Paul Watkins is an unassuming chap, but in making him their associate conductor, the English Chamber Orchestra may have pulled a masterstroke. For he's not only a conductor of growing repute, he's also a cellist of renown – winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest in 1988, and garlanded with many awards since – and also, though he doesn't trumpet this fact, an excellent chamber pianist. And since his new band is full of chamber musicians, with some of whom he has long played, this new relationship should be a true meeting of minds.
He first clocked the ECO in its Sixties incarnation under Daniel Barenboim, and admired the way it premiered new works by Britten. When asked what his plans for it are, he replies that his principal one is to get back to the roots. "I want to revive some of the Britten pieces and to make a speciality of doing British contemporary music again."
Who is he thinking of? "At the risk of sounding nepotistic, my pianist brother Huw is writing very well at present, and I notice that David Matthews, whose work I greatly admire, has an association with the orchestra, so we'll capitalise on that.
"I also want to do some music by Julian Anderson, and we'll see what pieces by Adès we can do."
Watkins insists that he's not coming in wanting to impose grand ideas. "I want to see what ideas come from the orchestra." And what about the cello? "Yes, I want to bring whatever knowledge I have as a working cellist to the job – and hopefully play with them quite a bit as well. But I won't lead with my cello – I don't think that ever works."
Who was the biggest influence on his cello-playing? "Paul Tortelier. His has always been the sound I wanted to emulate – a mixture of elegance and an intensity bordering on tension." And on his conducting? "Haitink. Though he doesn't impose much in rehearsals, or even say much, he's one of the most elegant and expressive men on the podium I've ever seen."
29 January (020-7730 4500)