Jaime Martín is 56, but he has been working full-time as a conductor for only nine years. For most of his career, he has played the flute. Not that conducting was a new interest; when he was only 19, studying in The Hague in the Netherlands, there was the option of taking a course in conducting. But at the same time, he was chosen for the European Union Youth Orchestra – where he first met his wife Rachel Gough, who is now Principal Bassoon with the London Symphony Orchestra.
No way was he giving that up. “It was young musicians from all over Europe,” he recalls. “That was an incredible orchestra. And on my first project with this orchestra, the conductor was Claudio Abbado and the soloist was Jessye Norman; we were doing Schoenberg.
“The second tour was with Zubin Mehta; we went to India and met Ravi Shankar, playing the sitar. Imagine! I am 21; I love music and suddenly I have one-on-one time with Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta. I thought, ‘Well, if I was conducting, I would never meet these people.’ And if I want to get to know conducting, what better classroom than to play in the best orchestras I could?”
At the end of his studies, he moved to London and became Principal Flute at the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the late Sir Neville Marriner, who often told him he should conduct.
When the transition came, he says with a grin, it was right at the time when men are supposed to have mid-life crises – in his early 40s. But this was anything but a crisis; it just crept up on him. He was asked if he would be interested in conducting a youth orchestra. “I thought, ‘Why not?’ I did it. And then, from that moment, it snowballed. People who listened to that concert invited me to do other things.” Nine years ago, he got his first position as Principal Conductor at Gävle in Sweden.
For Martín, it was always about the music. Flute was not his first choice. When he was eight, his father took him to his first orchestral concert in Santander, the city in northern Spain where he grew up. There were records at home, but they had never interested him. The experience of instruments playing live, however, was something else.
“That made me completely crazy. No, really!” He imagined playing the violin. Now when his father put Tchaikovsky on the turntable, he would grab a broomstick and pretend to saw away at its imaginary strings.
Martín was the eldest of six children living in a small apartment. There was no money for private lessons. It was possible, however, to learn a wind instrument for free through a scheme run by the city administration. Twice a week, he took lessons from the flute player in the Santander municipal band. “If I hadn’t had that possibility, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “I loved the violin, but I am very thankful to the flute because, thanks to it, I made contact with music. And actually, as it happened, I was pretty good at it.”