Jonathan Henderson: “I wish to keep my curiosity for music alive”

The flautist writes about his upcoming world premiere, composed by Lisa Cheney


Newcastle-born Jonathan Henderson serves as principal flute of the Estonian National Opera. He returns to Australia to present a world premiere of Lisa Cheney’s flute concerto with the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra.


I grew up with music in our home. Members of my family play guitar and piano, and two of my cousins are singers, often entertaining us at family events. We had a beautiful German-made piano at home, which was acquired by my great-grandfather. When I was young, I would sit and play around on it, slowly working out how to play songs I knew by ear and eventually taking up lessons. It wasn’t until around age 14 that I was interested to take up a new instrument; and this was thanks to my high school’s music program, the very supportive band director, and my classroom music teachers.

Before my Bachelor in 2004, I was still undecided about my university studies. At that stage visual art, composing, and flute attracted me equally. However, I found visual art and eventually, composition, to be very solitary endeavours. It was the social aspect of music-making which helped tipped the balance. (I started my tertiary studies in composition and changed to flute performance at the end of my first year.)

After completing my Bachelor studies in Brisbane, I felt a need to explore the world and to experience musical cultures outside of Australia. Initially, it was my studies in Germany and Switzerland, particularly with the flute pedagogues there, that attracted me to move abroad. My two professors, Felix Renggli (Basel) and Jacques Zoon (Geneva) are both great masters whose words and sentiments I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

My travels have marked my imagination; my human, political, and environmental conscience

In 2012, I was accepted on a one year trial to the Estonian National Opera Orchestra after auditioning at the end of my studies in Germany. I will never forget my first rehearsal in Tallinn – Der Rosenkavalier of Richard Strauss; which has a highly demanding, virtuosic first flute part. It was my first taste of professional orchestral life and I was relatively young, however I was welcomed whole-heartedly into the orchestra.

Just recently, I found out from our principal oboist that it was my performance in this particular opera which convinced my colleagues and the chief conductor to offer me the permanent position. So although it was an extremely challenging initiation period, I was lucky to have been given the chance to well and truly prove myself from day one in the principal flute chair.

By living within a culture other than your own, you learn to adapt, to question your own beliefs, even your means of self expression

Once I relocated to Tallinn after winning the principal flute position in the Estonian National Opera Orchestra, all kinds of opportunities arose, such as solo engagements, recitals, chamber music projects, music festivals and teaching opportunities. Establishing myself in Europe has afforded me many unforgettable musical experiences; I have had the chance to work with some of the world’s finest conductors, to perform in concert halls and churches in The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Poland, England, Belarus, Estonia and Latvia. There have been countless chances to hear the world’s finest ensembles and soloists live in concert – to see and hear my musical heroes, and discover many new ones.

There is this idea which rests quietly in the back of my mind: that I would eventually like to move back to Australia one day. It energizes and motivates me to absorb as much of this rich musical oasis as possible during my time based over this side of the globe. I think it helped me to stay open to new opportunities that I otherwise may have dismissed, or not even dared to entertain. My travels have marked my imagination; my human, political and environmental conscience. I could not have planned or expected this outcome, but I will be eternally grateful for these experiences.

I do and will always feel I have a particular sentimental attachment to Estonia. It has now been my home for five years. After three years working in the ENO, I took a sabbatical to study in Geneva. At the end of my year in Switzerland, to my surprise, I found myself feeling homesick for Estonia in some ways. My years in Tallinn have marked the start of my professional career, and they also influenced my personal life. I had the chance to build strong friendships and professional ties. The orchestra pit has a very special atmosphere; even though we are part of a large scale production, there is a certain intimacy you feel when playing in the orchestra which rests inside this cocoon of sound.

It is the personal connections, the social interactions, those moments of feeling supported and cared for by friends and colleagues, that removes the sense of isolation

In regard to cultural influences, my time abroad has left an imprint not only on my playing but my cultural and political reflection. Northern Europe has its own peculiarities and traditions; the nature is distinctive, the winter is long and very dark with sub-zero temperatures. In summer, we have white nights where the sun barely sets in the evening. By living within a culture other than your own, you learn to adapt, to question your own beliefs, even your means of self expression.

At times I feel very connected to my surroundings, and in another sense I feel very much a foreigner, existing in another culture from a point of observation. It is the personal connections, the social interactions, those moments of feeling supported and cared for by friends and colleagues, that removes the sense of isolation.

