BY LUCY RASH
Perth Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Jessica Gethin is powering ahead as one of Australia’s most prominent emerging artists. This year, she was listed as one of the top 100 Most Influential Women by the Australian Financial Review and following her recent winning of the prestigious Brian Stacey Emerging Conductor Award, we spoke with Jessica about her passion for conducting, the role of the conductor in the contemporary setting, and the challenges of working with an orchestra for the very first time.
Congratulations on your recent win of the Brian Stacey Emerging Conductor Award. What does this award represent for you?
Winning the award, which includes $10,000 of funding, has helped me in a few different ways. It’s already assisting me to network, audition, and increase podium opportunities overseas, which can come at quite a cost. I’ve just returned from Hong Kong and Singapore where I had the opportunity to meet with some orchestras and artists, so hopefully that will lead to future collaborations. The award also provides national recognition alongside the other Stacey baton holders, all notable conductors in their fields. It’s been fantastic to meet up with them and see how the Brian Stacey award has impacted on their careers.
Was there a single point during your early career at which you decided: ‘I’m going to be a conductor’?
I remember waving my arms around to my grandad’s old recordings as a five year old, but really had my heart set on being a violinist. When I was studying my Bachelor of Music degree, I was concertmaster of the university orchestra and became more and more intrigued by the role of conductors – beyond just waving their arms! I began to see the score as an entire ‘painting’, where as a violinist I felt I was only one colour within the ‘artwork’. I’ve always loved watching an orchestra on stage before the concert; you hear everyone warming up individually, and it’s absolute chaos on stage. Once the conductor walks on to the podium, they produce order and harmony with one single non-verbal movement. Fascinating! A great yearning to understand and communicate the music beyond the notes was also part of the appeal. In my early 20s, I knew it was the path I needed to pursue. It just felt a very natural way to express the music.
How do you approach the first rehearsal with an orchestra you’ve never worked with before?
I start with a lot of study! It’s my job to know the history of the composer, the technical aspects of each of the instruments, and the piece itself in order to be able to communicate the sound I want to produce; to unify the interpretation and provide overall direction before I even meet with the orchestra. Different genres require different preparation, of course. At the moment, I’m mid-opera season, so preparation also involves analysing the text, singing in a different language, working with chorus and soloists and collaborating with a director. I’m usually quite time efficient in rehearsals and have a plan of what I want to achieve each session. I always try to show the musicians respect whilst approaching the first rehearsal with a very high expectation of standard – at the end of the day, they all want the music to be good too.
What personal qualities are central to the role of a conductor?
Musicianship aside, it certainly helps to be a good communicator, to be focused and authoritative, energetic, organised and even a certain amount of physical stamina is needed to get through conducting for hours. There are late nights of study, and lots of travel. These days an ability to manage people, mediate between players and management, and bridge the gap with the audience is also becoming important.
How do you measure the success of any given performance?
Always musically. The wonderful thing about live performance is that the same musicians can read exactly the same notes at the same tempo on the same day – but produce an entirely different product. There are so many variables, and while it is encouraging to see a standing ovation or sell-out crowd, personally it is more about whether we played with integrity, conviction, passion, and energy. Did we capture what we had set out to do? Did we tell the story as it was written?
When you reflect on the role of the conductor in the centuries prior to the contemporary setting, in what ways do you think that role has changed?
The old-school style of conducting was generally far more dictatorial. These days, it is a fine balance of many factors including collaborating with the orchestra by leading with authority and having respect for the musicians and the music. There are also more females on the podium these days, although still not enough!
What can aspiring conductors do to get their ‘foot in the door’?
Listen! Listen as much as you can to as much repertoire as you can. Observe as many rehearsals as you can. You may be able to sit in on your local professional orchestra rehearsing, or even in on a local community orchestra. Find a good mentor, talk to musicians, play as much chamber music as you can. It’s not an easy career path, but it is possible!
What projects lie ahead for you?
I’m undertaking a Fellow of the Institute of Women Conductors with the Dallas Opera in the United States. I’m also in an exciting planning phase for next year in my role of Chief Conductor of Perth Symphony Orchestra. We are exploring some fantastic, diverse programs from Beethoven to Nirvana, which promise to be amazing! I’ll also be conducting and presenting the beautiful children’s film ‘The Snowman’ in Perth on 19 December. We are showing the film accompanied by a live orchestra – ideal for kids just before Christmas!
Jessica Gethin will conduct the Perth Symphony Orchestra in their Swanbourne concert The Snowman on December 19, more from www.perthsymphony.com. Keep up to date on Jessica through www.jessicagethin.com.