The term “orchestra conductor” can often conjure up images of curly-haired tyrants imposing their mysterious will on 100 musicians and baffling audiences about ‘what they actually do.’ Dr Steven Stanke, Symphony Central Coast’s new Artistic Director and Conductor, aims to demystify the role of the orchestra conductor. He is also Artistic Director and Conductor of Sydney Independent Opera and Director of Music for the Royal Australian Navy and took some time away from these activities to talk to Symphony Central Coast’s President Judith Hulson-Calvert.
JHC. Please share a little about your background.
I began musical life as a trombonist in the local brass band and then studied at the University of Southern Queensland. In my twenties I was a member of the RAAF band in Richmond, NSW but returned to Queensland in 1988 to study composition and conducting at the Conservatorium of Music. I then taught music at a high school in Connecticut, USA for several years before returning to Sydney to study conducting at Sydney Conservatorium. I completed masters and doctoral studies at the University of Melbourne. I’ve played in many community orchestras and in 2009 I conducted the Bucharest Sinfonia. In 2011 I founded Sydney Independent Opera and in 2014 became Artistic Director of Symphony Central Coast.
JHC. What teachers do you remember with fondness?
Peter Rorke, from University of Southern Queensland, was inspirational in matters of music composition and conducting, particularly for a 19 year old from the country and much later I studied with John Hopkins, professor of conducting at the University of Melbourne. John was the doyen of Australian conductors and instilled in me an awareness of essential preparation and musician’s need.
JHC. Why did you decide to become a conductor?
I play trombone and double bass which usually aren’t the busiest members of the orchestra so in my youth I had plenty of time in rehearsals and performances to listen to the overall architecture and colours of a piece and watch how the conductor developed and shaped the melodies and climaxes. I studied composition and music analysis (at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Sydney Conservatorium and University of Melbourne) not with the intention of becoming a composer, that’s a road that needs absolute dedication, but to examine how music worked, to really get inside it. I now take great satisfaction in helping recreate a masterwork, being the composer’s advocate.
JHC. One of the most fascinating aspects of a conductor’s work is the challenge of coordinating the output of 70 musicians. How do you work with them as a team?
For me, it’s mostly in the rehearsal process. I prefer to have the orchestra play as much as possible in rehearsals, rather than me talking or working with small groups or individuals. I don’t always get the finesse that I might like but the trade off is that everyone can see the work as a whole and are encouraged to listen to the ‘big picture.’
JHC. How do you communicate your ideas about a work?
It’s mostly in the conducting gestures, but with unfamiliar works some background information about the composer and the circumstances behind the composition is useful. I also find it very instructive to see what the orchestra themselves can bring to a piece. Sometimes I just let them play and see what happens! Usually there is already a combined consensus, aggregate intelligence if you will, about how a piece should sound. It’s just then a matter of shaping the fine details.
JHC. So you take a rather collaborative approach instead of a dictatorial one.
Absolutely. In one sense, it’s dictatorial as the success of a piece depends on a singular vision and direction which I provide but, more importantly, I then democratically depend on everyone’s contribution, collectively and individually, to get the best musical result.
JHC. You conduct quite a wide variety of groups – opera, orchestra, wind band. Do you have different kinds of leadership for each?
No. It’s all the same approach. You have to find the drama and tensions and resolutions. Orchestral music, particularly symphonies, is even more open to the imagination than opera because there is direction but no story. In opera you have a story that you can’t change and the drama in the music is more defined. The challenge in opera is to make sure everyone’s interpretations are focused in the same direction.
JHC. In what ways is the role of an orchestra in a city’s cultural life changing?
The biggest changes are the repertoire and place of performance. In previous generations, a town or city’s orchestra would be the voice of grand works and experiences – life-changing symphonies or choral works. Today, we incorporate pops concerts, movie and broadway shows, multicultural initiatives, cross-genres such jazz, and more into our programming. This reflects more accurately the diverse needs and interests of our local community. I’m looking forward in the coming years to finding even more wide-reaching events to play to an even more diverse Central Coast audience.
JHC. How does the new partnership with the Grammar School fit into this new paradigm?
Our raison d’etre is to play for our audience; traditional music for new audiences and new music for traditional audiences. We’re also keen to maintain our local identity and our partnership with CCGS is a good fit and makes a lot of sense. It allows us to be connected to a wonderful, well-established school and, in this context, highlight the educational aspect to our programming.
JHC. Many community orchestras and groups have to be financially creative as they often exist with little or no government assistance. How do you view the task of fund-raising?
I’m fundamentally an optimist. There will always be a place in the community for an orchestra. There are actually more people listening to classical music now than ever, but the opportunities to listen has changed drastically. People are able to have their entertainment delivered to them in so many ways. With the myriad of instant access, immediate gratification, low cost entertainment options, the challenge is to convince listeners that what we do is different, meaningful and essential.
JHC. What are your future plans for Symphony Central Coast?
First of all, I want to keep our focus on musical masterworks. These are the equivalent of reading a good novel and are food for our soul. In coming years, I’ve chosen some great symphonies by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, all well-known and loved composers, but there are also some fantastic works by lesser-known composers such as Kabalevsky and Neilsen that are very attractive and worth hearing. We’ll have our concerto competition bi-annually and maintain our very successful collaboration with Central Coast Philharmonia. Outside these masterworks series, I’m keen to explore new venues and experiences such as Symphony in the Park (Kibble Park).
JHC. Any advice for the audience?
Keep a sense of wonder and discovery about you. We’re not playing music to become rich and famous or for self-aggrandizement, but because it is beautiful and we want to share what we love.