Conducting a new direction

NEW DIRECTION: Gemma New has gone from conducting her classmates to being the assistant conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
NEW DIRECTION: Gemma New has gone from conducting her classmates to being the assistant conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

Gemma New's shooting star of a conducting career began when she rounded up some of the littler musical girls at Samuel Marsden Collegiate and became their conductor. Now she's assistant conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the American state's equivalent to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and she's just been named one of "30 brilliant musicians under 30" by Limelight magazine.

At the same time, United States classical music radio station WQXR has deemed her one of the top five women conductors on the rise.

These accolades, she says, came as nice surprises - "amazing to be acknowledged for my work and encouraged, and there were amazing people on those lists".

New, 27, is in Wellington as assistant conductor to Alexander Shelley for the NZSO National Youth Orchestra's concert on Friday. She has conducted a multitude of orchestras, including the Lunar Ensemble, which she directs and formed from fellow students when she was doing her masters in orchestral conducting course at the Peabody Conservatorium of Music, part of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

It all began back in Wellington. New grew up in a family immersed in music. Her mother plays the violin for pleasure and her grandmother played professionally for a Scottish orchestra. Her second set of grandparents also loved music - "so I was surrounded by music as a kid and loved and appreciated it".

"I started learning the violin at five - some people start at three - and started in an orchestra at nine. There was a very good music programme at Marsden.

"A teacher was leaving at Marsden and we made up a group to say thank you and goodbye. I was the concert master at that point and it was suggested I stand up and conduct. It was a defining moment. I realised I had interest and natural ability. As musicians we want to share our voice and passion and I thought conducting was a way to do that."

She was 15. The following year she started an orchestra for the younger children.

"No," she says, "I didn't think of it as practising. We came together to learn and grow, not them serving me, and they were young. And I played in lots of youth orchestras in Wellington, lots of them, and loved it, just loved the phenomenon of an orchestra and being part of that, fascinated by the players and the conductor.

"It's an incredible feeling being part of a large group of people and you're contributing. I've played in many orchestras and seen different conductors. It's a great responsibility to lead the group, and you can make a difference, bringing things together in a positive way."

She studied violin performance and maths at Canterbury University. "That works quite well. It was nice to use both sides of my brain. They say you have to be good at an instrument to be a conductor so I studied towards a violin degree with the idea of becoming a conductor. Sitting there playing the violin as an orchestral instrument helps with getting better at conducting."

She also studied at the New Zealand School of Music, worked with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra "and grew and learned". Then she was prompted to apply to do her masters at Peabody.

"It was the only school I applied for. The audition went well. The school is unusual in that they have an orchestra specifically for the conductors. You work with that three times a week, so much more hands-on than other classes in the world. Going in from New Zealand you were surrounded by other conductors, a very supportive environment where we gave each other advice."

WHILE she was there she founded the Lunar Ensemble which favours new music. "I took players I absolutely admired, fellow students."

In her last year she auditioned for the New Jersey Symphony role, "and got along with the players incredibly well". An assistant conductor, she says, is like an apprentice.

She has already auditioned for a job as a musical director with the Hamilton Philharmonic in Canada, for which she has had a guest engagement, but does not expect to hear if she has it until well into next year.

Her conducting experience, centred on contemporary works, has seen her with the Miami and New Amsterdam symphony orchestras and as guest cover conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She's also conducted the BBC Scottish and Danish National symphony orchestras. And she has taken up the baton at Carnegie Hall where she participated in a workshop with American music maestros John Adams and David Robertson. New conducted works by Adams, Charles Ives and Andrew Norman.

"It was incredible. We got to work with really fine musicians. John Adams and David Robertson are absolutely inspirational. It was brilliant."

And, no, she gets no stage fright at all with an expectant audience behind and a geared-up orchestra in front.

"You always have your back to the audience, which makes it a bit more homely, and the team in front, and they're all going for it.

"The size of the orchestra and the huge sound - it's a responsibility but I don't find it frightening.

"I find it inspiring.

"The people I've worked with are right there and the audience are there to enjoy the concert.

"There's no reason to be frightened. I'm happy to be there and create this great music.

"You need to find a good balance as a conductor. You have to go in with a vision of how the piece should go and you take what they're singing and playing and find a balance. You have to lead forward and take their contribution to make a unified performance."

New returned to New Zealand last year to conduct the Opus Orchestra in Rotorua. She's looking forward to conducting the National Youth Orchestra again - "I've had the opportunity to conduct the National Youth Orchestra playing the violin and that was fun."

She does tear herself away from time to time from the baton and her apartment across the harbour in Jersey City.

"You have to have a balance.

"Music itself is inspired by life. I have a nice, balanced life, a great boyfriend who plays the piano. We have common interests and when we travel we explore places, towns and cultures." She walks, and cooks - "I'm not a great cook but I do try".

"I just love conducting and performing music.

"When I'm doing that I'm very happy."

- The NZSO National Youth Orchestra, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Friday, 6.30pm.