Interview by Bret McCabe
It took a global pandemic to keep conductor Gemma New (MM ’11, Conducting) in one place for an extended period of time. In the decade since leaving Peabody in 2011, New, the 2021 recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, crisscrossed the country and Europe as a guest conductor, conducting fellow, and associate conductor, championing new music and deepening her understanding of the canon in the process. Over the 2019-20 season alone, New notched debut appearances with the Beethoven Orchester Bonn, Helsinki Philharmonic, I Musici Montreal, Kristiansand Symfoniorkester, Milwaukee Symphony, Ulster Orchestra, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra—all while remaining the Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Her 2020 schedule, as for so many other performing artists, was dramatically curtailed as the novel coronavirus spread. “The pandemic did keep me at home for a nice long time,” New says during a recent phone interview. “I’m a bit more of an introvert, so I didn’t mind these times alone to study in particular. I made quite a few sets of prepared orchestral parts. I spent time studying languages, and then just spending time at home with my boyfriend, since he’s always on the move, too. I did go home to New Zealand three times.”
New and her partner, pianist John Wilson (BM ’10, MM ’12, GPD ’14, Piano), call San Diego home, but they were both in northern California for his concert dates with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra when reached by phone. New was between stops, coming off a series of dates in the United Kingdom before continuing on to Baltimore, Dallas, St. Louis, Montreal, and eventually Amsterdam in December. “It’s always following the music and being able to collaborate with orchestras around the world,” she says of her visiting conductor performances. “I absolutely love these very deep and meaningful musical experiences that I really missed during the pandemic.”
She was able to build on her deep and meaningful relationships with music during her time at Peabody, where she studied with Gustav Meier and Markand Thakar and founded the Lunar Ensemble. New played the violin growing up in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city located on the southern coast of North Island. Performing Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition when she was 12 sparked her interest in an orchestra’s collective power, and she had found her calling. She slowly started building up a conductor’s wide-ranging skill set.
New returns to Baltimore this week for a pair of concerts with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a program featuring Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, Claude Debussy’s La mer, and Peabody faculty composer Kevin Puts’ The Brightness of Light, featuring soprano Renée Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry. Peabody Magazine caught up with New by phone to talk about putting together programs as a guest conductor, New Zealand’s natural beauty, and the long, winding career of a conductor.
How does the guest conductor process work, such as your upcoming appearance with the BSO? Do you get some input in shaping the programming?
There is always a mastermind at an orchestra that is putting together all the programs for the season, and you want to make sure it’s a well-balanced mosaic. I like to give that person a list of pieces that I would be very happy to share with the orchestra, and often the conversation starts with a suggestion. For the BSO, they asked, “Would you like to do Kevin Puts’ The Brightness of Light with Renée Fleming?” And I said, Absolutely. I love Kevin Puts’ music; I find it dramatic and vividly intense. I knew him personally from having studied at Peabody and conducted several of his students’ works when I was there with the Lunar Ensemble.
I already knew a bit about Kevin’s captivating visual style, and both Debussy’s La mer and Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides are also vivid tone pictures of nature. The Brightness of Light goes through the love story between Georgia [O’Keeffe] and Alfred [Stieglitz], but ultimately it shows Georgia’s strongest, most powerful state in the desert of New Mexico with the sky and the land reaching to the horizon, and her feeling at peace with that natural landscape.
I felt like Debussy was fascinated with the sea, where he could be most creative in his art because he just had such an admiration for the sea, and he made La mer with that in mind. Mendelssohn took a trip to Hebrides and, well, I’ve been up in the northern parts of the UK and I can imagine it’s quite similar—such a striking landscape of the natural world. It’s quite unforgiving. I think, all together, we’re going to be taking a trip around the world with this program.
I appreciate how you frequently bring up the natural world when you talk about music in interviews. What impact did growing up in a country with such natural beauty as New Zealand have on your general esthetic sensibility?
Nature has always been an integral part of my life. At my family home in Wellington, you walk out the door and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a very old forest in about five minutes. We used to get lost up there with the neighbors’ kids every night after school, having a great time. And living right on the coast with the harbor, if you get up to the top of the hill, you can see the sea from all angles and the South Island from the distance. I come from Karori, which is apparently the largest suburb in the southern hemisphere by land mass. There’s an amazing natural reserve there where birds are able to flourish, so you have all these native birds in Wilmington and they sing all across the city. There’s trees, flowers, and plants that you just would never see anywhere else in the world. It’s really very special.
You know, just last week I was doing Douglas Lilburn’s Aotearoa, which is New Zealand’s overture — “Aotearoa” is the Maori word for New Zealand. And it’s like [Jean Sibelius’] Finlandia in terms of like being a nationalistic expression of the country. I think it’s telling that the overture is about the Nor’west arch over Canterbury, which is a blanket of cloud suspended in a clear sky. So how do we describe New Zealand? It is all about the nature of the islands.
