In a Q&A segment during AYO’s Winter Season Online, musicians were able to have their questions answered by two widely renowned conductors. In the first session, we heard from conductor Ben Northey, Chief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor in Residence of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; discussing everything from his favourite Sibelius works, to his lockdown experience, and the balance between musical tradition and artistic voice.

Conductor Ben Northey pictured in the middle of a performance. He raises his baton.

Julia Hill, violin: For us, as individual emerging musicians, how do you recommend we use innovation in times like this to bring communities together?

Ben: In the absence of playing for a live audience there have been things to learn about technology. If you couldn’t broadcast yourself online with good quality audio and video before, you are probably able to now.

Even once audiences come back, there will still be more vulnerable members of the community who won’t feel comfortable coming, and there has to be a technological way to reach those people. This online streaming idea will definitely stick. 

I’ve been doing a lot of this stuff with Monash University for their finale of the Eroica Symphony. They’re getting professional players to record each part and I then layer up and mix this while they continue their online tutorials. This recording process is part of that learning and pedagogical process. It’s asking; can you make your instrument sound good even if you’re using a phone? I think that aspect for me at least has been a gamechanger and I’ve had to upskill so much.

Huon Bourne Blue, percussion: What is your favourite Mahler Symphony?

Ben: This is a difficult question, because it almost depends on the day or the mood you’re in. He’s got a symphony for every feeling you’ve got. I fell in love with, and I also got to conduct at the end of last year, the Adagio of Mahler 10, and that is just unbelievable music-making. I really am in love with the whole symphony but particularly that first movement, it’s so personal. For those of you who haven’t really looked at that or worked out what was going on in Mahler’s life at that time and the connection between those two things, do yourself a favour.

When I was younger it was definitely 1, 5 and 6. Mahler 4 was the first one I conducted, and I also love 9, how good is 9? How good is 2?! How good are all of them!

Charlotte Miles, cello: How do you approach structuring your time as a conductor without an orchestra at the moment? Are you score studying, are you actively listening? How are you approaching that time you’d generally be devoting to more hands-on musical experiences?

Ben: I’d love to say I’m brushing up on all of the things that I really wanted to get to but never had the time but ultimately, I’m spending a lot of time with these audio mixes from recordings. Today I did the Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare from Richard Strauss, and we recorded that one part at a time with the principal players of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

When you get busy, it’s hard to devote the amount of time on the things you’d love to. When I first started out conducting with the MSO, we were doing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and I had a good three months to really zoom in on it. It’s been years since I had three months to fully prepare for something, so for me it’s been good to focus on one thing.

Make the most of this time if you’re not too busy because things can change very quickly.

Jordan Hall, violin: I would like to know what your favourite Sibelius symphony or work is.

Ben: I think it would be his last symphony, 7. There’s something perfect about that piece, and it’s not a long symphony, it’s not often played because it’s hard to program and not one of his blockbuster works like 1, 2 and 5.

It’s an autobiographical piece in a sense and it’s got this extraordinary feeling to it; this is something Sibelius was able to do, he’s able to make you feel like you’re flying. When I was studying in Finland, my teacher was absolutely eccentric and he was all about the interpretive ideas and creative ways of thinking about music, and he always said ‘Ben you have to understand, it’s cosmic, this music is cosmic!’, and I never really got what he meant by that but I’ve recently started to understand. It’s like when you have a dream about flying, Sibelius’ music can put you there.

Kate Waller, oboe: I wanted to ask this question after my orchestral workshop today. We spent a lot of time on the solos in Firebird, and we actually watched a video of Stravinsky conducting an orchestra himself and we noticed in one of the solos he took it very fast, but there’s a tradition in some of these solos to take it a lot slower.

So, my question is how do you balance preserving tradition with orchestral playing, and the need to have your own artistic voice and that new sound and innovation?

Ben: It’s a really good question Kate, this is a balancing act as you say because sometimes the most innovative thing you can do is play what’s on the page. Isn’t that weird? That sometimes that is the most revolutionary idea you can come up with because it’s so rare this gets done. On the one hand, as musicians we’re standing on the shoulders of everyone who’s come before us and now thanks to the internet we’re able to dial up basically any performance of the mid-20th century onwards, and hear these forebearers who have blazed the trail.

It comes to the point where music comes from the performer, our job isn’t to get out of the way but it’s to find our own way of expressing what we think the composer wants. This has to be our driver; what do we think the composer is trying to say? How can we make it resonate with us? I think that’s what the great artists have all done, somehow connected so strongly with the music that it tells their story as well as the composer’s story.

That’s the balance, but don’t underestimate how powerful it can be to try doing those marked tempos on the page and seeing what it’s like.

AYO cellist Nadia Barrow performs in an AYO orchestra concert.

Nadia Barrow, cello: What’s the biggest difference between conducting a youth orchestra versus a more established professional orchestra?

I think in a youth orchestra you’ve got more time with them and it’s much more important to be a pedagogue and explain why you’re making a decision. With professional orchestras having short rehearsal times you don’t unpack it with the players, and they won’t necessarily understand the motivations behind the choices. Whereas, you can do that in a youth orchestra and it’s a much more interesting journey because everybody is learning the piece and you can establish good habits of ensemble playing.

It’s a total gamechanger having the experience of youthful enthusiasm and energy, it opens up lots of opportunities with the music.

Noah Lawrence, cello: You mentioned how important it is for us to form a musical taste, I was wondering how you would go about forming that taste but also how we could continue to develop it?

This is a really important point I’d like to make because it’s not even just musical taste, it’s an artistic taste. It’s establishing what you love about art, and that can be developed by reading, going to an art gallery, going to the theatre, any of these abstract art forms can inform our own choices as musicians.

Ultimately, music is our medium for expression so obviously the go-to for us is listening; what are the pieces we like? Who are our heroes? We do this already, but I don’t think we understand how important it is in terms of where we will end up as musicians, and the choices we make to get us there. There’s also this concept of not being frustrated that you can’t do all the things you want to do now, because with work that will come. Having this rich, broad, artistic experience is the key to developing your own taste.

On a closing note, the future of music has never been more in our hands than it is now, so it’s up to us to connect great music with people. That’s our job and we should never stop doing that.