November 9, 2022

Gemma New makes debut with the Houston Symphony

New Zealander Gemma New makes her Houston Symphony debut this weekend
By Chris Gray
The Houston Chronicle

Gemma New has studied under conductors whose names are familiar well beyond the cloistered halls of classical music: Dudamel, Salonen, Michael Tilson Thomas. The 35-year-old New Zealand native, who will make her Houston Symphony debut this weekend, is using that experience to make her own name one to watch in its next chapter.

New is in her eighth season as music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Hamilton, Ontario, where she instituted the Intimate & Immersive series. Held at a repurposed cotton mill similar to Post HTX, these concerts let some of the air out of classical music’s stuffy image by creating an informal atmosphere that places the orchestra in the middle of the room; patrons are encouraged to sit wherever they like or move around if they so choose. To go along with an eclectic array of guest musicians — solo pianists to indie bands — visual artists create site-specific works during the orchestra’s performance.

“You come into this both sound world and visual world as you walk into this room, and we all enjoy it together in a very intimate and relaxed and enjoyable fashion,” says New. “And it’s really cool.”

New began playing the violin at age nine in her hometown of Wellington, and caught the conducting bug three years later. Three years after that, her school orchestra wanted to honor a departing teacher and asked her to conduct J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 at the farewell concert. Despite everyone’s nerves, “I gave the upbeat and no one came in,” she says. “My first thought was, ‘Great — that’s room for improvement.’ I thought it was a good start and never looked back.”

Working with younger musicians remains a priority for New, who has led youth orchestras in Hamilton and St. Louis, where she served four seasons as the St. Louis Symphony’s resident conductor. “I’m really inspired by the progress that they make as they grow, both as young musicians on their instruments and playing together with these orchestral pieces, but also as young leaders in our society,” she says.

“I think that music brings our young people so many great qualities that they can then take off into their professional adult lives, like listening carefully and teamwork and being sensitive to others around you; and seeing what your role is in the music and what kind of support you need to give,” New adds.

Last year New won the Sir George Solti Prize, an annual award named after the late longtime music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Just before the pandemic, the Solti Foundation helped her travel to Germany to watch Daniel Barenboim, esteemed director of the Berlin State Opera, rehearse Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.

“That was just such an amazing experience that I wouldn't have had without that support,” she says. “[The foundation] really helps us younger conductors be able to take those opportunities to go and learn the craft that we otherwise wouldn't be able to do.”

New may be a newcomer to Houston, but not to Texas: she’s also in her fourth season as principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She’s a committed champion of living composers, including DSO composer-in-residence Angélica Negrón and British pianist/composer Alissa Firsova, whose “Bride of the Wind” will receive its U.S. premiere in Houston this weekend.

Big-time Brits round out the program: Edward Elgar’s cello concerto, featuring soloist Camille Thomas; and Gustav Holst’s The Planets, that astrologically minded staple of early 20th-century repertoire. New studied math as well as violin in college, and thinking algebraically often helps her keep track of the nearly infinite details coursing through any given score.

It also helps her see parallels between pieces of music that run well below the surface. For example, New can sense the similar “waves of passion” between Firsova’s piece, inspired by the affair between Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Mahler’s wife Alma, and Elgar’s concerto, which arose out of the composer’s wife’s illness and the general despair following World War I. But certain aspects of “Bride of the Wind” remind her of the Holst as well.

“What I love about Alissa’s music is, this is extremely dark and stormy, and so it has that depth and power and terrifying nature that we find in Mars in Holst’s Planets, but we also hear incredible beauty,” New says. “For me, a contemporary piece, if it has that beauty — whether it be achingly so or with a lot of shining hope — that quality needs to be there for me to personally feel that I want to perform it.”

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