Q&A: Gemma New

Conductor Gemma New returns to her hometown this month to lead the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Podium Series – Spectacular.

A born and bred Wellingtonian, Gemma now lives in San Diego. When she’s not busy being Principal Guest Conductor for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in Texas and Music Director for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, she’s jetting off to conduct orchestras around the world.

She tells us about her Wellington roots, her dream job, and why she loves fish and chips.

What’s your best Wellington memory?

I think we can be really proud of the vibrant arts scene in Wellington. As a young violinist I grew to love orchestral music in Wellington and remember many happy experiences playing in the Wellington Youth Orchestra, Wellington Youth Sinfonietta, National Youth Orchestra and Marsden Collegiate orchestras. I also loved attending NZSO concerts, sometimes in the student seats, and other times standing at the door as an usher at the Michael Fowler Center.

What’s your favourite place in the wider Wellington region?

I absolutely love hiking the Skyline Walkway, and there’s nothing better than a perfect sunset at the top of the hill overlooking the South Island without a breath of wind. It’s also great every other day of the year!

What is “home” for you?

Before the pandemic hit, the balance of work and life was taking me to up to four different cities a week, so I would always say that home is wherever my suitcase is! My longtime boyfriend is a concert pianist, and he typically travels a lot for work too. This year has been incredibly tough, but having an abundance of time together at our little home in San Diego has been a rather special silver lining.

What’s your go-to takeaways order?

In my humble opinion there is no better takeaway than fish and chips, traditionally wrapped in paper and eaten on the beach with an audience of needy seagulls. I really miss this Kiwi favourite when I’m away!

What’s something you’ve always wanted to try?

I’ve always wanted to fly a plane. The views are spectacular and looking at the world from such a height puts everything into perspective. Last summer, due to a last minute cancellation and a tight travel time, I was kindly given a ride in a private plane by a very gracious pilot, who let me sit right up at the front and become a part of the action! It was a real thrill.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I have always loved music from a young age, and I’m glad to have found this challenging and rewarding career in conducting. I first conducted right here in Wellington, at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, where they were really supportive in giving me opportunities to conduct. It was there that I became fascinated with score analysis, with the communication and leadership aspects of conducting, and I most of all loved the unity we created when playing orchestral music. Performing as an orchestra proves to humanity what beauty, power and energy can be created when we work together in harmony.

What do you like about your job?

The NZSO musicians and I will be performing concerts at the Michael Fowler Center and the Auckland Town Hall this month. We will be performing three stunning works that are deeply emotional and personal explorations of life, country, and optimism in the face of adversity. I love working with the NZSO musicians and staff! The excellence, passion and empathy they bring to this music is going to raise the roof each night. Please come and enjoy this music with us!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Back in 2009 I moved to the USA and began a two-year masters degree with the wonderful mentor and conducting teacher in Gustav Meier at the Peabody Institute. One of many great pieces of advice he gave was this: when something doesn’t go so well within an orchestra, 90% of the time it’s your fault. At first I thought, that’s a little harsh! I mean, if a player plays a wrong note, is that really your fault? I also felt daunted by shouldering so much responsibility, could I really do a good job at this?

But with time, I realised this is exactly what a conductor is there for. We are there to rehearse a passage once more in a way that ensures there is no wrong note next time. Or simply to exchange looks with the player to know they will fix it themselves next time without a hitch, and use time in the rehearsal to prioritise a different passage.

And with regards to the 90% responsibility, I realised it’s not all about you. It’s about the conductor encouraging a working environment onstage where everyone is comfortable and exhilarated, and focussed and free to perform their best with collective responsibility. And it’s the shared leadership and teamwork in an orchestra, along with the universal language of emotion spoken by the music, as well as the transformations felt by our audiences, that makes this job so very special to me.

Gemma and the NZSO perform Spectacular at the Michael Fowler Centre on 20 November.

Read more Q&As here.


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