Percussionist takes baton

Brent Stewart conducts one of his favourite events, Synthony — a combination of electronic dance...
Brent Stewart conducts one of his favourite events, Synthony — a combination of electronic dance music, full-scale orchestra, DJs and a lighting and visual show — in Auckland earlier this year. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The last time Brent Stewart performed with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra he was the fill-in percussionist. This time he will step on to the stage as the orchestra’s conductor. He tells Rebecca Fox about his many passions.

When it comes to big decisions, giving up your day job to concentrate on your passion is right up there.

Doing it on the eve of Covid-19 elevates it into the terrifying category.

Brent Stewart knows. He gave up his job as a school music teacher to become a freelance musician at the end of 2019.

It was not an easy decision but he believed he was in the right place to do it — he had bought a house and felt more financially secure to take more risks.

"It was a little terrifying to give up the financial security. Then Covid hit at 2020. I remember thinking of course it would happen now."

However, thankfully the worst-case scenarios he was imagining never played out, in part as there was still enough work in the arts even during Covid. It made him realise that a career freelancing was achievable outside of Covid.

"I’m grateful to the response of our Government and the quick support it gave the arts to keep going. In the UK we saw quite devastating cuts and advice that being an artist wasn’t a viable option. But New Zealand saw the need to keep the industry strong so when we come out of Covid we could hit the ground running."

For Stewart that means balancing his many roles as conductor, pianist for New Zealand’s three choirs including the Secondary Students’ Choir, music director for Wellington’s Orpheus Choir, as percussionist in Orchestra Wellington, and casual percussionist with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

"I’m careful with my calendar to pace out what I’m doing. When I was teaching it was really challenging."

His many roles have developed out of early love of the piano, although he found it a bit isolating as there were not many opportunities to play in ensembles when he was younger.

So he was encouraged to learn the drums and his first teacher Mark La Roche, now principal timpanist for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, was then teaching in Auckland. This opened his eyes to the world of classical percussion.

For his teacher, getting a percussion student who could read music was a real bonus.

"Because I had learned the piano I had good music literacy so I remember him being really excited that he finally had a student who could get straight into playing instruments like marimba and xylophone and could learn quickly. He really pushed me into that field of music.

"I found it fantastic, especially playing in an orchestra. The whole setup of an orchestra is miraculous, there are so many cogs of a machine that come together. It still feels to me like a miracle the way we can just play so easily ... I can’t think of anything else that is similar to what we do on stage."

At high school he also got interested in the role of a conductor.

"I found it really interesting partly because I loved taking a piece of music and finding different ways to approach it. I was quite obsessed with finding a piece of music and then listening to different recordings of the same piece of music, to hear how differently the same piece of music could be interpreted."

The difference a conductor could make to the sound of a recording Stewart found really exciting so when he went to university he enrolled in a conducting paper as well.

"From there it became this kind of absolute addiction and obsession. It’s the most thrilling thing to do. I love to working with people, being part of groups and the role of conductor is such a facilitating role — I don’t see it as a dictatorial role — I see it as, how do I bring people together to some sort of idea of how we are going to approach a piece of music in a way everybody has buy-in and finds their own sense of joy in the process?"

From there he tried to grab every opportunity he could to get involved in conducting, even creating his own opportunities.

"One of the most important things I’ve always held on to is I really enjoy being very much a practitioner performer not just conducting. I get to work with other conductors all the time so I’m always taking and borrowing ideas.

"It’s not just do as I say, I’m walking the talk."

In Finland most music students learn to conduct as part of their training but it is not something often done in New Zealand.

"It’s really healthy not only be a great performer but also have experience conducting. The conducting role is quite lonely and isolating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the most awesome, fantastic thing to do, but it is a lot of pressure and you get all the credit, but you also get all the blame for things that can go wrong, so it’s nice as a player in the orchestra that you can empathise a bit more."

It is also not very often that you find a pianist who can follow a conductor as they do not play in ensembles that need a conductor very often.

"So I know as a pianist it’s really valuable to be able to follow a conductor well, especially as an orchestral accompanist. Certainly the empathy is there. I can see what they are going through especially if having a tough time."

For his upcoming concert with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, Stewart will be stepping out front as conductor rather than as percussionist.

"It’s pretty exciting especially as it’s their return to doing normal programmes again after this Covid period. I hope the audience will have that appetite for being back in the concert hall for that shared experience of live music-making."

The concert, Bach and Beyond, features quite positive music suiting the "joyful" return event including Schubert’s Symphony No. 3.

"He’s so well known for wonderful melodic writing because he’s particularly good for writing for singers.

"It very much translates into the way he writes for orchestras. He gives you really accessible luminous melodies to hold on to to."

The programme has also been designed to feature different sections of the orchestra such as the strings, woodwind and brass.

"We’ve got the grand symphony scale all the way down to the most intimate of ensemble sizes to give a lovely range of colours for the audience to enjoy."

They are also doing a concerto by Bach for flute, which will be performed by principal flautist Luca Manghi.

"Even that piece contrasts with everything else. We’re going from baroque to very late 1600s, all the way to the 20th century.

"There is a massive range all in the guise of being joyful almost celebratory-type music."

For Stewart the first challenge of the programme will be bringing the orchestra back together again.

"You get used to your colleagues when you are playing together but if you haven’t played for a while, a challenge will be getting ensembles listening to each other and kind of unifying again around how we approach the music."

That was important as it maximises the resonance of the playing. If each is doing their own thing it can sound a little distorted.

"It doesn’t propel well into the audience."

Having so many different styles and configurations will be a challenge for the players.

"Part of that challenge is ensuring the approach to each piece is unique and has a very clear idea of how we think about performing it. Part of that comes down to how we lay out the orchestra."

But he admits all of that is what adds to the thrill of the experience.

"You get to the end of the week, it’s like working towards a marathon and successfully finishing it and having that massive high afterwards.

"We feel like rock stars but with less leather."


Bach and Beyond, Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, June 11, 5pm, June 12, 3pm, King’s and Queen’s Performing Arts Centre

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