Real-life emotion with WYSO conductor Gemma New
WYSO guest conductor Gemma New talked with IPR about the intense emotions and life lessons in the music on Sunday's concert.
This year's World Youth Symphony Orchestra musicians began rehearsals with their fifth conductor this week, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra artistic advisor and principal conductor Gemma New.
New is in demand worldwide — her season also includes performances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, former WYSO soloist Randall Goosby and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and more.
This week, she brings Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 and Lera Auerbach's "Icarus" to the Kresge Auditorium stage.
New joined IPR's Nancy Deneen to talk about the two pieces and her time with WYSO musicians.
Listen to the full interview or read the edited transcript below.
Listen to IPR's live broadcast of the concert or see New and WYSO in person at 7:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, July 30.
ND: How has it been working with WYSO so far?
GN: It's been amazing. We've had our first rehearsal today, and wow, Shostakovich is really coming to light. I can't wait to start the Auerbach in the afternoon — a great piece by Lera Auerbach ["Icarus"]. We've got such a powerful program here.
ND: You mentioned the Shostakovich. Tell us why Shostakovich 10 is going to be a big moment for the students.
Everyone shines. We have some brilliant woodwind and horn solos in this piece. In the third movement, the horn represents a lover of Shostakovich's. And think of her as a heroine of hope, because the thing is, this piece is about Shostakovich's life and his character — his deepest, darkest fears. And he had so much trouble in his life, especially at that time. He'd been labeled as a non-person. Imagine that — the authorities saying that your art is not correct. And you could get into really serious trouble if you don't toe the line any more than you are at the moment. You know, if you're in that kind of danger zone — he really was worried about his life and the life of his family — you're dealing with deep, dark emotions. And yet he has moments of love and hope, as well, that glimmer through. And so we go through just a tumultuous journey, all the way from the beginning to the end.
ND: Can you shed some light on "Icarus" by Lera Auerbach for us?
GN: I love that both of these pieces are full of life themes. So it's "Icarus," the Greek mythological story. Lera was really inspired by the idea of a father and son, the father being the creator who made wings that people could fly — what an amazing invention. But he completely failed in understanding his own son and the relationship that he had with him. It ended in the greatest failure, the death of his son. So Icarus flew up to the sun, he had so much ambition. And that's really such a rewarding thing for a young person to have. But he also had a lot of impatience, and he decided to not heed his father's instructions. He went up to the sun, the wax melted, and he fell and perished. And so it's all about that story. There are some really powerful, big, big sounds. And it's just something for everyone to shine with.
ND: What goes into programming the repertoire for a student ensemble? Is it a conversation you have with the folks at a festival?
GN: Definitely, it's always a conversation. And I always like to give a big, long list so that the administrator who knows the orchestra, the season and the audience knows what to pick. But for a youth orchestra, we really pick what's great for our young musicians, and what will stretch them and challenge them, but also what they will succeed with at the end of the week.
With this piece, I mentioned "life things." It's good for us to have that idea of a story, a narrative, emotions and characters that can come to life. And when I was talking to them about the symphony, I was also talking about Tchaikovsky, which I'm sure they probably played in orchestra before. And so they can have these little bits of relevance about what what Shostakovich was inspired by. But I would say also, I used to be a young violinist. And I was pretty much exactly their age when I played this piece for the first time in New Zealand. It's stuck with me since then, and it was a life-changing experience. So I hope it'll be the same for our young musicians this week.
ND: What are some of the challenges you've found walking into an orchestra whose members just met a few weeks ago?
GN: Especially when you're starting out and you haven't learned the piece before, you're 15, and this is a new adventure. You can practice, practice, practice by yourself. But when you get there, it feels so different. And I told them this morning, you know, you've got to count your bars, because if you play your part but it's in the wrong time with everyone else, then it's not the right one. And we've got to get it just in the right fit. A lot of ensemble work is different than individual playing. We're working on that quite a lot this week, and it's a lot of fun.
ND: We've talked about what the students will take with them as they continue to pursue all of their interests and studies. What do you hope the audience takes with them on Sunday night?
GN: I think they'll be amazed by the virtuosity of our young musicians, I really think they'll hear the emotion: the sobbing, the wailing, the loneliness, the nostalgia, the humor at times, the tenderness and the valiant love. We haven't talked about the second movement. That's the biggest, deepest, darkest, most furious movement of all time, showing a portrait of Stalin. It has these hammer blows, and it's just a frenetic chaos of bloodshed, pretty much, and so it's very violent, and that packs a punch. It has a lasting impression for sure.
ND: So not only was Shostakovich fearful, but he was brave in putting that depiction of Stalin out there. He was putting himself at risk.
GN: The piece was actually hidden in a drawer until Stalin's death, and then Shostakovich was able to share it. It was a long time between number nine and number 10. And that was because after number nine, he had been told that his music was not correct for the Soviet era. He was supposed to make an "Ode to Joy," and instead he made something that was joyful for the people. And they noted it, and he was then too afraid to share this. And yet he did write it because he knew it was it was necessary. It was what he felt and what millions felt — all that tiptoeing in the darkness, or that dread and all the love and hope that he had as a human being wanting to find a better life. It's a real struggle. But I think by this time, being his tenth symphony, it's so well constructed. Everything there has great meaning and great purpose, and the narrative, the flow of it, is quite unique. Actually, it's not what we would necessarily see in most symphonies, but it makes so much organic sense. I hope we'll hear a lot of darkness and terror, but also strength in seeing that we've come past that and hope never to see it again.
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