Resident Conductor and Rising Star

By Tim Munro

Gemma New. Photo credit Roy Cox.
Gemma New. Photo credit Roy Cox.

At 19, many young musicians are straining to keep their eyes open in theory class, or playing flute in wind symphony rehearsal, or drilling eye-glazingly slow scales in a basement practice room.

But not Gemma New.

This teenaged New Zealander balanced awkwardly on the conductor’s podium, steeling herself to lead her first piece as conductor of the Christchurch Youth Orchestra.

“It was a baptism by fire,” according to New, who is now the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Resident Conductor. Thrilling but terrifying, this Christchurch job proved a perfect testing ground for a young conductor. New was extremely invested in these young players, pushing herself and them beyond their collective abilities. They climbed peaks of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius and Britten.

Some of her charges were as old as twenty-five. “I did not have a CHANCE of convincing these guys that I knew more than them!”

She recalls the first rehearsal of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. “There is a grand fugue at the end, and we just could NOT stay together. I said to them, ‘I don’t know how to fix this right now. But we’ll come back together in a week’s time, and I’ll have ideas.’”

Three simple rules guided New, then and now: 1. It’s not power, it’s responsibility; 2. It’s not about me or you, it’s about us and the music at hand; 3. Listen and communicate in a supportive and respectful manner.

But back to that first Christchurch Youth Orchestra concert. Which composer’s music marked such a significant transition for this teenaged conductor? It was Edward Elgar.

And this month the genteel, mustachioed Englishman will serve Gemma New at another important moment, as Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations caps the first concert of the SLSO’s 2018/2019 season.

According to Erik Finley, the SLSO’s Vice President, Artistic and Operations, it is very rare for a Resident Conductor to lead an orchestra’s season-opener. The role of Resident or Assistant Conductor is often part-conductor and part-student, typically a chance for young conductors to learn and expand their skills.

But Finley heard a strong vote of confidence from both orchestra musicians and SLSO patrons, especially after her classical series debut last year with Pines of Rome. “They’ve seen her grow in just a year and a half. She has such a warm, collaborative way of making music, bringing integrity to everything she does. People are just enamored.”

And for her part, New has relished her time in St. Louis. “The SLSO players have been incredible teachers,” she says. They have delivered feedback and engaged her in an open and honest conversation. “I have learned so much.”

Elgar’s “Enigma” appealed for this opening concert program because of the work’s personal nature. The composer paints musical portraits of those around him. “It is about his friends, his family, but also about how he lives his life.” Surrounded by her SLSO family, New understands this feeling of intimacy and warmth, feeling confident rather than cowed by the weight of season-opening responsibility.

And the “Enigma” has been a favorite of New’s throughout her life. Her parents are English, but live in New Zealand, which was “very far away from home!” As a child, New connected the music of this English composer to “this far-away land where my family came from.”

Gemma New conducting the SLSO. Photo credit Dilip Vishwanat.Gemma New conducting the SLSO. Photo credit Dilip Vishwanat.

She also points out that we can recognize in these portraits people who are close to ourselves. We might know an amateur musician whose playing is heartfelt but imperfect. We might have a friend who stutters. We might have a friend that fills a room with their boisterous energy.

As New mulled what pieces to include alongside Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations on this program, she reflected on her own past. Even with a full decade of working professionally under her belt, New considers herself to be an “emerging” artist. Her mind turned to composers who were in the early part of their careers when lightning struck, when they produced works that nudged them towards the spotlight.

“I liked the theme of hope, potential, and youthful creativity,” New says, and she worked with Finley to populate this season-opener with works that opened doors for their respective composers. Elgar with the “Enigma” Variations, Sibelius with Finlandia, Grieg with the Piano Concerto, and the American composer Aaron Jay Kernis with Musica Celestis.

This season holds great significance for the SLSO as a whole. In 18/19, Stéphane Denève becomes the SLSO’s Music Director Designate, from which he will vault to the position of Music Director in 2019/2020.

New met Denève for the first time last season. The two conductors spent a full three hours discussing Sibelius’ Second Symphony, which New was soon to conduct with the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. “His knowledge of the score is really enlightening. It was just fantastic.”

Stéphane Denève.Stéphane Denève

The location for this bar-by-bar analysis? A local restaurant. And it was not long until they attracted the attention of other diners.

At one moment in Sibelius’ symphony, the woodwinds play a quiet hymn. Denève, covering his mouth to demonstrate, explained to New that this gesture represents a mass of people speaking with their mouths closed. “‘They sing their national hymn with passion, but inside,’” says New, quoting Denève. “‘There is a struggle for passion.’”

Later, to amplify a point he was making about the violent intensity of another passage, Denève, an imposing man with an untamable shock of curls, “vocally and physically showed the character of the music, so gnarly, so nasty for the brass.” This music returned again and again, and Denève made the same gestures each time.

The people at the next table looked over, curious.

New is thrilled with the SLSO’s choice, calling Denève one of the great conductors alive. “He is a charismatic, creative, imaginative musician. He hears everything and is so clear in his gesture.”

And Denève follows New’s three golden rules. “Without doing a lot, he’s able to command a room, but in the most pleasant way. I admire this kind of leadership.”