Melinda Bargreen | 29 JAN 2024
New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New is looking forward to her upcoming time in Atlanta this week — her fourth engagement on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra podium — where she’s scheduled to lead a program that includes a pair of dazzling, nature-referencing contemporary scores: Salina Fisher’s Rainphase and Adam Schoenberg’s Losing Earth.
Oh, yes, and also Holst’s The Planets, one of the most reliably spectacular orchestral showpieces in the repertoire. Much as New enjoys showing off what the orchestra can do — and “The Planets” unquestionably does that — she also describes herself as “a very curious musician who loves to explore new voices. I’m inspired by the music of today. I love the challenge of getting to know it better.”
New is enthusiastic about the Atlanta program: “Here we have two young voices at the top of their game: Salina and Adam. Our audiences will hear this music and say, ‘Wow! What impact, sonically and musically!’
“Adam’s piece (Losing Earth) is so well explained in his program notes. From everyday life, we have this sudden interjection of nature, so colossal and forceful.
“Salina’s piece is very different. She has an incredible way of creating color and harmony and textures, atmospheres that are so compelling. I’ve done Rainphase a lot. I’m from Wellington (New Zealand), the windiest city in the world, with a harbor surrounded by hills and mountains. One of my friends was bowled over on the street just by wind. There’s rain too, dripping onto plants, roofs, splattered by downpours.
“This piece is musical rain. It is both beautiful and fun to play.
“It’s a great advantage to have the composer there, too: the conductor can look at a bunch of notation on a page, but the intent of the notation is sometimes not as clear. Just last week, we were doing a new piece where the indication in the score was ‘haunting,’ with the strings trilling on quarter tones, with deep bells and timpani. I thought, ‘gritted teeth and sinister forces.’ But the composer said, ‘Ghostly floating, high above’.”
New is greatly enjoying a profession that’s been her goal since the age of 15.
“I consider this an amazing privilege, being a conductor,” she says. “It’s important as a leader to create an environment on the stage, a stillness to focus on our work purely toward the goal at hand – coming together in a kindred love for music. We look for engagement. We are sensitive to each other, listening, being great colleagues.
“It’s an exciting path, standing before the orchestra and working together. It’s so inspiring to meet those who play so heart-achingly beautifully, and to bring nuance to our performances together.”
New cites her earlier experiences with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she was a Dudamel Fellow, as particularly formative. The musicians, she remembers, “have been so generous letting me grow up with them.” Now, she enjoys building relationships with the orchestras she has guest-conducted, including the Atlanta Symphony.
“This is my fourth time in Atlanta,” she notes. “I’ve made good friends and a lot of happy memories from the great works we have done together – not only the newer scores but also the Sibelius Fifth [Symphony] and the Mozart ’Prague.’ It’s such a beautiful orchestra to work with.”
New has plenty of standards of comparison; she is principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony, and her recent podium engagements have included many of the world’s top orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, WDR Sinfonieorchester, BBC Philharmonic, Hallé Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester, Ulster Orchestra, Orchestre National d’Ile de France, and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
It’s a good thing she enjoys travel and new places.
“This is such an exciting, interesting path!” New says of her peripatetic career. “It’s so inspiring to meet these musicians who play so heart-achingly beautifully, to bring nuance and engagement to our work together.
“A conductor must always keep growing up, pushing yourself to learn more, embracing new international styles. Ever since I was 15, I’ve been working on the amazing privilege of being a conductor,” New observes.
“I’m a very curious musician; I love to explore new voices. I’m absolutely inspired by the music of today. My number one aim is to grow as an artist and as a good human being — and to be a great colleague.” ■