It was British conductor John Wilson, I think, who opined that the road to hell is paved with people of diverse skills, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be holding back Australian conductor Benjamin Northey. The Ballarat-born maestro may hold an overseas post – in his case Chief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in New Zealand – but he’s increasingly the go-to for Aussie orchestras on the search for a local baton, and seemingly able to handle his Mozart as easily as accompanying Megan Washington. That the Melbourne Symphony orchestra recently extended his role as Associate Conductor for another four years until the end of 2020 is just the latest endorsement.
Meanwhile, his recent reviews in Limelight – conducting Rautavaara in the Sydney Festival and Copland at the Sydney Opera House – suggest a man of no mean talents when it comes to managing a diverse range of less well-known masterpieces. “I suppose I’ve always been a bit of an all-rounder,” he admits, “and I can understand where John Wilson is coming from, but for me it’s simply a case of my skills mirroring what the orchestras are offering now. And they’ve never offered a wider range of music to a wider audience.”
Among his responsibilities down in Melbourne will be the continuation of the popular Town Hall series – what Northey describes as “bucket list pieces that you absolutely have to hear” – something the MSO has built around his involvement and enthusiasm. “We’ve been adding performances because they’ve been oversubscribed and oversold, it’s just become very popular,” he tells me. “They’re more informal concerts, so I talk a little bit. The idea is that they are a way in for people, but it’s become really popular with the subscribers too, which is wonderful.” Over ten weeks each year he will also be busy with the orchestra and its film music concerts and the crucial MSO education programme.
Curiously Northey was both an early and a late starter. Hooked on the sound of classics thanks to his parents’ record collection from the age of two, he started out on piano but switched to violin when he started at school. A few years later he took up the trumpet, then switched to flute and finally added clarinet and saxophone, which got him into the Australian Wind Orchestra. “I started working in pit orchestras and various ensembles in Ballarat, because I was a bit of a multi-instrumentalist,” he explains. “I played occasionally with the Melbourne Symphony on saxophone and I was working in recording studios doing a variety of different kinds of music.”
But it was really the decision to go back to university at the age of 26 that changed his outlook on music and the meeting of John Hopkins who encouraged him to look closely at the idea of conducting and to enter the Symphony Australia Young Conductor Competition. “I decided with the help of John that I was really going to give it a proper crack,” Northey explains. “As John always said, this is a 150 percent thing, you can’t just dip your toe in conducting. It doesn’t work that way, and especially as I was coming to it reasonably late, at the age of 29.”
Northey describes his win as the shot in the arm he needed in order to take it all seriously, as well as a huge confidence booster. He also met and bonded with the competition’s director that year, the great Finnish conducting pedagogue Jorma Panula. “I remember asking Jorma if it was too late at 29, and he said, no, no, it’s absolutely possible, it’s all about how hard you work.”
Panula helped Northey find the money to explore options overseas and he applied to audition for the Sibelius Academy, one of 250 people who applied that year. “I composed an Etude for the audition and they were very impressed by that and that I played at a very high level,” he recalls. “They were definitely looking for a different set of skills than a central European conservatory, where it would basically all be about being a pianist. The Sibelius Academy were more interested in people who had instrumental skills, and who had played in large ensembles. Only 12 of us got to conduct, and I think they accepted four and I was at the top of that list. That was the kind of confidence that I needed to know that it was all possible.”
Among his contemporaries were Leo McFall, Eva Ollikainen and Pietari Inkinen, now with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the last two Australian Ring Cycles. Leif Segerstam was the professor at the time, who Northey describes as a bewitching and fascinating figure to study with. “He’s such an eccentric thinker and interpretively he was very helpful,” he explains. “There was so much to learn about, particularly that late Romantic music that he was so good at and the big Sibelius symphonies particularly. Just talking with him and hearing about his sense of imagery and cosmic approach to interpretation, that felt very important.”
Panula too continued to help Northey spread his wings though master classes and a final year in his class at Stockholm. “He was really the great pedagogue, along with John Hopkins, in my life,” says Northey. “Jorma prides himself on having no system, but if I was going to say he had a philosophy, it’d be Zen. He doesn’t say it, but looking back it’s very much about finding your way, teaching yourself. He doesn’t say much. He’ll answer your questions, but he’s got this extraordinary capacity to see the strengths and weaknesses in people, and see their potential. All his students come out very different, physically. They don’t look like they’ve come off of a production line like some other professors who like to create people in their own image. That freedom gave you so much responsibility. He would never stand behind you on the podium.”
