Benjamin Northey, conductor, 45
Alan Kohler: I know you’re a football fan. Is a conductor the coach, or the captain on the field?
Ben Northey: “Maestro” is Italian for “teacher” and that is probably the best description of the role. Certainly when works are done for the first time, you are teaching the work to the orchestra.
But to what extent do you present a different vision of the work and impart that to the orchestra?
It’s amazing how different a piece can sound with two different conductors. There’s a lot of conceptualisation. In the hands of one conductor a certain piece might sound incredibly sad and melancholy; with another it might be more optimistic.
So you have a lot of leeway in the way you envision the piece?
You do, but you have to convince the musicians it’s a worthy interpretation. Sometimes you might do something that’s out of place and the musicians will resist. There’s great old rehearsal footage of Herbert von Karajan, the famous conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, rehearsing with his orchestra and they’re in a constant dialogue. He’s saying, “We should do this,” and they’re saying, “Are you sure?” He usually has an answer they’re willing to accept. That’s the role of the leader in this situation – to create a vision people will buy into.
How long do you need with a new orchestra?
Generally it’s two days. For a big, main stage subscription program there’ll be four rehearsals, plus a run-through of the program on the day of the concert. It’s incredibly expensive to bring so many musicians together. One rehearsal call costs tens of thousands of dollars. And the pressure on the artistic dollar is pretty high. We’re always looking for ways to achieve great results in the most economical way. That’s another skill a conductor has to have: the ability to manage time and be well prepared in terms of the plan of attack and the process. I always share that with the orchestra before we begin. I say, “This is my plan, this is what I’d like to do” so they know that I’ve thought it through.
You studied and got a Master of Music in conducting, but you were a musician before that.
Yes, I think a conductor has to be a very experienced musician. I was a saxophonist eventually because I love to play jazz. I had fantastic teachers at Ballarat Clarendon College, really great professional musicians, and that led me to a career as a professional musician – including being a casual player with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, recording session work, and a lot of touring. I played with Tommy Emmanuel, the great guitarist, for a couple of years and toured internationally with his band. I was very busy but went to Melbourne University’s Conservatorium of Music as a mature age student in my late 20s because I really needed another adventure.
Did you decide then to become a conductor?
Yes, but I didn’t make that decision myself. I did an elective in conducting with John Hopkins, the distinguished conductor, who was in his 70s. He was the one who said I had the skillset to be a conductor.
What skillset did he identify in you?
I did a lot of composing and arranging so I understood the mechanics of the score. And I’d done very well in my honours degree as a performer. He also placed an incredibly high value on social skills – the ability to be able to work with people. People are your instrument as a conductor. You make no sound. Another aspect is knowing when to help and when to get out of the way.
Do you get out of the way?
Absolutely. There’s this misconception that the conductor is all-powerful. But it’s important to create an environment that allows people to bring out their best. And part of the job is staying out of the way.
What have you learnt about leadership?
It’s impossible to be a conductor without thinking about leadership. All leaders are judged on results, but you also have to be able to create an environment whereby people are inspired to join you on the path to your vision. All the best leaders have an infectious enthusiasm. It’s not
just charisma. Charisma is a poor substitute for actual leadership because, first and foremost,
the best leaders have a worthwhile goal. In the old days conductors were antisocial, belligerent, mean-spirited maestros…
Bullies. They got their results through fear. Quite good results, to be fair. But those days are gone. Orchestras simply won’t put up with it anymore. Conductors had the power to be able to fire musicians, but it’s the other way round now. That’s changed the nature of the relationship for the better. Now we conductors have to be collaborators, and I think that’s the best way to get results. Across society, we don’t always look for the right things in leaders. We see strength and singlemindedness as leadership, whereas the best leaders are often the ones who can realise they’re wrong, can change and admit their mistakes, and can recognise when someone else has a better idea.