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New Zealand Herald (New Zealand, www)
December 6, 2014

Conductor Benjamin Northey trained with Kiwi great John Hopkins.

A feast of seasonal sounds

By William Dart

Aucklandís Christmas celebrations under the baton of Benjamin Northey

Benjamin Northey is the man with the baton when the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra moves to Holy Trinity Cathedral for its Celebrate Christmas concerts.

The livewire Australian has just been appointed chief conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, but New Zealand connections go back a decade-and-a-half.

In the late 90s, he studied in Melbourne under the late John Hopkins and he says "there's something special in coming to New Zealand and standing in his footsteps".

Northey sees two distinct sides to Hopkins.

"John was a man of vision," he explains. "He started institutions that have lasted and made a big impact, such as the New Zealand Youth Orchestra. He also believed in the power of music as a medium for social improvement. John was a strong advocate for community music-making and developing the educational role of orchestras. He was determined that music should transform people's lives."

Northey admits that Hopkins will be a strong role model when he takes up his Christchurch post next year, with an impressive line-up of concerts that may have some Aucklanders considering a trip south.

In June you can hear Philip Brownlee's new Concerto for Taonga Puoro and soprano Morag Atchison heads Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in October.

The CSO is made up of "passionate, intelligent and engaged musicians", he stresses.

"It's also firmly entrenched in the whole symbolism of the Christchurch rebuild. The resilience of the orchestra has been one of the great stories to come out of the post-quake period. It could easily have folded as so many businesses did."

Across the Tasman, Northey has been involved with presentations of the movie West Side Story with live orchestral accompaniment. "It's not for the faint-hearted," he says, explaining the intricate timing required to synchronise orchestra with on-screen singing. Then there are the implications of Jerome Robbins' blisteringly fast choreography. "You have no idea how quickly we have to play it."

Working with American singer Tori Amos and Sydney Symphony Orchestra last month was a new experience. "Tori's a classic American songwriter with music that's complex enough to be interesting for the orchestra," he explains. "She may be a firebrand on stage but she's shy in rehearsal. Working with an orchestra can be intimidating, standing in front of all those musicians. You can feel you're under a microscope and being listened to by some very good ears."

Northey is looking forward to rejoining the APO next week for its annual Christmas celebrations. "It's not just a concert of Christmas carols. These are composers responding to the challenge of writing for the season."

He mentions names like John Rutter and Herbert Howells and reminds me that Hark the Herald Angels Sing is actually by Mendelssohn, adding "it wouldn't be a Christmas concert without some excerpts from Messiah".

The presentations (Friday evening and Saturday afternoon) see him reunited with baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who sings in Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols, as well as Handel's The Trumpet Shall Sound and Cornelius' The Three Kings, a cappella with The Graduate Choir.

Northey recently worked with Rhodes on a production of Don Giovanni ("wonderfully dark and very risque") as well as a Broadway-style gig with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

"Teddy's such a flexible performer. He is so good at changing his voice to suit all the different kinds of music that we have today. He's totally at home on stage, with the sort of beautiful, voluptuous sound that's amazing when you're standing next to him."

And even at a distance, in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Northey seems to be suggesting that charisma will flow.

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra - Celebrate Christmas
Where and when: Holy Trinity Cathedral, Friday at 7.30pm, Saturday December 13 at 3pm


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