MSO conductor Benjamin Northey is using a comedic connection to reach out to new audiences, writes Georgia Wilkins.

Code of Conduct

10:17:AM 11/02/2011
Georgia Wilkins

Taking up the baton: MSO associate conductor Benjamin Northey is desperate to break down some of the boundaries around the genre of classical music.
Taking up the baton: MSO associate conductor Benjamin Northey is desperate to break down some of the boundaries around the genre of classical music.

Benjamin Northey is a man with a plan. He’s only just been appointed associate conductor at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and already he’s thinking about how to revolutionise classical music.

The plan starts with comedian Tim Minchin, who has conquered the UK and is preparing to do the same here with his epic Tim Minchin versus the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra tour (see separate story).

It’s an unlikely dynamic – comedian with orchestra – but one that has sold almost every ticket for the 14-show Australian tour.

“It’s going to be a great experience to work with him because he’s such a genius in terms of his songwriting, his musicality – I mean, the thing is, he’s a really good piano player – and so we’ve had a lot of fun with the arrangements, making them interesting for the orchestra to play as well.”

Northey has just turned 40, but he looks much younger. As a result, much has been made of his role as a “young” conductor. He has shot to fame quickly – a feat he puts down to luck as well as talent. But he’s wasting no time at challenging audience’s expectations and bringing some exuberance to the orchestra’s routine.

“We’re going to be experimenting over the next three years particularly during this first period of my appointment with the orchestra – trying to experiment with different venues of concerts, different styles of presenting the music, in ways that will be more approachable for possibly younger audiences as well.”

Which is where Minchin comes in. Minchin and Northey emailed ideas, voice recordings and music samples back and forth to each other from their respective bases in London and Melbourne before settling on the music for the tour. Hearing Northey describe the process, it’s hard to imagine a collaboration not forming, given the animated passion and visionary talent that both men clearly possess.

“One of the big songs is called Lullaby,” Northey says excitedly. “It’s this huge waltz that just goes off the rails. It’s like a massive spinning carousel that spins out of control, it’s just ridiculous! It’s about a baby not sleeping at night, and (Minchin) is slowly becoming more demented as the night progresses.”

Northey has been involved in similar collaborations – recently with Sting and the Whitlams – and knows that bringing out the best qualities of a performer’s songs is the greatest challenge. But partnerships with contemporary artists open the door to new listeners, which for Northey is a reward well worth the effort.

“This is going to be a brand-new audience. Tim Minchin will be bringing his fans, who will hear the MSO, many for the first time. So it’s a great opportunity to reach out and connect with a new audience,” he says.

Often that involves speaking to the audience more, and giving them ways they can understand the music better. “I think, while the audience are there, we’re responsible for their happiness for that small amount of time, so we really need to reach out to?them,” Northey says.

It will be a challenge not just to reach out but also to sound good. The places where comedians and contemporary artists play are usually not amenable to the kinds of acoustics needed for an orchestra. The task of making strings and woodwinds sound good bouncing off a sticky carpet lies ahead. “Modern theatres are tough to play in for that reason, because there’s nothing coming back at you. With a venue like the Palais, say, you need amplification. Otherwise it will be too dry, it won’t have that bloom. So this is always a challenge.”

Northey grew up in Ballarat, an “ideal place” to plant roots in music. His mother played piano, his father was a folk musician, and soon enough he materialised as a multi-instrumentalist. It was enrolling in a new conducting masters the University of Melbourne and the encouragement he received from teacher and mentor John Hopkins that gave him his “aha” moment. He swiftly found himself at the prestigious Sibelius Academy conducting class in Helsinki, Finland, before receiving several accolades from his home country, including the 2010 Melbourne Prize for Music’s Outstanding Musicians Award.

But even with his career experience squarely planted in classical music, Northey is desperate to break down some boundaries around the genre.

“Orchestras often get criticised for only playing old music, and in a sense that has been market-driven over the years because audiences love those pieces of music, and they want to hear them.

“I think the balance between music of now and music of the past is probably at the moment heavily weighted in the music of the past, but that balance may change in the future.”

The classical-music reviewer Alex Ross has criticised the term “classical music”, saying that the genre has become too restrictive as a result of it. Northey couldn’t agree more, but is dumbfounded for ideas.

“You know what? It’s just the best one we could come up with,” he says, laughing. “It doesn’t actually describe what it is we do, because classical music relates to a specific period of music – Mozart, Haydn, these guys. And the orchestra doesn’t really play classical music very much. But this is the broad term that is applied to this kind of music. It’s only because no one can think of anything better. Believe me, we’ve tried.

“Everyone’s thinking, ‘how would you rebrand it,’ ‘how would you do this,’ ‘what about all the connotations …’. My point of view is that it’s not the term that’s the problem. It’s actually redefining what the term represents – that’s the challenge. That’s the thing that has to change.”

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