Aug 25, 2022 Music
At 12 years old, Gemma New fell in love. She was a violinist in the Wellington Youth Orchestra, and began playing an orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. “I thought it was the most glorious sound,” she says, the day before she’s about to start rehearsals to conduct that very piece. “I loved the fact that we were all coming together and creating something that is so much bigger than ourselves. I loved it so much, I thought, ‘I want to be part of an orchestra forever’.”
Twenty-three years later, Gemma New is the new principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Te Tira Pūoro o Aotearoa (NZSO), and the first woman to take the role. She is speaking from Dallas, where she is the principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. New is also the music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic — in Ontario, Canada, not Waikato — but lives in San Diego with her partner of 12 years (“that’s where all my mail goes”).
Having multiple roles in orchestras all over the world is an increasingly normal part of the classical music landscape. New — who has also spent considerable time with orchestras in New Jersey, Arizona and Los Angeles — calls these her “orchestra families”. The families each spend time with other conductors, just as she spends time with other orchestras. She says such arrangements are as beneficial for the orchestras as they are for the conductors. “I grow so much by getting to know orchestras all over the world,” she says. “I become more versed in, say, French music by playing it in Paris, or playing a Germanic repertoire in Germany, and I can take that experience with me. For the orchestras and the audience, they get to see a variety of approaches to music.”
For the uninitiated, the orchestra can seem an obscure and mysterious organism, and no part is more mysterious than the conductor. What are they doing up there? One can’t be blamed for wondering. Don’t the musicians already know what and how to play? It is, after all, written out in front of them on sheet music. Are they just keeping time, waving their arms around until it’s time to soak up the applause?
Conductors “listen to the orchestra and unite the interpretation”, New says. “To do that, 90% of the work is preparation before the first rehearsal. So you’re analysing the score, you’re digging into all the layers of a piece of music. What is going on? Where are the grey areas that aren’t so clear in the score? What are the 10 ways to play this transition or this balance or this length or this attack or articulation? What is the message of the music? We have to be thinking deeply about every bar and every instrument.”
New, who has the globalised accent of someone whose voice has only half-assimilated to its various homes, speaks about conducting with the fervency of a preacher or a tech CEO. “Always care,” she says. “Care deeply. Always be searching for the best possible way to be performing this music […] A conductor is the last line of defence. If a note isn’t being played accurately or the rhythm isn’t quite working, you’re the one responsible for fixing that.”
But she’s not just a musician coordinator, shaping the sound of a hundred-and-something other musicians, each playing their own instruments. She’s a manager and a boss, responsible for creating a work environment that is open, collaborative and supportive as well as, when necessary, constructively critical. “I learnt pretty early on that an orchestra wants to feel comfortable and wants to be free. It’s a wonderful dichotomy because if you’re just comfortable, maybe you just want to sit on the couch and watch TV and fall asleep. But what does comfortable mean in order to be free? The role of a member of the orchestra is an incredibly intense job, it has a high stress level. So I need to abate any anxiety, then together we find freedom, and then we can dream.”
As principal conductor and artistic advisor of the NZSO — which she considers “on par with the great orchestras around the world” — New also takes on a role as an ambassador for classical music in Aotearoa. Being our national orchestra, the NZSO has a mandate to play for as many people as possible in as many places as possible, which includes efforts to reach out to Māori and Pacific communities as well as the eternal requirement of bringing in younger audiences.
For New, these goals can be attained through meaningful engagement with communities, with the orchestra spending more time in different parts of the country in different formats, and in diversifying the music performed. “It can’t be just the same composers and the same styles, it has to be the whole world — everything we can possibly encompass, including the many types of music an orchestra can offer,” she says. “I’m an advocate for contemporary music because the music of our time should be the most relatable music to us. So to have that message be related in the strongest way possible, for our audience to appreciate and feel connected to, is an important responsibility of an orchestra.”
Her debut as principal conductor will open with Lahar, a work by contemporary New Zealand composer John Rimmer, before two pieces from the more well-known classical repertoire: Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 with global superstar soloist Hilary Hahn, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. “A lahar is the mudslide of a volcano, and this immense force of an eruption is an overwhelming natural event,” she says. “This is a very loud and violent — but also magnificent — opening work. I find every new music piece needs to have beauty, even if it’s a struggle. This piece has immense power — it can be a force to be reckoned with next to Shostakovich and Prokofiev.”
Hilary Hahn — unquestionably one of, if not the premier violinist in the world right now — was initially booked for three concerts in Auckland, but two of those are now playing in Wellington only. In their place, New will conduct Beethoven’s five piano concertos over three nights withrenowned English pianist Paul Lewis, who is coming from Beethoven piano concertos with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and performances at the prestigious Aspen Music Festival.
“Beethoven is one of New Zealand’s favourite composers and each of the concertos brings his bravura as pianist, his experience as a symphonist who was able to write such great journeys and sounds, balance and harmony,” New says. “So there’s a lot of explore with all five concertos which we’ll be doing over three days. We hope that people will come see all of them so they can have that experience together — we don’t get the opportunity often anywhere, let alone here.”