Taking 5 with Benjamin Northey

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Taking 5 with Benjamin Northey

He’s not averse to donning an Indiana Jones hat or wielding a lightsaber all for entertainment’s sake.

Conductor, musician and arranger Benjamin Northey has featured in many Queensland Symphony Orchestra concerts over the years. We sat down to chat about concert rehearsals, conducting West Side Story, and sharing a meal with Beethoven.

What’s involved in preparing to conduct for a concert?

Preparation for upcoming concerts involves the analysis and deep study of the music to be performed. This process can vary depending on whether the music is brand new, or repertoire that is well known to yourself and the orchestra. The conductor needs to build an interpretation of each piece of music, one which they can then share with the members of the orchestra in rehearsal.

Can you talk about the rehearsal process? How much of conducting is leading the orchestra in the direction you feel is right and how much of it is collaborative?

Rehearsals are where a conductor has the chance to share their vision for a piece of music. Having said that, every orchestra is a collection of individuals with unique musical personalities. Every musician brings something special to the totality of the sound and it’s important that a conductor allows space for individual expression, particularly from solo players in the orchestra. There may be certain things that work with one orchestra, but are better treated differently with another. Collaboration in rehearsals is essential; often players will gave important insights to share with a conductor about what needs attention across the ensemble. The entire relationship between conductor and orchestra ultimately is defined by collaboration.

If you could share a meal with one composer, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

It would probably be Beethoven. I just find his life and music utterly fascinating and would be so keen to find out more about his politics, not to mention his metronome markings!

Whilst concerts around the world are on hold, how are you spending your time right now?

I’m spending all my time at home with the family which has been a lovely change for me given I travel so much normally. I have been of course doing some work with livestreamed concerts here in Melbourne, but also doing more audio production work for the many online musical projects being put together currently. There is great pedagogical potential in the use of this online technology; soI’ve enjoyed giving some webinars to fellow conductors and other musicians such as those from the Australian Youth Orchestra. I’ve also been doing quite a lot more media work with ABC Classic and local radio here in Melbourne. I’d give anything to get back in front of a big orchestra though!

Tell us your favourite concert, hardest concert and most dramatic concert that you’ve conducted so far?

Impossible to pick a favourite as there are too many to choose from…one that comes to mind was my most recent concert with QSO of the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony which the Orchestra played so wonderfully, and the chance to work with Stefan Dohr in that concert was a dream. The hardest (they are nearly all hard!) might be conducting the film and orchestra version of West Side Story which is crazily difficult. A concert I did recently with oud virtuoso Joesph Tawadros with SSO certainly put us all through our rhythmic paces too! The most dramatic would probably be a toss between last year’s performance of Deborah Cheetham’s Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra’s return concert to the Town Hall seven years after the devastating earthquake. Spine tingling.