Conductor Hamish McKeich is a real treble maker

By Dan Poynton
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #66.

This is part of Capital’s 10 year birthday retrospective, where we look back at some of our favourite stories over the past decade. To read an update of this story, see issue #90 of Capital.

Subscribe to get the
real thing here.

Looking at Hamish McKeich you might guess he’s a rocker, an actor, or maybe a Wellington barista. But he’s actually Associate Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. After a heavy day conducting rehearsals for the orchestra, he sat down in his dressing room at the Michael Fowler Centre to have a chat with Dan Poynton.

Clicking on Hamish McKeich’s webpage you might think you’d stumbled on Johnny Depp’s instead. Grungy industrial scenes, subway underworlds, and haunted houses appear. And there’s the man himself with his shaggy rock-star hair and moody gaze. Hell, he’s even got a Jack Sparrow pirate moustache. Hip, but not hipster. A bohemian from the Belle Époque maybe?

This is not usual.

Well, not for a classical conductor, though he has been known to put on a penguin suit. But then this leading New Zealand conductor is not usual. Hamish is unusually wide-ranging and is known for exploring conducting no-go zones – everything from Mozart to Frank Zappa to garage punk.

Hamish has been Associate Conductor of the NZSO since 2002, with the odd break here and there. He’s conducted numerous gigs with the NZSO, but his baby is the Shed Series he created last year as ‘a bit of an experiment.’ It consists of concert-cum-parties of orchestral exploration held in the waterfront’s laid-back Shed 6.

‘There’s booze and some nibbles,’ say Hamish. ‘You can go in and out of the gig. But people do listen to the music!’

They do small sets, with a smorgasbord of shorter pieces revolving round some theme.

‘There’s just not enough time for people to get bored,’ Hamish smiles.

And anything’s fair game: classical, cabaret, jazz, contemporary classical, ethnic, rock – you name it. The series started with music by Radiohead guitarist and co-writer, Jonny Greenwood – not exactly a staple of orchestral fare.

‘It’s proved really popular with people who want to do an informal concert,’ says Hamish.

He says they’re getting a lot of younger people who don’t usually go to classical concerts. There are cushions on the floor for kids, and unexpected things happen. Instruments sometimes pop up in the audience.

‘People go “wow” cos they’re so close that keeps them on their toes.’

The Shed Series is finishing the year with Unwound on 30 November, promising to unwind you with music both relaxing and upbeat.

Duke Ellington’s jazzy take on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite shares the bill with meditative music by Pulitzer-prize winner John Luther Adams. Other pieces will draw on blues, jazz, and funk, as well as the sounds of Rio de Janeiro.

Also featuring will be genre-bending US oboist Russel Walder. He’s internationally known for his ambient improvised music. The backing music will be specially arranged by Wellington composer-star John Psathas, known for his beautiful use of exotic non-classical sources. So be prepared for some otherworldly music.

Now living in Wellington’s Aro Valley, Hamish was born in Christchurch. His father teaches oboe and bassoon and he passed the craft down to Hamish. At 16 he was already studying bassoon at Wellington Polytech and freelancing with the NZSO, valuable experience for one so young.

Then off to study at the Sydney Conservatorium. He only lasted a year there before the Sydney Symphony Orchestra offered him their Associate Principal Bassoon job.

‘I went ahead pretty fast so I had that job at 19,’ Hamish grins, but already his mind was wandering. ‘The bassoon repertoire is limited. I began to think, “I don’t know if I actually want to do this forever”.’

He wanted to go deeper into the music but wondered how he could do it.

‘There’s only one way to do it, right? Conduct it!’ he says. ‘Whatever spoke, the ego spoke? I don’t know.’

So in the early 90s Hamish set off to London and then to Amsterdam, his base for nine years while he developed his conducting. He freelanced on bassoon to make ends meet.

At first being on the other end of the commander’s baton was a bit weird because of Hamish’s disciplined training as a rank-and-file.

‘It was like, oh yeah, I’ve got to move first, right?’ says Hamish. ‘Everyone was looking at me, waiting for me to move.’

Hamish was acutely aware of how difficult conducting is and of his lack of experience and technique at the time.

‘I don’t like people who get up and conduct and think it’s just going to happen. It’s bullshit – it’s a craft,’ he scowls. ‘There are things to learn and there’s humility. Usually when people get up like that it’s all ego-based.’

Although part of the job description, taking authority didn’t come naturally. Hamish hates the old tradition of conductor-as-dictator, finding it ‘insulting’ to the players.

‘It’s not about you getting up there and having a wank, right?’ he blurts. ‘It’s about the composer.’

Hamish was inspired in this by great conductors like the Russian Valery Gergiev. Gergiev and his legendary teacher, Ilya Musin, both taught Hamish. He had ‘the most amazing classes’ with them, ‘shadowing them’ round Europe.

‘They’re so nice to the orchestra – really respectful,’ he says fondly. ‘There’s no histrionics. This whole maestro myth is bullshit, but it did exist.’

Hamish says orchestras are much more player-run these days, including the NZSO.

‘They vote on you every year. I’m surprised I’m still here,’ he says, looking only half-worried.

Originally a ‘classical nut’, Hamish discovered contemporary avant-garde music in the thriving Amsterdam scene. Soon after his return home in 1999 he set up NZ’s leading ‘new music’ group, Stroma. Next year it’s celebrating 20 years of far-reaching music making, featuring lots of music by New Zealand composers.

‘Some people come along and say “wow, that’s amazing” and hopefully we convert a few to it,’ he says, pointing out how hard new music is for today’s digitally-distracted people. ‘With a new painting you can leave it at any time but you come back to it. With [live] audio you might not hear it again.’

Hamish’s conducting has made him a globetrotter. Listing all the countries he’s performed in – and all the orchestras – would be a bit of chore. But one big thing he’s into is crossover. He’s conducted for the Pointer Sisters and collaborated with bands like NZ’s Shapeshifter and Dutch punkers The Ex, which ‘wasn’t great for my eardrums but we had a blast.’

Then there was performing with Serj Tankian, lead singer of world-famous heavy-metal band System of a Down. Hamish first performed here with Tankian, a Lebanon-born Armenian, with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Later they ended up performing together with the Armenian Philharmonic and Lebanese Philharmonic.

‘Interesting orchestras. The one in Lebanon was crazy,’ he says, remembering the first rehearsal. ‘There were a couple of guards with machine guns sitting behind the cello section, just hanging out…I’m guessing they were there for us – they weren’t shooting us.’

The US-Armenian pianist they had seemed concerned.

‘He kept coming up to me in rehearsal going “Don’t mess up, they’re here for you”,’ chuckles Hamish. ‘It was all very funny but it wasn’t that funny. I’ve never had a couple of guys with machine guns in my rehearsal.’

So life for jet-setting Hamish hustles on and a day after the interview he’s off overseas to somewhere I can’t possibly remember.

But for now it’s Saturday night in the capital and Hamish is starting to look distracted. He’s got to take off to meet his friends at the pub.


Sign up to our newsletter