Estonians are doing something right – not just where generating public interest or attracting audiences are concerned, but in cultivating that interest through music education

Music, particularly singing, holds strong historical significance in Estonia. What is known as The Singing Revolution led to restore Estonia’s independence and helped to maintain a sense of national identity during the final years of Soviet occupation. In Estonia, music is a compulsory subject in general education from kindergarten through to secondary school.

I recently sat in the jury for some high school music competitions and was astounded that it is compulsory for all school students who participate to play their repertoire from memory. I found this extremely impressive but my Estonian colleagues considered this a basic requirement. This educational standard permeates through to the general population who have all had a rich musical education.

I have observed an overwhelming appreciation and support for classical music from the general public in Estonia. Last year saw an average audience capacity of 90 per cent for performances and concerts of the Estonian National Opera. It is unusual to see our opera house less than three-quarters full in a performance. This tells me that Estonians are doing something right – not just where generating public interest or attracting audiences are concerned, but in cultivating that interest through music education.

Contemporary music occupies an important place in my repertoire

Lisa Cheney and I entered the Queensland Conservatorium as first-year composition students in 2005. Although we fell out of touch after I moved abroad, I had enjoyed following her career and witnessing her style evolve over the years. I kept her name in mind as a composer who I would love to commission one day, possibly in the capacity of a piece for flute and piano.

When I was approached by the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra to perform a concerto, various existing concerti were being discussed, including Australian works. When the idea to commission a new work was introduced, Lisa was my first choice.

To work with Lisa – who is such a warm person – and to reconnect again in our professional lives, was an appealing prospect. During the composing period, I communicated with Lisa over international Skype calls and email. When I arrived in Australia some weeks before the rehearsal period began, Lisa had travelled to Europe to attend summer festivals, so our communication continued in the same manner. Lisa would send through scores and excerpts which I would play to her over Skype or into a recording machine, and I’d send it across with my notes. This process continued until some days before the first rehearsal, allowing the concerto to fully evolve.

I feel that I have a responsibility to convince the public of the work’s value and to convey its meaning

This premiere holds personal significance for me in many ways. I feel that I have a responsibility to convince the public of the work’s value and to convey its meaning. Defending contemporary music is not always an easy task. Along with performing the work well instrumentally and aligning my own musical ideas with Lisa’s idiomatic gestures, there is an added responsibility of presenting a new, unknown work with conviction.

Contemporary music occupies an important place in my repertoire. It is a style in its own right which can enrich other styles, stretch the imagination and expand the instrumental possibilities. Personally, I view the premiere of a new work as creation pertaining to something of our time, the essence of this particular moment. That to me encompasses the very definition of art and of creativity.

This is my first experience to have a piece written for me and to collaborate so closely with a composer. It is a very unique situation. With a standard concerto, you are essentially alone in your preparation; you arrive and rehearse with the orchestra, perhaps some small details are discussed with the conductor afterwards, and then the orchestra have the rest of their program to rehearse.

This new concerto was a completely collaborative endeavour. My job as soloist is not just to play well and defend the work – although this is of course extremely important – I was also heavily involved in editing the work, working closely with the composer and conductor.

Lisa captured by Griffith University

My own preparation was challenging in that apart from an orchestral score, I had no existing recording or piano reduction at my disposal to familiarise myself with the work before stepping in front of the orchestra. In this scenario, the best I could do is to prepare well and keep a very open mind about what I would learn from the first rehearsal.

Many things I planned in my own preparation had to be completely thrown out the window once I played through the work with orchestra; certain colours I envisioned using, my instinctive rubato and agogic timing, and the scale of my own sound projection needed to be quickly adapted in context. These were all exciting and challenging prospects which I took on whole-heartedly.

I was very diligent in separating my role as performer in this project from my composer’s instinct

I have always found the idea of collaborating with a composer and being part of the creative process to be exciting. The opportunity to communicate directly with a composer and to be part of the creative dialogue is very rare, particularly working in a symphony orchestra. Speaking from a performer’s point of view, I think my composition background naturally influences my way of musical thinking. It brings a certain awareness of harmonic and structural aspects to a score which has a particular influence on my interpretive choices. Playing a single-voice instrument, this is certainly an advantage as there can be a tendency to become occupied with the linear phrase and miss the most interesting changes which occur elsewhere in the score.

With this in mind I was very diligent in separating my role as performer in this project from my composer’s instinct. When it came to collaborating with Lisa, my main aim was to give her as much artistic freedom as possible by broadening her her awareness of the flute’s capabilities. In doing so I was careful not to stifle Lisa’s creative voice. I tried to help better represent her musical ideas instrumentally in the best possible manner.

