Is history-making conductor Gemma New our most influential classical musician?
By Emma Day
Classical conductor Gemma New is in a class of her own - young, supremely talented, and a woman. The Kiwi-born maestro tells Emma Day why she’s here to do more than break glass ceilings.
Bundled up in a winter coat, Gemma New makes an unassuming entrance to Notes. It’s an aptly named cafe, given that’s what she spends her days poring over.
Arriving with her head tilted down and hands in her pockets, it’s a stark contrast to the powerhouse that helmed the podium for the BBC Symphony Orchestra just two days prior.
New, 36, is one of the music industry’s most exciting young conductors, her meteoric rise culminating with an appointment as principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra last year. The Wellington-born musician is the first woman to hold the position in the orchestra's 75-year history. It’s just one of her many firsts, but she’s reticent to bask in her achievements.
“I don’t like to talk about myself much,” she says with an apologetic smile after sitting down. However, when talking about the work itself, enthusiasm thrums from her like soundwaves.
“An orchestra is the greatest example of what one can do when you're in harmony,” she says, a slight lilt betraying 12 years spent living in the US. “When you're supporting each other, you create something beautiful and powerful that you didn't even know was possible.”
Born into a musical family - her mother plays the violin and her grandparents always had jazz on in the house - New first picked up a violin aged 5. The piano followed at 7, then her first orchestra performance at 9.
“That’s what really got me hooked,” she remembers, “your senses are elevated, hearing what everyone else is giving.”
Three years later, at the tender age of 12, she realised she’d found her calling.
“We were playing at a concert of two youth orchestras, with over 200 young people on stage. It must have been a very overwhelming sound but for me, it was the most glorious, beautiful music-making I've ever experienced.
“I just thought, ‘yeah, I want to be part of the orchestra for the rest of my life’.”
At 15, she got her first chance to conduct, picking up the baton to helm a surprise performance for a teacher’s leaving party.
“After that, I told my best friend ‘this is it, I want to be a conductor’.”
And New is certainly a woman of her word. After spending her teens performing in youth orchestras, she studied physics, mathematics and music at the University of Canterbury, before gaining a master’s in music from the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore, US.
New’s time at Canterbury still directly influences her work today. "I love the logic of mathematics and how it applies to everything - it applies to music as well. One of the last courses I took was proof theory and I use that algebra often to analyse scores.”
Using mathematics to interpret music sounds complex, but New’s description of her role as conductor is simple.
“Our job is receiving sound, listening and then influencing the flow, the focus or the style of playing,” she summarises. “The thing is, it's not about me - it’s about how we all come together. In that first rehearsal you see what everyone is giving and I have to find ways of uniting us by the end of the week.
“It's a conversation that happens with and without words.”
It’s also a conversation that often begins alone, poring over a score late into the evening. About 90% of the work that goes into a concert happens before that first rehearsal, with the energetic performance just the cherry on top.
“When you look at a piece of music, those are the notes on the page but there are about 10 different ways every single bar could go,” New says.
“I spend a lot of time imagining at my desk, just going through the music looking at every single note. It can be quite a creative process, unlocking little treasure boxes of pearls of wisdom that the composers left.”
Not all conductors find keys to these boxes quite as easily as New seems to, though. Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, at which New served four seasons as resident conductor, describes the Kiwi as a natural.
“There’s no pretension about Gemma; it’s all about the music and it’s all about being an enabler of performances. She is a quiet force.”
The life of a conductor, however, is more akin to a whirlwind. Currently in London for a few days, New rattles off a list of upcoming work trips like a Google Calendar is imprinted on her eyelids. Edinburgh, Florence, Dublin, Wellington, Lyon, Dallas, New Jersey, Canada: she’ll be on the road for four months straight. She calls San Francisco home, but says in reality, she isn’t ever in one place for more than a few days at a time.
“Early on in my career it was three or four cities in a week and that was a bit brutal,” New smiles. “This is an improvement.”
