Jessica Gethin: “As artists we are always emerging”

A chat with the PSO conductor



At what point does an artist ‘make it’? When they’ve received a Churchill Fellowship? When they’ve won awards and secured contracts across the world?

Jessica Gethin has achieved all of the above, but the acclaimed Perth conductor tells us the process of emerging as an artist in the musical world is a “never-ending journey”. So why don’t we celebrate lifelong learning as we go?

Ahead of her sold-out gig presenting the music of George Michael with the Perth Symphony Orchestra and WAAPA Gospel Choir, Jessica fills us in on her career journey so far and how she feels about the concept of emerging.


Hi Jessica, thanks for the chat! Last time we heard from you, you’d just won the Brian Stacey Emerging Conductor Award. How have you found your career has taken off since this moment in 2015?

It’s been a very busy couple of years! Shortly after the Brian Stacey Award was announced, I was selected as part of the Inaugural Institute for Women Conductors, an initiative driven by the Dallas Opera, so I’ve had several trips to the United States covering a vast number of operas.

Perth Symphony and Perth Chamber Orchestra have grown from strength to strength, almost doubling our team and performances. I also won a Churchill Fellowship last year and secured my first international conducting contracts in Asia. So winning the Brian Stacey really helped to provide that visibility to take the next step in my career, taking my podium work outside Perth.

What have you learnt about the industry during your mentoring, concerts, and these other activities that have taken place for you in the past couple of years?

I think the main area of development for me musically has been in the expansion of genres covered. I started out as a symphonic conductor but now I’m often working within the areas of opera, film, video game, screen, contemporary and other genres which use different styles of collaboration and new skillsets.

I’ve also learnt more about the business side of the industry. Today, conductor are expected to network with boards, sponsors, and be an advocate for the arts in the wider community in general. So an understanding of my role in that sense has been essential at this stage of my career.

So do you feel like you’ve ’emerged’? What does it mean to be an emerging conductor?

I think as artists we are always emerging, in a way! I certainly feel like I have a clearer place, vision, and purpose than I did a few years ago. I recognise where my strengths are and also what challenges face me ahead. I think you can be emerging musically for years, as it is a never-ending journey of study and developing on the podium. However, ’emerging’ can also refer to the profile you create, which gets easier with more visibility each time you conduct.

How has your experience impacted your direction and vision for the Perth Symphony Orchestra?

Perth Symphony is an incredible place of innovation: we create and reimagine musical experiences, presenting them in way that has often not been done before. I work very closely with the director, Bourby Webster, to develop these concepts. We work right from the music, being inspired by the venue, menu, production and the stories we tell. Having a greater understanding of what is presented on an international scale, calling on new skills acquired from studying different genres, and harnessing new relationships and collaborations that have developed along the way, has certainly impacted on the vision of our work on a daily basis.

Jessica Gethin captured by Richard Jefferson Photography

You’ll be conducting a concert focusing on the music of the late George Michael with the singers of WAAPA. Why does George Michael’s music resonate with you?

George Michael’s music has such a recognisable sound, which is interesting in itself as individually the songs vary considerably in feel, composition and content during various stages of his career. However, the way he combined raw, honest and evocative lyrics with exploring heart-wrenching ballads to up-tempo rock-and-roll, and dance-worthy pop tunes, was something he did with ease. I think few songwriters of his time were as capable of telling stories with such an emotional vulnerability that gave audiences a real human to relate to. So I think it’s his storytelling that resonates so well with audience members.

Why does his music translate well into an orchestral setting?

We’ve chosen to feature our string section in this show, and worked with our orchestrator Johannes Luebbers to really showcase his writing through the strings, who provide everything from the perfect soaring lines in his ballads to the rhythmic disco-feel dance tunes and more. Add to this the sounds of the WAAPA Gospel Choir, who will feature several soloists in the show, and it’s a perfect combination to really celebrate his music and bring the show to life.

How would you like to see the world respect his legacy?

As always, through celebrating his music. On the day he passed, Elton John paid tribute to George Michael, saying that he was “the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist”. Bringing his songs to life with our amazing musicians on stage will honour the great artist he was for the stories he told, the people he inspired and the music he left us.

What else is on the horizon for you?

I’m lucky to work with such a diverse range of repertoire; it can change from a Beethoven symphony one day, to an operatic aria, Nirvana, and George Michael the next! Our next concerts are Serenades in the City on July 30 and The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses on August 24.

For more info on these events, visit Jessica will conduct Faith and Freedom: The Music of George Michael on June 27.

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