December 6, 2023

Gemma New featured in CSO Experience ahead of Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut

Rising star Gemma New delights in a busy season of big podium debuts
By Kyle MacMillan
CSO Experience
December 6, 2023

Talk about a big season. In 2023-24, New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New will make subscription debuts with 11 orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, Vancouver Symphony and Orchestre National de France. All of that is on top of first performances this past summer at the BBC Proms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center.

“I enjoy meeting new orchestras,” she said. “So far, I’ve just really enjoyed this year. It’s been an amazing year.”

Also on that long list of upcoming debuts is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. New will lead a pair of concerts Feb. 8 and 10, along with pianist Seong-Jin Cho, who is also making his first CSO appearance. (He previously performed on the Symphony Center Presents Piano series.) Winner of the 2015 Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, Cho will serve as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

The program culminates with Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish), which the composer began in 1829 during a visit to Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. New detailed some of the extra-musical references and folk influences she sees in each movement, the great sea storm in the first, the Scottish snap (a kind of syncopated dance rhythm) in the second and a great battle between the English and Scottish armies in the fourth. “It’s one of my favorite pieces because of all these great scenes that he creates in the music, as well the beauty of the melodies and the vivaciousness of the rhythmic vitality in this music. It’s brilliant.”

That Mendelssohn is one of New’s favorite composers is not totally surprising. Early in her career, she served as a Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Fellow, studying the composer’s music with Kurt Masur, kapellmeister of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Germany from 1970 through 1996, a post once held by Mendelssohn.

The CSO program will open with the orchestra’s first-ever performance of Musica Celestis (1990) by Aaron Jay Kernis, winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Music. According to his composer’s note, the piece’s title refers to the early Christian concept of the phrase “as angels singing,” and he studied medieval music extensively in writing this piece, especially that of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). The work opens with what New calls the “most stunning rays of lights” and an evocation of snow falling gently. “Then, suddenly, it bursts into these bubbles of color that are just shockingly active,” she said. “It’s a stunning work. I have done this a few times around the world, and orchestras have really enjoyed it as well as audiences.”

When she makes a debut, as she is doing in Chicago, New tries to provide as comprehensive list of potential repertoire, so artistic leaders can best choose a program that makes sense for their orchestra and that season. “If I know an orchestra better, I can be a bit more specific,” she said. Once the line-up is set, she tries to work, for example, with each orchestra’s librarians to make sure, where appropriate, that bowings and other notations are on the musicians’ parts on the first day of rehearsal.

“With a new orchestra, it’s like making new friends and getting to know them better,” she said. “So you want to listen carefully and see their personality, see what traditions they have and how they best work, and then use your own experiences and natural habits and come closely together as best you can with that week. I really enjoy that kind of work, and I look forward to doing it with the Chicago Symphony.”

Growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, New started studying the violin when she was 5 and added the piano two years later. The violin was her main instrument, and she fell in love with playing in orchestras. One of her youth ensembles had three conductors, and she studied their different personalities and approaches. “I was fascinated by that, and the reaction they got from the orchestra. One was a maestro with great experience and you felt like you very well cared for with that guidance, that wisdom. Then, the second-in-command had a great sense of humor, and we were on the floor, laughing, and it was joy of music-making that he really brought forth. The third conductor was really quiet, but what he had to say was always golden so we had to listen carefully, and that made us more sensitive to what was going on around us.”

When she was 15, she got her first shot at conducting. A teacher was leaving, and the orchestra wanted to give her a surprise farewell performance. Because New was the concertmaster, the job of leading fell to her, and she reveled in the opportunity. “I loved analyzing the score and seeing how all the parts fit together and bringing everything together in rehearsal. I loved that unification, working with all my peers at the time. I told my best friend after that first performance that this is what I want to do.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, a stint that allowed her to learn even more about an orchestra from the inside out, she gained her master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

In the years following her graduation, she received multiple conducting fellowships from various organizations. None was more important than a five-day workshop in 2013 for rising musicians at Carnegie Hall that revolved around what was known as the American Soundscapes ensemble. New even garnered a mention in a New York Times review for leading John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons (1996). “Gemma New led a lively performance of the piece, based on what Mr. Adams called the faux materials of his invented folk tune and a hoedown subtitled Mad Cow (complete with a defiant moo),” wrote critic Vivien Schweitzer.

New impressed the two leaders of the workshop — Adams and conductor David Robertson — so much that each helped her to secure later posts. The former played a role in her becoming a Dudamel Conducting Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the latter was instrumental in her being named Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony for four years. “It’s slow and steady,” New said of the process of building a career. “But just doing your best with every opportunity that you have and forming beautiful relationships and being inspired by these amazing artists.”

A recipient of the 2021 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, New has held several other early conducting posts as well, including four years as Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony and Assistant and Associate Conductor of the New Jersey Symphony in 2011-2016. This season marks her ninth and final season as Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada and her second as Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Not appearing very often on her resume is opera, even though she is quick to say that she loves the form. Each of the last two summers, she conducted a production at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, leading the classic American opera Susannah, this season, but that has been all recently. “I’m hoping to do a bit more of it in coming seasons,” she said. “I really enjoy it. It’s such a fantastic focus on the voice and the drama on stage.”

For now, though, New has primarily targeted symphonic conducting, criss-crossing the world to lead ensembles she knows well and to make her acquaintance with others.

“I’ve been really busy,” she said. “I feel like I’m really honing my craft being able to work so much. It’s really satisfying work, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot as an artist this year. I find it so satisfying and joyful to experience this great repertoire with inspiring artists. I’m on Cloud Nine.”

Read the full article here.