The Sydney Youth Orchestra’s season opener is a biggie, with Mahler 10 and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite sharing the bill. No sweat though, as 15-year-old Marcus Michelsen, the SYO’s youngest ever concertmaster, is by all accounts up to the task. Here we talk to Michelsen and conductor Alexander Briger ahead of the Orchestra’s challenging season opener.

Marcus Michelsen. Photo supplied by Sydney Youth Orchestra

Marcus Michelsen

How do you feel about being appointed concertmaster at 15?

I am grateful to Sydney Youth Orchestras for giving me the opportunity to be Concertmaster, and for them take a chance on a younger player. I feel very motivated and inspired from it. I’m thankful to my violin teachers, my fellow musicians, music lovers and the people close to me who have helped me tremendously since I started playing at the age of five. It really has taken a small village to get to where I am today.

You’re stepping into a role at the SYO that has famous predecessors, most notably Richard Tognetti. Do you find this to be daunting?

I have much respect for my predecessors and all the important work they have done to continue the classical music movement, so it’s easy to feel daunted. To mitigate this and to maximise my performance technique, I must take a pragmatic approach, note by note, and let the music guide me more than anything else. I believe the SYO and similar orchestras around the world provide an increasingly important oasis of acoustic, analogue, and human experiences in the midst of a technology saturated world; one of many reasons I’m thankful to previous generations of SYO musicians for allowing us to continue their important work.

Mahler and Stravinsky together is quite a challenge. How have you been preparing for this program?

Yes, the Mahler/Stravinsky program is some of the most revolutionary, ingenious and challenging music I know, with much orchestral agility required both rhythmically, dynamically and harmonically. Careful preparation is certainly needed for our performances to fly.

Initially I listen to good recordings of the pieces, while reading through the scores. I combine this with various visualisation techniques, initially keeping my attention towards overarching orchestral ideas, different sections of the orchestra, musicality and expression.

During the early phases I also try to understand the minds of the composers by studying their personalities, circumstances and environments. However, this can be tricky and misleading. As we have all experienced, human minds, including those of composers, are highly non-linear (producing surprisingly happy pieces during atrocious circumstances and vice-versa) and some historic accounts I have found get carried away with superficial gossip.

There is no magic sauce in any of the above, so I swiftly get into many hours of violin practice. I find it useful to practice at different speeds ranging from very slow to faster than performance tempo. I throw other practice ideas into the mix, attempting to better communicate rhythms, dynamics, and music with the conductor and the orchestra during performance.

Along with my other weekly activities to stay on top of it all, I have found that a good diet (yes, kale really works), exercise and sleep is super helpful. I can recommend it to any budding musician. 

Where do you hope to be in five years?

I want to become a professional violinist and eventually a member of a top orchestra. Of course, life is a journey, not a destination, so I attempt to be part of many different ensembles, settings and genres, as I feel I can exchange ideas, techniques and inspiration from many places in the musical landscape. Since 2011 and long-term, SYO continues to play a vital role for me on this quest.

Short term, gigs like my performances with Jay Laga’aia during the past Christmas in the Opera House for a very young audience (2–10 years old) taught me a surprisingly large amount about performing. In particular, the importance of being spontaneous, visually engaging on stage, while keeping the music in focus and staying connected with the audience.

Alexander Briger. Photo supplied by Sydney Youth Orchestras

Alexander Briger

What are the qualities needed of concertmasters?

Apart from being an amazing violinist you have to have a personality that can influence the other musicians, a personality that gains constant respect and authority. Also, there are occasions when the conductor just doesn’t have the technique or loses complete respect from the orchestra. When this happens, the concertmaster takes over. Not conducting but showing where the beat is and an ‘interpretation’ so that the other players follow them and ignore the conductor. You’d be surprised how often this happens! Finding the right concertmaster is as difficult as choosing the right musical director. And when the concertmaster doesn’t gain the respect of the orchestra they will be eaten alive, just like the conductor.

What do you think makes Marcus the right person for concertmaster?

He appears to have those qualities where the rest of the musicians look up to him, respect him and follow his lead. And yes, he’s a great player! 

What is the ideal relationship between a conductor and a concertmaster?

If they don’t get on, one of them has to go. If the conductor is a guest and doesn’t get on with the concertmaster, they will never get asked back and the performance will be sloppy. If the conductor is music director and they don’t get on, the standard will suffer and eventually one of them will have to resign. They have to have a rapport that is more than friendship. It’s musical understanding and mutual respect, more than any other musician in the orchestra.

This program is a challenging one. How have you been preparing for it with your musicians?

As always, we play through the works as an ensemble so that they hear how the piece goes, then we do tutorials where each section breaks up and has a tutor/teacher for that specific instrument to go through their parts. It’s here that they conquer technical and rhythmic aspects of the pieces. This is very inspirational to the players as they work with members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, among others. And so there is a lot of respect there in terms of learning from the best. Then we come back and work as an orchestra getting it together and forming an interpretation. This is the only way to rehearse a youth orchestra.   

What’s the most rewarding thing about working with the SYO?

Definitely when you start to hear it all coming together, that the musicians don’t need you as much, are on top of their parts and have now learnt the piece. This comes late of course but when it does, everyone starts getting excited because they can really hear that their hard work has paid off and they are no longer so nervous. They start to relax, enjoy and make music. That’s when youth orchestras start to really inspire us professionals!

Sydney Youth Orchestra’s season opener of Mahler and Stravinsky is on at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, April 22