Opening night at the symphony has a special buzz and a once-a-year chance for the orchestra's artistic leader to welcome back the musicians and the audience. If an orchestra happens to be between leaders, the occasion also offers a plum spot on the calendar to invite a guest-star conductor with a pedigree.
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra took a different route this year. With the seat of music director technically unfilled — French conductor Stéphane Denève takes over that job next season — the orchestra’s leadership turned to the rising star in its ranks.
Gemma New, 31, led the orchestra’s annual kickoff concert in Forest Park and then held onto the baton for opening night at Powell Hall. She made history on two fronts: as the first woman to lead SLSO’s opening night concert, and as the first resident conductor to do so.
In an interview shortly after the first of three rehearsals for the Sept. 28 opening night, New acknowledged the evening’s importance.
“It’s a really big deal for the orchestra and for our audience, to see them at Powell Hall for the first time for the season,” New said.
New is a New Zealand native, now in the third year of her tenure as resident conductor, a role designed for younger musicians on the rise. Her duties include acting as music director for the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, being the cover conductor for several concerts (akin to understudying) and leading the orchestra in assorted family concerts. In March, she led her first subscription-season concert at Powell Hall.
“I think she’s a rare talent. In my 20-plus years in the business I have rarely seen someone like her,” Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the symphony, said of New. “She understands music deeply and in ways that are very natural. I call her a natural … her passion is contagious.”
New splits her time between St. Louis and Ontario, Canada, where she’s music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. She also makes guest engagements around the United States. In St. Louis, she keeps an apartment in Central West End and takes an Uber to work at Powell Hall.
Her schedule this season is busy and a bit of a grab-bag, creatively. In addition to her work with the youth orchestra, she’ll lead St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for live scores accompanying three film screenings, five holiday concerts in December and two subscription-season concerts, including opening night. And this all comes after the September Forest Park concert in front of an estimated 20,000 people.
Though some of those programs will make more of a creative demand on her than others, New said her process is the same when she approaches any concert.
“My favorite piece is the one that I’ve got on my desk that I’m studying at the moment. I obsess with it, I really learn every single nook and cranny about that piece and learn what all the gems are about it, what the best parts of the piece are and cherish that,” she said. “Whether it’s a movie score of Elgar’s ‘Variations,’ I want to get the best out of it.”
New’s busy presence this season makes her “a focal point for the community and especially among younger people,” Bernard said.
The trend in 2018 is for symphony orchestras to look more and more to their leading artists to be the faces of the organization and a conduit to the public. New said she’s on board for any sort of audience outreach if the topic is music.
“When we say we have a concert coming up and it’s going to be great,” New said, “I think it’s very important to be able to give that message through words … Often when I program a concert there’s an overall theme.
Whether you know a lot about music or a little bit, that theme [is something] you’re going to be able to relate to as a human being.”
Even as New deepens her relationship with the community, her time in St. Louis is limited. After next season, it's likely she will have outgrown the role, Bernard said, but she expects the conductor to return as a guest star and audience favorite.
“We truly put her career on the global platform,” Bernard said, “so she can now fly on her own after she’s done.”
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