Ultimately my input may have brought with it some form of composing, but I’m not too concerned about that. Any performer who enters in this type of creative dialogue is still composing, in a way. The interchange of ideas, re-imagining of musical material and using improvisation as a basis for creativity are all acts of musical composition. Lisa was very open to that, too. I consider it a great privilege and a rare opportunity to have had this level of input, to be involved in the creation of a new work for my instrument and to the steady expansion of the Australian flute repertoire.

I believe art is always relevant; current art is a reflection of our state of mind, a reflection of all things present

In an age of globalisation, I am proud that contemporary Australian music seems to retain a sense of national identity, be it overt or subliminal. There is something intangible about the Australian musical ethos; ask me to pinpoint it and I couldn’t explain exactly why or how. All I can put it down to is that Australian art is inevitably a product of Australian artists, whose inspiration, social, cultural and political experiences all uniquely influence their art.

I believe art is always relevant; current art is a reflection of our state of mind, a reflection of all things present. Historical art, including composition, is an expression of the central issues, the sentiments and conscience of our past. Just as musicians are able to relive these sentiments of other times and other cultures, we too can experience it with our own national art works. What is important to acknowledge and understand is that Australian music encompasses a broad range of styles. We produce composers with distinctive musical languages and means of expression. It is vital to continue to shape our national identity and we as artists have this responsibility to encourage and facilitate its lineage to continue.

In the end, the individual is entitled to his or her own taste

Generally speaking, Estonian audiences and musicians alike seem open minded and enthusiastic about Australian music. I have presented a variety of composer’s works which have distinctive styles, ranging from Paul Stanhope, Elena Kats-Chernin, Carl Vine and Brett Dean. When choosing repertoire for a recital, I try to remain optimistic and trust the public will be engaged and supportive of my choices. In any audience, there can be people who come to hear a concert with an open mind and others who come with specific expectations. In the end, the individual is entitled to his or her own taste. When it comes to curating a concert, this is an important factor to consider, but it is also an aspect which is sometimes necessary to ignore!

I have experienced both types of reactions in Estonia. Sometimes those who are fixed on western European musical traditions, on romantic ideals, found some Australian music I have performed too ‘lightweight’. On other occasions works have been described by audience members as very refreshing, optimistic, imaginative and unique.

I feel a growing desire to re-enter my past, to bring what I have learned and experienced back to my real home

Above all, I wish to keep my curiosity for music alive. I feel an unrelenting need to move and confront new musical horizons. Some of my best musical experiences have come as a result of following instincts based on my own curiosity. I would like the opportunity to share what I have learned with young Australians, to help give them the opportunities and to share the information I have received, to encourage them to question and step outside their comfort zone. I find myself caught between a generation who aspired for an orchestral position as the ultimate career goal, and the musicians of tomorrow who are breaking away from this ‘all or nothing’ ideal and are coming to terms with the realities of the orchestral job market. Even now, this is somewhat of a taboo conversation that few musicians are willing to talk openly about. Having secured a permanent orchestral position, this is something I am fighting the most keep – to continue to absorb the multitude of offerings music can deliver and to avoid complacency.

Now having been being based in Europe for almost a decade, I feel somewhat disconnected from my origins; not in an emotion sense, but now that I have lived away from Australia for some time I feel a growing desire to re-enter my past, to bring what I have learned and experienced back to my real home. So, this kind of opportunity with the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra allows me to do just that, for which I am extremely grateful.

I feel it is worth mentioning that myself, the composer Lisa Cheney and our conductor Michael Keen are all graduates of the Queensland Conservatorium, appearing with an orchestra founded and operated in Brisbane. The Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra have a young history of commissioning new works for their concerts, with Lisa Cheney’s flute concerto being their third commission to date. The BPO’s repertoire consists mostly of orchestra standards, pieces that will ensure well-attended concerts which help support the orchestra’s sustainability. With this in mind, the choice to include a contemporary work by a living composer in their program and to extend that open-mindedness by commissioning a new work, is a bold move on their behalf. I commend the orchestra for taking this risk and their supportive efforts to promote Australian musicians. I am so proud that this is a product of an entirely Queensland-based workforce and artistic team.


Learn more about Jonathan Henderson, and see him perform Lisa Cheney‘s new work with the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra at the Old Museum Concert Hall on July 23.

Images supplied.

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