11 Apr 2024

Gemma New: A licence to thrill

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 11 April 2024
Gemma New

Gemma New Photo: Anthony Chang

I must admit to having doubts when Gemma New became the chief conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 2022.

I interviewed her on RNZ National Nights at the time, and brought up the remarks of one her predecessors, Franz-Paul Decker, who had (in conversation with RNZ's Kim Hill) expressed horror that his daughters might ever want to become conductors.

New was diplomatic to a fault.

Fair enough, I thought, there's no rule that demands those who break through the glass ceiling should comment on it any more than they should remain silent.

But I was worried that this diplomacy might spill over into her work with the national orchestra which, in the years running up to New's appointment, had been leaving me feeling a little flat post performance.

With a few exceptions, the orchestra was being too careful, its approach too controlled.

Gemma New conducting an orchestra

Conductor Gemma New. Photo: NZSO

New blasted those concerns out of the Michael Fowler Centre and off towards Wellington Heads when I saw her for the first time in 2023, conducting Mahler's pantheist and massive Third Symphony.

On the podium, New is probably the most expressive conductor I've yet seen. The way she extends her gestures through her arms to the tip of her baton is almost Carlos Kleiber-like.

One musician friend of mine likened her conducting to an Olympic ice skater's routine. For some concert goers, it's part of the show.

For much of her Mahler 3, I closed my eyes. I wanted to focus on the music New was making - and that was the revelation.

I heard an orchestra no longer going through the motions but going for the jugular. I heard musicians given licence to express themselves - not just in the fortissimos, but with exquisite pianissimos as well.

I was moved, and I wasn't the only one.


I got a chance to speak to New for a second time when she was briefly back in New Zealand to conduct the NZSO in a programme of music by Salina Fisher, a percussion concerto by Adam Schoenberg and the 5th Symphony by our old friend Mahler.

She's still the diplomat. A question about Mahler's demand that his wife-to-be Alma Schindler give up her own promising compositional career to be his muse, is skilfully deflected to a remark about how much of a control freak he was.

New's response to a question about whether classical music's future depends on a shift from emphasis on the artistic expressions of major-league male egos to a more feminine perspective, is met with a comment about a "need for humility".

Although that's entirely consistent with her approach to leadership; less about commanding, more about inspiring respect.

Conductor Gemma New with the New Zealand Symphony

Conductor Gemma New with the New Zealand Symphony Photo: c Latitude Creative

Four hours after our second conversation, we're back in the Michael Fowler Centre.

New is living every moment of Schoenberg's percussion concerto, the climate change-inspired piece "Losing Earth" with the brilliant soloist Jacob Nissly

With each fortissimo stab, New thrusts her left arm skyward. It's a bit like John Travolta's dance in Saturday Night Fever. But the orchestra is right with her until the final moment, when Schoenberg asks for a group of seven roto-cymbals to ring out, and then decay into silence.

The performance won a standing ovation.

I didn't stay for the Mahler second half. I wanted my ears to ring with something written this century.

They're still ringing a couple of weeks later.