You sat inside a school hall once and listened to one of the classics being systematically brutalised by a group of teenagers with waning interest levels and out-of-tune violins. And while you were sitting there, sliding further and further down into the seat, closing your eyes and fighting the urge to grimace, you made a decision that you’re probably yet to reassess, even to this day: that classical music is a bore.
But high school orchestras shouldn’t define your opinion of classical music, in the same way that Beatles cover bands shouldn’t define your opinion of The Beatles.
“My take on it all is that classical music is actually incredibly progressive,” says Benjamin Northey, sitting with his legs crossed on a red velvet seat. Northey is one of Australia’s foremost conductors, and today at Hamer Hall – just a few hours out from a rehearsal with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – he muses on why most adults will probably never really give classical music a chance.
“It’s just the image of classical music hasn’t really caught up with how progressive the orchestras are. You look at the kind of shows that orchestras are doing now – that they would never have done even 10 or 20 years ago,” he continues. “The kind of collaborative shows with technology, with film, education-style multimedia; interactive concerts and all these kinds of things. This was never done before.”
Since returning to Australia from Europe in 2006, where he studied at Finland’s prestigious Sibelius Academy – the music school at the University of Helsinki – Northey has established himself as a prodigious talent at an unusually young age. Internationally, he’s appeared with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the New Zealand and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Southbank Sinfonia of London.
Northey studied to be a conductor at the University of Melbourne, under the guidance of John Hopkins (finishing in 1999), moved from Finland to Stockholm and finished studying in 2006 at the Stockholm Royal College of Music.
Since 2006, Northey has resided mostly on Australian shores, working as a conductor with all of the Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland, Adelaide, West Australian and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras. At just 42, he’s established himself as a leading voice in the debate on classical music and is striving to link younger audiences with the progressive works of composers like Australian Brett Dean, who is incorporating different mediums into performances.
“Our most famous contemporary composer at the moment is…Brett Dean, who lives in Melbourne. He, in his last piece of music, had electric guitar, a drum kit, recorded samples of sounds that had been digitally altered and enhanced,” says Northey, when asked how classical music is incorporating technology. “So that is much the same as a more pop-rock world, or even a DJ-producer style…classical music is as progressive as any other art form.”
While many Melbournians will look to music written 200 years ago by composers like Beethoven and Schubert as classical music’s cutting edge, orchestras have diversified to include compositions that have been written as recently as last year, to keep up with modern audiences. “Orchestras have had to diversify, because people are expecting progressive, living art. So there are many different people now coming to see different types of shows,” says Northey.
“For example, the MSO pop series just did Lord of The Rings, with a massive turnout. They did West Side Story last year, which was hugely popular and shown with the film. There are all sorts of collaborations with pop artists too. We did concerts with Tim Minchin, who had 14 shows sold out nationally, and with the Whitlams. It’s not that everyone has to come and see the core, classical concerts. They can just come and see those concerts. It just means that we’re reaching out to more people.”
This season, Northey is conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Fantasia, which will feature selections from the original version of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, including The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Nutcracker Suite and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
On the 2013 season, Northey says that in doing shows like Fantasia, classical music becomes accessible to almost everyone. “It’s very important, because we want to be a living, relevant art form, and we want to be a part of the city. To do that, you have to connect with people.”