians who, because I’m relatively young, have played a piece hundreds more times than I’ve conducted it, with conductors who are far more illustrious and experienced than me. But I still have to have something to say, otherwise what’s the point of my being there?

“You’re in the service of the composer of the music, but you’re also in the service of the public. It’s the entertainment business as much as it’s great art, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. So the projects I’m particularly interested in are those that bring classical music to new audiences – not gimmicky things, but partnering with different institutions and organisations to reach people in a different way.”

“I have ideas that I think are interesting and artistically valid, so I try to make them happen,” Zeffman says. “As a conductor, your job is to have some kind of vision for the music and convince everybody else of that vision. - Oliver Zeffman, Conductor


Zeffman has already made great strides in achieving his ambition via a series of game-changing projects with global reach. Take Eight Songs From Isolation, for example. This 40-minute opera-film was performed during lockdowns across the world by singers including Toby Spence and Sophie Bevan at the height of the pandemic. Shot entirely on iPhones, the film features eight new works created for the project by leading contemporary composers, and the opera was made available exclusively on Apple Music.

In 2022, Zeffman debuted Music x Museums: a series of concerts held in London at the V&A, the Cutty Sark, the Science Museum and the British Library to bring classical music to a new audience. “The visual arts probably have a larger audience than classical music – and a concert hall isn’t as visually striking as underneath the Cutty Sark, or the Raphael Court at the V&A,” Zeffman says.

In July this year, his most progressive project to date made its debut. Classical Pride at the Barbican was masterminded by Zeffman to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community’s role in classical music history, as well as bring classic works to fresh ears. Presented by DJ Nick Grimshaw and featuring the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, it included the world premiere of a new Julian Anderson commission.

“The Pride concert was the first anywhere in Europe by any major orchestra, opera house or concert hall,” says Zeffman. “Which seems strangely overdue to me, when Pride has been active in the UK for over 50 years. But I like classical music, and I want people to enjoy it, so it appealed to me that the audience for that concert was, in lots of ways, very different to a normal classical audience.

“We played a programme featuring serious composers that you might see in any classical concert – Tchaikovsky, Julian Anderson, Caroline Shaw – but because of how the concert was talked about, different audiences were hearing that music and they really engaged with it.” - Oliver Zeffman, Conductor

Part of what drives Zeffman to keep evolving in his work is his desire to be transformative and spark positive change at every turn as a leader. There is a risk, he says, of keeping things the same simply because that’s the way things have always been done – the antithesis of what he wants to do with his art.

“The classical music industry tends to be slightly inward-looking,” he explains. “There can be that sense of, ‘We’ve played concerts like this in a certain way for a long time – this is how we do things, so we’ll carry on.’

“When it comes to conducting and being a progressive leader, it’s about knowing what you want musically and having courage in your convictions. And as well as having very strong ideas, it’s also about being open to other people’s ideas. One way of making music is: you do exactly what I want. Another way is: I have a group of very talented and experienced musicians in front of me, and I want to harness that.

“Classical music is a living, breathing art form – it isn’t just music written 500 years ago. It can be a Renaissance chorale motet written in the 1500s or a major orchestral piece written yesterday. There’s something for everybody, which is why I’ve commissioned around 30 pieces from all kinds of composers. It’s simply about putting really good music in front of people.”