Perhaps it’s a combination of the two-year-old with the parental record collection and the think-outside-the-box Sibelius Academy that have forged the eclectic-minded conductor of today. But if you push him, it is the early 20th-century modernists that are closest to Northey’s heart. “That’s the music I seem to gravitate towards,” he says. “Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Bartók, Sibelius, that Copland symphony, and newer works of the later 20th century like Rautavaara. They just seem to sit better with me in terms of where my musical strengths lie I suppose.”
“I wouldn’t put myself forward to conduct the German Romantics, which most conductors would absolutely put at the top of their list,” he continues. “Having said that, I love conducting Beethoven almost more than anything else. I don’t really like to put too many boundaries around music. It’s about the things that sit well for you – finding your strengths and knowing your weaknesses.”
Next week in the Town Hall series, Northey will conduct the MSO in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and the Emperor Piano Concerto with Stefan Cassomenos the soloist, before returning to an old friend in the form of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. “It’s a piece I’ve conducted many times,” he enthuses. “It takes me back to Finland and reconnects me with all my experiences over there with the Finns, and Sibelius’s music. I absolutely adore it.”
Meanwhile, in the studio he is about to record a CD of Bach concerti transcribed for guitar with Slava Grigoryan and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and he’s just put down Rachmaninov’s Second Paiano Concerto coupled with Medtner’s First with the MSO and Jayson Gillham for an ABC Classics release later in the year. “The Medtner is very seldom recorded, so it’s a great opportunity for Jayson and I and the orchestra to really do something special,” he says. “The other thing I’m recording will be some of Matthew Hindson’s music with Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Conducting music by contemporary composers – people you can pick up the phone and talk to about it – that’s something that stimulates me. Typically, though, all the recordings are back to back, so it’s very, very busy.”
Something else that means a lot to Northey is a work’s place in history and what it stood for, especially if it delivers a humanitarian message. Before his performance of Copland’s Third in Sydney he stood up and explained something of what the work meant for Copland and what it means for him. Of course, he’s aware of the pitfalls of pinning your colours to the mast in front of an audience that has paid for music, not politics, but he’s a passionate man with a message to impart.
“I strongly believe that artists have a role to play in social debate and in society more broadly, and I think that, particularly in music, there are messages that only the arts can communicate. It would be a shame not to use art sometimes to make people think differently about things. Art has always done that, and I think it’s transformative power. I’d like people to experience a light bulb moment, or a moment of inspiration, to teach them about emotional maturity and empathy.”
What with being in Christchurch eight weeks a year, plus work with the New Zealand Symphony, the Auckland Philharmonia and each of the Australian orchestras at least once a year, Northey’s life is nothing if not eventful: “This year, I think I’m doing four weeks with Sydney, I’m doing four weeks with WASO, two weeks with Adelaide, a week in Brisbane, two or three projects with the TSO on top of the ten weeks with Melbourne. It’s a really full book. Oh, and I’m going to Hong Kong.”
With two young children of five and three, he admits to finding the travel difficult. “It’s hard on everyone really,” he says. “It’s hard on the family, but that’s the sacrifice you make. When I don’t work, I do really miss it. The orchestra has become my means of expression, and when I don’t do it I start to notice the absence. I guess that’s what being an artist is all about.”
So would he ever consider moving abroad? “If the right job came up at the right time,” he says, thoughtfully. “I would say family comes first though, so there’d be a lot of considerations. I get asked a lot about would I spend more time in Europe? And the truth is, at the moment I’m so busy I don’t have time to think about it. But also, I rate the Australian orchestras so highly so I don’t really see that conducting the London Philharmonic, as wonderful as they are, is such a different experience from conducting the Sydney or the Melbourne orchestras, for example. Many European artists who come to Australia early in their careers, they’re working with the best orchestras they’ve ever conducted in their lives. And that’s something I don’t think people fully understand. The experience here is at such a high level, and that’s something to really savour.”
Benjamin Northey conducts Sibelius at Melbourne Town Hall on May 11 and 12