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Unfinished Projects

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From stamps to sandpits: MSO’s Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey is determined to complete a project from start to finish, but first he must conquer Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.


What is your unfinished project?

I keep promising to alphabetise and catalogue my large collection of orchestral and operatic scores…it’s a disaster really. I never know where anything is.

If you could start all over again and finish a project from start to finish, what would you do?

I would absolutely build a two-level fort style cubby house in the backyard for my kids, with a sand pit underneath and a nice little ladder to climb. I’m thinking treated pine, but open to suggestions.

What were you obsessed with as a kid?

As well as music, I LOVED cricket and had a pretty serious stamp collection.

Are you from a musical family?

My mum Wendy is a fine pianist and my dad Bob played guitar and sang to us a lot. My younger brother Blaise sang and played the clarinet and my older sister Emma is also a pianist who runs music education programs for children in Canberra.

What is your greatest fear?

Probably sharks. My wife Jo swears I walked on water once while snorkelling. I thought I had seen a shark…it was a tuna. Irrational really. I love sushi, so the tuna had much more reason to be afraid.

What’s the most magical place you’ve been?

New York City, closely followed by the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania.

What is the process you follow to practice, rehearse and perform a concert?

The study process is continual and involves long periods of time with the score analysing and thinking. Even for works which we have performed many times, we always need to build them again and explore possibilities in rehearsal. Energy levels need to be considered to ensure we are all primed for the performance. I usually arrive at the venue early, making sure to eat and hydrate well (chocolate comes in handy too!). I think music is nearly always performed better in a state of relaxed confidence, alertness and focus. Winding down afterwards can be a long process, sometimes even days long.

How do you prepare for Schubert?

Like any masterpiece, a large amount of time spent studying the score is required. Schubert occupies a special sound world which informs the approach to this symphony. Schubert was able to look forward to the romantic period and back to the classical masters. It’s too much of a simplification to say his greatest strength was in melodic invention. Of course his extraordinary writing for voice has implications in the approach to the treatment and character of this work’s long-lined themes. Schubert is truly a magician in this case. This symphony casts a spell from the first notes, it’s all about finding ways to sustain lines, atmosphere and letting the extraordinary structure unfold naturally.

The uplifting spirit of Fauré’s Requiem has caught the imagination of millions of concertgoers, what was your most uplifting moment this month?

Hearing my daughter Eva speak so excitedly about her first piano lesson. Music is such a special gift for us all. It’s amazing to see someone being empowered by discovering the joy of making music.