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Q&A: Gemma New

A chat with the new Principal Guest Conductor at the Dallas Symphony.

published Friday, October 26, 2018

Photo: Roy Cox Photography
Gemma New

Last week Gemma New was announced as the Principal Guest Conductor and holder of the Dolores G. and Lawrence S. Barzune MD Chair at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. New will begin her concert appearances in the fall of 2019.

New, haling from New Zealand, is currently Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic, Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony and Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as guest conductor at a wide range of the world’s best orchestras, bringing her “insightful interpretations and dynamic presence” to the fore. Most emblematic of her time with the Hamilton Philharmonic has been her ability to solidify the artistic level of the orchestra, and also to develop innovative ways to deepen the community involvement in concerts and in the workings of the orchestra itself.

New was able to take a few minutes from her whirlwind schedule to discuss her new appointment and her excitement at the challenging work that lies ahead.


TheaterJones: Congratulations on your appointment. The whole music scene in the city seems to be buzzing about your arrival.

Gemma New: Thank you. It is exciting to be associated with such a great orchestra and such a great city. I’m looking forward to starting the work.


Can you touch on the responsibilities of the Principal Guest Conductor. How is it different from your other guest appearances?

Well, I think the role is evolving a lot. The biggest difference is that I will get to work with the orchestra on a more regular basis. There will be more time for me to develop a deeper sense of ensemble with the musicians. Also, I can get much deeper into the repertoire. I can actually spend time crafting my interpretation, which you don’t have as a regular guest.

The DSO is an extraordinary orchestra. This weekend was the first chance I had to hear them live in the Meyerson and I was overwhelmed by the richness of their sound and their fluidity. They played Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I started out as a violinist and one of the first great pieces I was involved in was Pictures. I remember playing during the “Gates of Kiev” passage and having this amazing sense of being a part of the sound. I made a promise at that moment that I would be a part of an orchestra for the rest of my life. To hear that very piece played so beautifully by the orchestra I am about to conduct was a powerful moment for me.


How much say will you have in choosing music and creating programs?

I think that I will have a lot of influence, but it will be a very collaborative process. When the DSO was considering me for this position, members of the administration came to what was opening night at the St. Louis Symphony and we had a long conversation about this very thing. I think I will have a lot of input on what my programs will be, although they will be fit into the larger picture of the whole season of course. I will have some choice in what type of music will be played and who we have as the soloists if there are any.

When I am forming a program, I want to make sure that the whole thing is a cohesive product. I always try to pair a familiar work with an insightful new piece. I then try to thread them together so that the whole program works to give a coherent feeling. I try to achieve a human element that everyone in the audience can relate to so that they can find a connection with the music.


Is there a style or genre of music in which you are most comfortable working?

No, not really. I like to keep my eyes and ears open to all types of music. Really, I love all music whether it is Brahms or something brand new. When I conducted the Luna Ensemble, for instance, we played only new music (and classic modern music like Stravinsky) and then I will conduct Mozart and Strauss with St Louis later this year.

The interesting thing about the new music is that some of it is a struggle to work out. I struggle, and the orchestra struggles before we get it to the point that it is really telling its story. And the audience often loves the pieces that we found a struggle best of all.

I was so impressed by the receptiveness and the knowledge of the Dallas audience this weekend. The concentration they give when listening, the energy of their applause. I was especially taken by the way they knew to hold their applause between movements. They really know their music and approach it with so much attention.


Your first appearance as Principal Guest Conductor in November 2019 coincides with the DSO’s Women in Classical Music Symposium. Was that an intentional process?

That will be an interesting time to be with the orchestra. I think there is a nice synergy in the timing. I hope I can be involved. But we never discussed the symposium, so I think it is more of a happy coincidence.

But I think this is an exciting time for women in music in that there is more acceptance of their role on the podium. The best part is that over the last 12 years of growth, I have had wonderful mentors, both women and men. No one ever said that I couldn’t move forward as a conductor.


Tell us a little about the Hamilton Philharmonic’s Intimate and Immersive Concerts? Are those a model for what you’d like to bring to Dallas?

So, the I & I Concerts are a means of bringing a different atmosphere to the concerts. We aim for more audience interactivity than you might get at a typical concert in a big concert hall. We include collaborations with local indie bands in a studio theater beforehand and at intermissions. They often have snippets of what we were playing in the full concert and put their spin on them. The audience sits in a circle around the orchestra and there is a more casual feeling with drinks and ambient lighting. We also have sculpture and art that might be related to the program we are playing.

The idea is to bring a closer relationship between the audience and the musicians and then to the music itself. We always feature mingling of the musicians with the audience and more Q&A. I get to talk more about the pieces – what to listen for, what they meant. And we often have musicians talk about personal experiences and their own responses to the music.

I think it is important to have an audience very engaged in the music and the performance. We are going to experiment with other types of experience as the I&I concerts progress, trying to incorporate digital media and maybe find a way to bring all five senses into play during the concert. That should give a holistic, cool effect to the entire experience

I would like nothing better that to bring some form of this to Dallas, but every city is different. The shape and the experience will have to be geared to who our audiences are. It’s very important that I use this time, now that I have the position, to look around and ask a lot of questions. To get to know the orchestra and the city completely. I think you must listen very closely first. Then we can act together. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Gemma New
A chat with the new Principal Guest Conductor at the Dallas Symphony.
by Keith Mankin

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