Conductor, AYO Autumn Music Camp 2021
We are lucky to be working with an array of incredible conductors, instrumentalists and arts administrators in 2021, many of whom have been a part of the AYO community throughout several decades. Fabian Russell, Matthew McDonald and Elissa Seed chat about their AYO journey and their successful careers within the music industry throughout Australia and across the globe.
As a familiar face on AYO programs, what keeps you coming back to work with AYO musicians?
Next year will be thirty years since my first experience of an AYO National Music Camp when I was engaged as a brass tutor and conductor of the brass ensemble. I was twenty-three at the time and not much older than the Camp participants. I had not gone through youth orchestra programs as a youngster because my pathway towards the music profession was a little more unorthodox than most. However, that first Camp was a revelation to me principally because it was a classical music festival for young people, in one of the most joyful music environments that I had ever experienced.
When I moved into orchestral conducting a few years later it was AYO that supported my conducting aspirations more than any other organisation by providing me with a regular platform to develop my skills as an orchestral trainer. In 2003 I was engaged to assist with the preparations of Schoenberg Gurrelieder for the Perth Festival and since then, I have been invited to prepare around twenty-six seasons for numerous guest conductors in my role as Associate Conductor. I have now worked with what must now be thousands of musicians over many years and it continues to be a joy for me each time I have the opportunity to introduce the musicians to another orchestral masterpiece.
It is a well-documented fact that many of Australia’s professional orchestral musicians came through AYO programs. It has been my great privilege to be involved in the training of these AYO musicians over the last few decades. Anyone who has participated in an AYO program knows how great the experience is, whether they are a musician, tutor, conductor or part of the management team. It is often described as ‘a life changing experience’, and for good reason – not to mention a lot of fun in the process.
Could you name your favourite moments working with AYO since 1992?
The last time I conducted the orchestras at National Music Camp was in 2013. It was during Week 2 that the Bishop Orchestra tackled the orchestral ‘tour de force’ that is John Adams’ Harmonielehre. This was an extremely ambitious and risky work for young, inexperienced musicians and I was quite sure that no one in the orchestra had ever played anything by John Adams, let alone a work as difficult as this. Once again, the AYO musicians rose to the challenge, executing its myriad of complexities with considerable aplomb and the final concert was terrific.
In my role as Associate Conductor other highlights include Schoenberg Gurrelieder (Perth Festival 2003), Mahler Symphony No.2 Resurrection (Sydney 2004), Nielsen Symphony No.5 (Sydney 2011), Richard Strauss An Alpine Symphony (Brisbane 2012), Stravinsky The Rite of Spring and Rimsky Korsakov Scheherazade (Sydney 2013 for the European Tour) with Joshua Bell as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Mahler Symphony No.1 (The Netherlands 2016 European Tour) and Mahler Symphony No.4 (Melbourne 2018).
How would you describe your style as a conductor, balancing both music education and directing?
When conducting AYO, and the many student and youth orchestras I have worked with, my role is probably best described as an orchestral trainer. Conducting, in the broadest sense, is the application of artistic leadership throughout the rehearsal process and performances. One of the key challenges to effectively train orchestral musicians is, while they often possess good technical foundations, they sometimes lack first-hand experience of playing major repertoire in a large orchestra on a regular basis.
Therefore, they rely on the conductor to impart a much greater level of guidance as a teacher than those in the professional sphere. There is never any shortage of passion and energy at the first AYO rehearsal and while this is great, it is my job to refine this as much as possible. Creating a cohesive team in the limited time available to us – it is always a thrilling challenge!
Are there any pieces you’re most looking forward to performing at AYO Autumn Music Camp in April?
To say I am looking forward to rehearsing and performing all the works we have programmed for Camp is putting it mildly. As has been the case with most of my colleagues, I have not performed in a public concert during the last ten months, so I can’t wait until we begin.
But that aside, the works we will explore are amongst some of my favourites by each of the composers represented – Shostakovich Symphony No. 1, Ravel La Valse and Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. I have conducted all of these pieces many times and with each new encounter I am once again reminded of the extraordinary magic that lies within each of these masterpieces. To share these works with the musicians this year will hopefully be very special for all of us.
What are your passions outside of music?
Of the first two passions that come to mind, number one would have to be my love of the art and science of cooking. I am particularly fond of cooking Middle Eastern, French, Spanish, Asian cuisine and anything involving seafood. As my family and friends would confirm, I take it quite seriously! I have bookcases that contain dozens of amazing cookbooks that I have collected over the years. The entire process fascinates me, especially the start of each cooking adventure, which would usually begin at the Queen Victoria Market or any of my favourite culinary haunts, of which there are so very many in Melbourne.
Number two, which is actually more of an obsession/addiction, is lap swimming. This began for me about ten years ago and these days I swim every day – rain, hail or shine. I have an ambition to break the thirty-minute mark for the 1500m Freestyle that I hope will occur in the next twelve months or so. If I do achieve this goal, it will put me within fifteen minutes of the Olympic Record. Enough said!