By Sigurd Neubauer
Maestra Gemma New, who was appointed Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) in February of this year, considers it as her responsibility to introduce audiences to contemporary classical music.
During the pandemic, she was in New Zealand, a country that was able to keep COVID out for the first 19 months, which is when she began her artistic collaboration with the NZSO.
“I am very excited about my partnership with the NZSO,” New says in a wide-ranging interview.
In her new role, the Maestra will also help develop NZSO programming for the upcoming seasons.
In addition to her position at the NZSO, she is the Music Director of Canada’s Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; she will remain at the two North American institutions for the foreseeable future, New tells M&C.
“Dallas and Hamilton are orchestral families who I love so much,” New explains while adding that she is also carrying out “lots of guest conducting, especially in Europe”.
Her international experience will enable the Maestra to keep an eye on what other orchestras are performing as she helps plan the programming for NZSO.
“I am on the road all the time and that’s the way that I like it.”
New is also looking forward to spending more time with her parents and brother’s family in New Zealand.
The Rite of Spring
New is passionate about Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which she performed for the very first time last summer in her native New Zealand.
“I love the piece so much,” New declares enthusiastically. “It represents an escape from the present day as it takes you into something that is so historical and mythical. It is a fantasy,” she says.
“The Rite of Spring draws on the spiritual and natural worlds.” It is also about survival, and while the history of it is horrific, its characters are experiencing euphoria.”
“The piece not only comes alive, but it also drips with emotions, and it is physically demanding from all of the stomps and steps; the music speaks to us is in a very human way,” New explains.
The Maestra reveals that she likes “the loudness” of the dances as they progress. “The characters are coming alive,” she adds.
The Rite of Spring, which is a ballet and orchestral work, was composed for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company while the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich.
During its premier at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the performance caused a riot which New argues was mostly drawn by the choreography. The work itself had mostly been composed in Switzerland where Stravinsky had moved in August 1910 following the premier of the Firebird.
Decades later, The Rite of Spring also became immortalized into American popular culture when Walt Disney included it into Fantasia (1940). Stravinsky’s life and legacy has ever since captivated the public, including in the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009), which depicts a fictionalized affair between the two historic figures.
“Just like Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica symphony had revolutionized classical music a century before, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had a similar impact,” New explains.
Discussing its performance, the Maestra says: “We gave The Rite of Spring everything. Afterwards, we needed a long bath.”
“The more you know about it, the history and what’s happing on the stage, with its multiple layers, the more fascinating it is. This is why I love it,” New adds.
The Maestra believes that a young conductor should embrace many different styles.
She sees the next generation conductors as “more collaborative” then her predecessors.
Having grown up in Wellington, New Zealand, New started playing the violin in orchestras from a very early age, having been exposed to “big repertoires,” including by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten, among others.
During her time at a youth orchestra, which had three conductors, she witnessed firsthand the wide-ranging reach of the conductor and his responsibilities.
She knew immediately that she wanted to be a conductor. “When I was 12, I knew that I wanted to be in an orchestra forever. At 15, I told my best friend: ‘This is it. I want to be a conductor.’ This is where I fit in.”
New credits her success to being surrounded by supportive mentors and teachers. Her first conducting job came at 19, at the Christchurch Youth Orchestra
Brian Buggy became an early mentor. She would do the rehearsals for the youth orchestra whereas Buggy would conduct at the performances and help her with the score studies.
“This is where I learned that if you have the right attitude, devotion to music and bringing everyone together, so that every musician can feel most comfortable and invigorated, good things will happen.”
It is, however, a “conundrum to make everyone feel comfortable yet invigorated but this is the wonderful psychology” of being a conductor New says, adding that this is why she enjoys it as she’s able to “unleash that creative energy”.
Upon graduating the University of Canterbury in New Zealand with a Bachelor of Music in violin performance at the age of 21, New obtained a Master of Music degree in orchestral conducting from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
The New York Philharmonic’s legendary conductor, Kurt Masur, also became a mentor with whom she took three masterclasses from 2012-14; first at the Manhattan School of Music; then with Baltic Sea Philharmonic at Peenemünde and finally in Leipzig, Germany. In Leipzig, New even visited Mazur’s home where she studied Mendelssohn and Beethoven scores.
Following her graduate studies in 2011, New joined the New Jersey Symphony (2011-16) but has since guest conducted for some of America’s premier orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestra among others.
As a violist New has a particular soft spot for Mendelssohn’s concerto but in her career as a Maestra, she tries to be “very democratic” when choosing repertoires for the orchestras that she leads – as opposed to just selecting music for the violin – by including music for cellos and other instruments as she plans the seasons.
In 2013, she stopped playing the violin altogether as she instead focused on her conducting career.
For Maestra New to keep her craft sharp, she goes out running before concerts to build up her stamina. She also eats healthy. “Conducting is a workout,” she says. Mentally, New prepares an hour for each page of the score while underscoring that studying the scores “is a lifelong journey,” including getting into the what’s and why. She uses her mathematical skills – which she studied during her Bachelors – to analyze all of the details, which helps let the material sink in. She adds that being “well organized” is essential.
“The most important part is to stay calm and putting the best foot forward,” she says. “If you have anxiety or fear, that can distract the orchestra.”
Surprising the audience
New sees it as her responsibility as a conductor to premier music by contemporary composers.
“We are enjoying this incredible music that has withstood the test of time, but at one point it was premiered. We need to have performers who trust the composers of our time to be their voices for future generations,” the Maestra asserts.
“It is quite hard to have a work commissioned for an orchestra, and it is a significant investment for everyone involved as writing a lengthy work can take years for composers. It is a very serious undertaking,” she adds.
Nonetheless, New believes in taking risks.
“While we don’t know where we will find ourselves, taking the risk is of paramount importance,” she explains.
“As far as our audiences are concerned, whether they are knowledgeable about music or not, they may be able to relate to themes and its messages because it is of our generation or our time. For those who want to go deeper, we can find out where the composers draw influences from and how they delight the audience in the process.”
Pointing to her commitment to having contemporary classical music premiered, in November 2021, the Maestra – along with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – premiered Kevin Puts’ The Brightness of Light.
The theme of the concert, New explains, drew inspirations from art and the sea. It featured
Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture and Claude Debussy’s La Mer, along with, of course, Put’s composition. It also featured Renée Fleming and Rod Gilfry as soloists.
In late April, the Maestra – along with the Minnesota Orchestra – performed another new work: Vivienne Fung’s Aqua. Johannes Brahams’ piano concerto No. 1 and Samuel Barber’s Symphony were also performed.
“Brahms’ piano concerto is both serene and full of emotions while the Barber symphony is hyper romantic,” New says while explaining that “everyone can understand the nature of the water,” a reference to Fung’s Aqua. “It has two climaxes to it, which brings out the powerful voice of the orchestra and the beautify of the music. The three pieces of music go together well.”