A typical day is in itself a long journey. Rising at 6am, preparing for rehearsal, which can last up to seven hours depending on the country and orchestra, followed by what she terms a “post-mortem” of what she’s seen and heard. There’s more preparation for the following day, and then meetings.
"Thanks to the magic of Skype and Zoom I can always be working,” New says, unperturbed. “I was at a board meeting until midnight the other day because of the time zones and I'll wake up sometimes at 5am for interviews in Canada so I sleep when I can.”
A self-confessed night owl, she spends her evenings looking at new music or learning languages - always on the clock. New doesn’t, however, switch off by listening to classical music. That’s too much like work; instead, she relaxes with podcasts.
She brings that same regimented approach to her work - a necessary technique as she bounces between a family of orchestras, her schedule mapped out 18 months in advance.
Aside from the NZSO, New is also music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra (again, the first woman in the post) and principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (you guessed it, the first woman in this post, too).
Despite shattering these glass ceilings, New is reluctant to let such achievements be defined by her gender. Acknowledging that there are far fewer women on the podium, she also argues that every workplace is having a conversation around gender equality, not just the music industry.
“I can only talk from my personal experience but I’ve found people to be really supportive,” she says. “I was often the only female in the class but I never wanted to be treated differently and that was very important to me.”
Indeed, that point of difference spurred her on. New was told in her earlier years that being a conductor was like being a CEO - she wouldn’t have time for a family.
“I wonder if they were saying that to the males,” she wryly asks. “But it didn’t deter me.”
The naysayers were also wrong. New tries to do two weeks on the road, one week at home, to spend time with her partner of 12 years, a pianist she met at college.
“Some musicians would also tell me, in a supportive way, that you may have a harder time. My response to that was always ‘good, I will learn more’. I may become stronger if I am pushed, so go for it,” she says. “I refuse to see myself as somehow different.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Cate Blanchett’s conductor in the Oscar-nominated Tár, but New hasn’t had time to see it yet. She is, however, looking forward to Maestro, a Leonard Bernstein biopic due to be released this year. Hollywood A-lister, and the film’s star, Bradley Cooper even attended one of New’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic as part of his research to embody the legendary musician. But don’t expect a juicy anecdote.
“I didn’t get to meet him,” New says. “He came right at the last minute and left around the second half.”
Rather than stars of the screen, New is far more enamoured with the stars of the music stage. Her hands begin to passionately gesticulate when talking about the remaining two years of her tenure with the NZSO, particularly enthused about an upcoming appearance by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
“They are world-class musicians, and by that I mean that they are some of the best musicians in the world. Working with this orchestra is some of the most satisfying music-making I've ever had as a conductor.”
New is particularly keen to “consciously champion” New Zealand music through her work with the NZSO, as well as support young conductors through the orchestra’s programmes.
It's just so exciting to hear new voices,” she says. “We have a beautiful country and our composers are really inspired by nature, by our stories, by our experiences. We should have that supported and explored as much as we can.”
She won’t be drawn on future plans and dream appointments - “I'm just building experience, taking notes and hopefully getting stronger” - but it’s clear she won’t be giving up the adrenaline rush of performance night any time soon.
“I wish you could come up and feel it,” she sighs. “It's absolutely magnificent. The orchestra is pouring its heart out and sometimes you're on eggshells, it’s so delicate that you can hardly breathe and you don't want to ruin this magic in the air.”
But does she still get nervous, standing up in front of thousands, after hundreds of performances?
“For a conductor it's not about me and that’s such a relief,” New laughs. “It’s a very collaborative affair and that makes it a lot better.”
As Stephen Sitarski, concertmaster of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, confirmed when reflecting on New’s leadership, “she’s definitely a collaborator rather than a dictator”.
After the interview has ended, we stay in the cafe for some time, New keen to ask questions about my life and job. It appears that even off the podium, she’d rather not steal the spotlight.
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