Since you brought up the Maori word for New Zealand, I saw that you conducted some pieces with the New Zealand Symphony over the past year that included pieces by Maori composers or indigenous musicians—the piece by Robin Toan, and then over the summer the new work by Gareth Farr for the Maori new year. Is there a healthy of collaboration between Maori composers and musicians and orchestras going on in New Zealand?
About 15 years ago I was playing violin in the national youth orchestra and every year there’s a composer in residence, and Robin Toan was the composer in residence. She wrote this piece called “Tu-mata-uenga,” which means “God of War, Spirit of Man,” about war, the strength of man, and the power of the gods. It is a very powerful piece and I really enjoyed it when I was in the youth orchestra. I like to always have a contemporary piece on a program, and I wanted something really strong because we were doing Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The raw, intense power of those two pieces, and the large sounds that one gets with Tchaikovsky—that’s why I thought Toan’s piece would be perfect for that moment.
Gareth Farr’s Ngā Hihi o Matariki was a brand new piece. It’s like a mass, with two wonderful soloists and orchestra. And the soloists did play Maori instruments and sang the waiata. It was a wonderful unity of styles of music that Gareth loves and that is quintessential to our country. So, yes, I think there’s always opportunities for uniting these cultures and it was a very special experience for everyone.
How did you start to form your skill set as a conductor? I’ve read interviews where you’ve talked about an early experience performing in an orchestra, but conducting involves so much expertise—intellectual and emotional insight on top of a musical excellence, and an ability to communicate all of that nonverbally. How did you first start building that toolkit for yourself?
You’ve picked up on a very big point and I’ll try and put it in a nutshell. I grew up playing violin and playing in as many orchestras as I could. I fell in love with the essence of the orchestra—if you’re part of an orchestra, you were never alone and, in fact, you need every single person there to be playing at their best to be valued and to be supported in order to have that powerful musical experience. That idea of teamwork and community, I absolutely love the rich sounds that we create together and how emotionally gripping it is. So from a very young age, I had that epiphany playing the violin in “The Great Gates of Kiev” at the end of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and I thought, Wow—I want to be part of this for the rest of my life.
I was 12, so I started watching the conductors at the youth orchestra. There was three of them, they shared the rehearsal periods, and they had very different styles and effects on the orchestra. One was very thoughtful and quiet and made us listen better for his being so quiet. And you knew that he wouldn’t talk a lot, but when he said something, it would be worthwhile. Another was really clear and had a great sense of humor and would have us roaring with laughter that gave us great energy. And then the maestro was the head conductor and had so much wisdom to share with us and strengths from his experience.
All of that was just really fascinating to a very young teenager. When I was 15, I started getting a lot of stage fright playing violin. I had little voices of negativity when I played a wrong note or played a little out of tune and I found facing the audience terrifying. But when you’re a conductor, you can turn around and see musicians who, at that time, I knew very well. They were my schoolmates, I was part of a team, and my job was to bring everything together, which I loved. I loved the analysis, looking at all the parts of the score, what that journey was through the music, and then, yes, working on unifying the interpretation with the group.
So when I first got my chance to conduct when I was 15, I knew that was a way to express music that really fit with who I am and how I wanted to be a part of this great thing that is the orchestra. I thought, right, let’s get started. Of course, conductors say to play an instrument as long as you can. I played the violin and piano, I played in as many orchestras as I could, and I got a greater understanding of the repertoire and how other conductors work. Slowly but surely I gained experience as a conductor.
I got my first job with the youth orchestra when I was 19, and it was really baptism by fire. At one point we were doing Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and the fugue at the end was fiendishly difficult. And I said, “I don’t know how to fix this right now but next week I’ll have a solution for you.” And it was great because it’s problem solving.
So to go back to your question about what does a conductor need, I feel like you are a sponge and you soak up so many different languages or modes of communication. They can be gestural. They can be interpretive ideas from what you see in the score. Basically, it’s like a toolbox. And as you listen to the orchestra, you start, together, to take out the tools that you need to whittle away and get the orchestra into really great form for the concert.
I ask because, since leaving Peabody, you’ve worked with so many different orchestras, and I’m wondering how has being able to work with such a wide variety of musicians informed your practice—not just being on the podium, but also thinking as a musical director about programming.
It’s a very long road, the career of being a conductor, and it’s very satisfying to be slowly but surely learning every day something that will bring you closer to getting things right in the moment. The rehearsal time that you have is often very intense and short—and I would say that’s about 10 percent of the work. The 90 percent is the preparation before that first rehearsal. After each rehearsal, that debrief of, OK, how are things going? What should we do tomorrow? What will I plan for the next time I do the piece? But every orchestra is very different and it’s wonderful. You can go to one orchestra with a piece and then go through another orchestra with that same piece the next week and have a completely transformed experience.
And that’s the thing—as a conductor, you’re never alone. You’re always working with people and they are excellent, experienced musicians who are very inspiring in the way that they play. So [conducting] is a conversation, it’s a two-way street of dialogue that is often not words at all. It’s a sound, it’s a phrase, and us being sensitive to that, listening carefully to each other, and then finding ways to support it, which I love. It’s such a special experience uniting with music—it is the language of emotion and we really do all feel a kindred spirit together as we play music.