Musical Director

Michael Downes

Michael Downes became musical director of the St Andrews Chorus in 2009, since when he has conducted them in works including Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Apostles and Kingdom; Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 (with the University Chamber Orchestra): Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast; Handel’s Jephtha, Samson, Messiah and Dixit Dominus; Britten’s St Nicolas; and Crucifixus and Stabat Mater (world premiere of the orchestral version) by Paul Mealor, the Chorus’s patron. In April 2022 he conducted a memorable performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony in Dundee’s Caird Hall, given jointly with the Dundee Choral Union.

Michael moved to Scotland in 2008 to take up a new role as the University of St Andrews' first full-time Director of Music, having previously held a similar post at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Between 2014 and 2016 he held the additional role of Artistic Director of the Byre Theatre, leading its transition into University management. He led the University’s project to build the Laidlaw Music Centre, which opened in 2022 and has already won several significant architectural awards. At the Music Centre he shares the conducting of the St Andrews Chamber Orchestra with Bede Williams, and he directs the University’s opera company, Byre Opera, with whom he has conducted productions including Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande (chamber version by Matthew Rooke), Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and Turn of the Screw, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Michael’s conducting of Turn of the Screw was praised by Andrew Clark in Opera magazine as ‘impressive … maintain[ing] dramatic momentum while remaining acutely sensitive to the needs of his cast’.

Michael read English and Music at King's College, Cambridge and completed a doctorate on the music of Debussy at the University of Sussex. He studied the cello with teachers including Ioan Davies and Timothy Mason and conducting with teachers including Lionel Friend and Colin Metters. Before moving to Scotland, he worked as a conductor with numerous choral, operatic, orchestral and contemporary music groups in Sussex, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and London. Alongside his work as a conductor, Michael is active as a lecturer and writer on music and opera. He has lectured for most of the UK’s leading opera companies and writes programme notes for organisations including Wigmore Hall and Snape Maltings. He collaborated with Nike Wagner, great-granddaughter of Richard, on the English version of her book about her family’s history, and has written books both with and about the British composer Jonathan Harvey; current writing projects include books about Wagner and Elgar.