Young conductor Benjamin Northey felt an instant rapport with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra the first time he stood in front of them in 2003, conducting Beethoven at the Myer Bowl.
That relationship has deepened and matured into something rather special in the decade since, Northey believes, and he now spends more time with the orchestra than any other conductor.
“The MSO players really mentored me. I was able to ask them questions about rehearsals, they would see areas where I needed to work and would tell me. So whatever success I have now is a shared success, because we have built up this relationship based on mutual investment, and that’s incredibly special and quite rare,” says Northey, whose contract with the MSO was recently extended to 2016.
In the 13 years since he won the Symphony Australia young conductor of the year competition, Northey has become one of the rising stars of the Australasian-Asian region, and has just been reappointed to a second three-year term as the MSO’s associate conductor. He was also recently appointed chief conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, has conducted several operas for Opera Australia, including Carmen this year, and is a feature on the musical calendar in several Asian capital cities.
Northey, 43, spent 10 years playing flute, clarinet and saxophone, and learned what it felt like on the far side of the podium. “I had a lot of ensemble experience before I picked up a stick,” he says. He studied with John Hopkins, whom he has just replaced as head of conducting studies at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium, and got his break with the 2001 young conductor prize which brought funds to study overseas. One of 250 applicants for six positions at the Sibelius Academy in Finland, Northey was ranked top after two days of auditions. Here he found two of his great inspirations, Jorma Panula and Leif Segerstam. “Panula taught all the great Finnish conductors. He brought out your strengths, told you what not to do and didn’t try to make you a clone of himself. All his students came out differently, and that’s the sign of a great teacher. Segerstam was a true eccentric, giving insight into interpretation and imagination.”
Studies finished, Northey made the critical decision to blaze a trail by pursuing a career in Australia and Asia. Traditionally, he says, Australian conductors have sought experience in Europe. Conventional wisdom says it is not possible to build a career as an Australian-based orchestral conductor.
“I became busy in the region as a result of being in Australia. In the past few years the Asian region has really started to open up. Already this year I’ve debuted with the Malaysian Philharmonic, the Tokyo Philharmonic, I’ve been in Taiwan and in February I go back to the Hong Kong Philharmonic for the third time. As well as the Australian orchestras, I will conduct all three main New Zealand orchestras: the NZSO, Auckland Philharmonia and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. It’s actually very fertile ground once you become well regarded in this area.”
Northey is thrilled to renew his commitment to Melbourne. “I think the MSO is unique in Australia in having their own sound, this really mature, refined, velvety sheen, and that’s because they are a mature orchestra, have had a long time playing together and are great musicians.”