Gemma New raises her baton and signals the start of an adventure. “And by the end of the season you will have seen a whole world of music, and I hope you will be moved, excited, and enhanced by that.”
Gemma is in her fifth year as Music Director and Conductor of the venerable Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO).On the podium, her performances joyously juxtapose an unbridled youthful exuberance with the expertise garnered from more than 25 years of dedication to her craft.
Through the brilliant execution of her innovative programming, Gemma brings us closer to the music, with the HPO now reaching out from the main stage and into the community.
Ensembles perform at unconventional venues such as art galleries, breweries, libraries, and the Supercrawl music and arts festival.
Her first memory of music was her Mom playing the violin, which inspired Gemma to follow suit at the age of five. She went on to play in youth orchestras, which is where she got her start as a conductor.
Coming full circle as the current director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra (SLSYO), Gemma is also resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), and principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Van Hansen interviewed Gemma New at the FirstOntario Concert Hall in Hamilton, ON.
Van Hansen: At what point did you decide this is what you want to do for a career?
Gemma New: As a young violinist (growing up in New Zealand) I had the opportunity to play in several youth orchestras at both the school and regional level, but I fell in love with this idea of creating a beautiful sound, a really powerful sound that no one can create by themselves.
It’s a team effort and you need every single person there to make it a beautiful art form.
I made a lot of friends and connections, and had so much fun with my fellow musicians.
When I was twelve, I made the decision consciously to be part of an orchestra for the rest of my life. I didn’t know how to accomplish my goal at that point.
As a 12-year-old you have dreams of what you love to do, and what you would like to keep doing.
But when I was 15, as a concertmaster, I had the opportunity to conduct for the first time.
I felt right away that this was where I fit in, this is how I could best share music.GEMMA NEW
And then when I was 19, I had the opportunity to get my first job and that was with the Christchurch Youth Orchestra.
Van Hansen: Are you nomadic by nature or when you get the chance are you more of a homebody?
Gemma New: I came to do my Masters degree at Peabody (Institute of The Johns Hopkins University) in Baltimore—that’s what brought me to North America in 2009.
I do travel a lot and I love seeing the world and meeting new people, so I don’t mind travelling. It is sometimes really exciting and exhilarating and other times it’s exhausting but it’s just part of the job and I have good systems in place to make sure that I stay healthy.
Van Hansen: Here in Hamilton, how do you balance your key roles of Music Director and Conductor?
Gemma New: In general terms the music director leads with the artistic vision they have in mind for the orchestra.
The conductor coming into an orchestra works with the musicians in rehearsals and concerts and perhaps collaborates to create the programs that they do.
The music director is in charge of auditioning, we are part of the audition committee and we have an influence on the musicians that we choose to play in the orchestra. We also select the programming overall for the season; we have a lot to do with that.
Now with guest conductors well of course we want to have a flexibility in our conversation so that when they come here they do something special to their gifts.
But the music director chooses overall what the vision of the programming will be for the city because every community is very different and we want to resonate with the people of Hamilton as much as we can.
Personally I want to know what will resonate with them, what will move them and so a music director looks at the orchestra specifically and how to choose the music but also what musicians are there and also the artistic quality of the orchestra.
We are always trying to build upon what we have and this is in the artistic product of the concerts. How we get together in a more unified way—the interpretations, the style of the orchestral musicians playing, how to reunify these things and really improve their excellence. Also we think in terms of series and what focuses we have, what we want to prioritize and build upon.
You have to make artistic decisions but can’t do everything at the same time or you are a jack of all trades. We have to figure out, okay this is the avenue we want to grow on and the conductor has to have the gifts to know how to implement these plans.
Van Hansen: How engaged do you find the community here in Hamilton?
Gemma New: You just came to the last concert of our season which I believe was sold out. We have a tremendous buzz here so definitely while we are looking at reaching out to his many people as we can, we are excited by the interest that we have here in Hamilton; the HPO is very successful.
You know Beethoven used to have trouble getting people to come to his concerts and he would have to arrange concerts himself so that his music would be heard. This is always something that an artist needs to work on so definitely we want to relate to people.
That’s why when programming we look at the people that we are providing this great music to.
Van Hansen: Tell me about your Intimate & Immersive shows.
Gemma New: We wanted to create a program that was more intimate and more immersive for our audiences; we needed that.
It has been fantastic; the shows so far were sold out. It is supposed to be a smaller group of musicians but still an orchestra not just strings.
It’s every instrument and the fun part is that the audience gets to sit right next to the musicians, as close as physically possible.
It is a more relaxed affair so everyone feels welcome and they could have a drink on arrival. We had this wonderful indie band, took snippets of the first half and then used that with electronic music during a break which created such a cool vibe.
And of course we wanted to add the visual component because it’s wonderful to have the music there but the ambience has a huge part in how you experience music so we had lighting and screens with visuals and sculpture to make it holistically creative.
What I also really liked about it was that the musicians got to speak a bit in the concert and they were so fun and engaging. So all around it makes for a nice evening and I think your horizons are expanded when you get to experience new things like that.
Van Hansen: Playing music has proven to have many positive effects on brain development, and both Hamilton and St. Louis have had active youth orchestras for half a century. From your point of view why is so important for the orchestra to have these outlets for young people?
Gemma New: It is very important. With a youth orchestra, for example with the SLSYO we have over 100 young players who come together every Saturday, and they love playing this music.
To see them grow from the very first rehearsal where they find out, wow this music is hard, and you think how are we going to put this all together they’re playing 100 different ways. But by the end of the season they sound fabulous, it’s a unified performance.
They are very dedicated and I think as you said music helps a young person in so many ways more than just playing notes.
It helps them grow as a young human being in ways that are not so obvious. Its something they don’t even consciously realize perhaps until later. There is the idea of listening to each other, the idea of leadership, and also teamwork.
If you are a clarinet section you have three clarinets that need to play together. A first clarinet needs to encourage and support those other players but also the other players have the lower part in pitch and that is the foundation for the first player to play upon so everyone knows that they are part of a bigger whole and that they are valued and important.
The work ethic, having to come on-time on Saturday, and it is a responsibility having to practice your piece throughout the week. Organizing your time is very important to a young person when studying for exams at the end of the school year.
They learn empathy, having a sympathy, how to express emotion and be creative.
A lot of the time when I program for youth orchestras I choose pieces that have stories behind them or find that pictures or imagery have inspired the music so that they can let their creative reflexes go wild, and be truly inspired by this whole holistic journey.
It’s not just absolute music and playing the notes it’s also about the feeling and intention behind it. And I think that will help them be considerate and confident and hard-working young citizens later on.
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Excellent story! Hamilton has an amazing arts and music community.