Cityscape caught up with Christchurch Symphony Orchestra’s multi-talented chief conductor extraordinaire Benjamin Northey to get the inside word on their 2017 season.
How did you become a conductor?
I always wanted to play music, even from an early age. Conducting wasn’t on the agenda at all really until much later. I did quite a bit of ensemble leading as a chamber musician but it was only at the urging of my first teacher (John Hopkins) that I became interested in conducting. Once I started studying I well and truly got the bug for it, became fascinated and highly motivated.
What’s your favourite piece to conduct?
The answer varies on a weekly basis most of the time. I become deeply absorbed in whatever music I am working on. It’s my job to be a passionate advocate for these works and I usually fall in love with them. My favourite era of music is the 20th century modernist movement – Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Ravel and Debussy. But I also see both Beethoven and Mozart as modernists in their time. I love so much music I couldn’t possibly choose any one piece.
How are you able to conduct across a range of genres?
I’ve always subscribed to the idea that great music transcends genre. Each world of sound requires a specific understanding and it’s the job of musicians to bring the required expertise and care to everything they perform. Some more complex works demand a greater time commitment to prepare thoroughly but I think an understanding of the many and varied styles of music are the key. Even within the world of opera, for example, there are dozens of sub-genres each needing to be researched, studied and understood in order to bring the works to life effectively.
Where is the most unusual place you’ve conducted?
Well the wonderful Air Force Museum at Wigram would be high on the list! It’s like an art installation and a concert hall in one building. In fact many of my colleagues around the globe are envious when I share photos of the space; they can’t quite believe what they are seeing with the orchestra surrounded by military aircraft. I love the context it brings to our concert programs, particularly our 20th century works which are often informed by war.
What can we expect from CSO’s 2017 season?
There are so many great works to look forward to – some of the greatest music ever written really. Beethoven’s peerless 9th symphony, Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony, many wonderful soloists from New Zealand and around the world. One work which has taken on a renewed relevance and interest is the 3rd symphony of US composer Aaron Copland. It represents the ideals of post WW2 New Deal America, the hope, aspiration, optimism of that time. My how things have changed! But there is really something for everyone this season and that is exciting.
Tell us about Symphonic Oddity, the Bowie tribute with Jon Toogood, Julia Deans and Ladi6.
I imagine that if David Bowie was able to look down upon this concert he would do so with a proud smile on his face. It’s a tribute to his creative life and the effect he had on so many people, artists and musicians. His greatest hits will be taken to a new place with rock band and full orchestra – a must for Bowie fans wanting to celebrate his life.
Formal wear out in February sun – how will you keep your cool at Opera at Pegasus Bay?
Keep well hydrated! Which should be easy given the quality of refreshments on offer – although I’ll be waiting until after the concert to enjoy the viticultural delights! It’s always fun to perform outdoors and the atmosphere will be very much al fresco and informal. A great day out! If it gets too hot I’ll definitely be losing the jacket and tie.
Find out more about the CSO’s concert season at cso.co.nz