Shivers down the spine

New Zealand assistant conductor-in-residence Vincent Hardaker rehearses. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
New Zealand assistant conductor-in-residence Vincent Hardaker rehearses. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Conducting a concert of eerie, mysterious and spine-tingling orchestral works with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra is a first for Vincent Hardaker. He tells Rebecca Fox about discovering some new gems in the mix.

Having a Halloween theme for his first concert conducting the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra is slightly unexpected for Vincent Hardaker.

"It’ll be my first Halloween concert, but surprisingly not my first with a magician."

Despite this, he says there are some really exciting pieces - Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is a classic and Danse Macabre, by Saint-Saens is hair-raising - along with music from popular spooky films such as The Addams Family and Star Wars.

"I have to admit I’m not incredibly familiar with them all. Of course, all the classical stuff I know really well, but it’s quite accessible and all really good music. I’m really looking forward to it."

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Hardaker is New Zealand’s first assistant conductor in residence, a programme to support up and coming New Zealand conductors. It is the initiative of a consortium of the country’s five professional orchestras, including the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra (DSO).

Its general manager, Philippa Harris, says as Creative New Zealand is also contributing to the scheme it is a "ground-breaking national investment" in the country’s future musical resources.

Based in Auckland at the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, the residency provides a structured development and performance programme led by the APO’s music director Giordano Bellincampi, supported by music directors and guest conductors of other New Zealand orchestras.

Hardaker was delighted to learn he had won the position after getting down to a shortlist of three from 43 applicants late last year.

“This position means so much to me as a Kiwi musician and I can’t wait to continue my exploration of classical music and the conducting profession, alongside the great musicians of the APO and the other participating orchestras."

The timing could not have been better for Hardaker, who has only just graduated from the soloist class in orchestral conducting from the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

Winning the residency brought him home to New Zealand, avoiding the devastation Covid-19 is wreaking on Europe.

"I’m lucky. They are doing stuff overseas in Europe but I’ve conducted a full symphony orchestra in the past few months. [It] is completely unheard of there. To be able to be part of it is great. "

Covid-19 has also had a positive side for Hardaker, who has gained a few extra conducting jobs due to international conductors not being able to perform here. One is the APO’s "Back to the Future" concert next month.

"It’s been a great opportunity for me."

Due to lockdowns, he has missed out on a few concerts in which he was due to assist, which has made it harder to make the "acquaintance" of orchestras such as the DSO.

"Now, everything is being compressed into a small amount of time to make things fit."

The last time Hardaker encountered the DSO it was as a viola player.

"It is going to be great to make its acquaintance as a conductor. It’s quite a different thing."

Conducting is a career that Hardaker, who grew up in Christchurch, came to settle on a bit later than many.

However, he did try it out as a pupil at high school, taking part in the first conducting course at Burnside High School. That taught the basic concepts and gave him the opportunity to conduct some of the school’s bands and orchestra.

"It was my first taste of that."

But it was the viola that won out when he studied music at the New Zealand School of Music under Gillian Ansell, although he did some "side" study in conducting under Kenneth Young.

"I also had one random year at Canterbury where I did German and Russian language, which one does when they are not entirely sure how they want their life to go.

"It’s been a very varied path, not super focused, but I’ve got here in the end."

He put his lack of focus down to warnings from his parents, who, while supportive, urged him to consider that music was not an easy path no matter what you did.

"I was very much aware of that and there was also a little personal insecurity about whether I personally had what it takes to succeed in this industry.

"Then, at some point, it became I had to have at least tried. That is when I decided to study viola and did some work as violaist as well."

Hardaker focused on the viola aware that conducting is not an easy path in New Zealand for young aspirants, as there is no pure conducting course available.

"It’s very resource demanding course of study so for most institutions it is not viable."

He came to realise that while he loved reading the music and getting to know it, he did not really enjoy the physical side of playing.

"Having to repeat things over and over I found mind-numbingly boring at some points, for me personally."

Conducting provided a much better balance of the continual practice and "investigative intellectual side" of the process which suited him more.

"You have to show you understand the score in front of the orchestra. You can tell if they do not know the score, whereas with a violin as long as they are playing the notes and it sounds nice then it’ll be much appreciated.

"With a conductor your audience is first and foremost the orchestra. And then the second is the actual audience. The orchestra is the scary one. They have really high expectations on what you bring, especially as a young conductor."

The professional orchestra he conducted was the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

"It was amazing standing there. The humanity involved in orchestral life is incredible.

"Nowhere else in the world would 70 people somehow agree to do the same thing. Yet this happens on a weekly basis. It’s a treat, it’s a luxury, actually."

In a "stroke of luck" in 2016, he gained a place in what was then known as the Symphony Core Conductors Programme, which provided him the access to masterclasses with Australian and New Zealand symphonies.

He was in a masterclass with Giordano Bellincampi, APO music director and assistant professor of a conducting programme in Copenhagen, who asked if he had considered studying in Scandinavia.

He had looked for conducting courses in the more obvious countries such as the United States, England and Germany. A few auditions were unsuccessful.

"I auditioned in Copenhagen and got in. It was a really great two and a-half years of my life. I’ve made friendships and colleagues from that which will last a lifetime. It is invaluable. It has been life-changing."

While he missed New Zealand "a lot", Hardaker enjoyed his time in Copenhagen, although he admitted the country’s culture and viewpoints are quite different from New Zealand’s.

"The people were very nice. They’re friendly, their English is out-of-this-world good. It’s a world-class city. It also has a bit of ... charm. I miss it."

In New Zealand with the residency, he has been working with the APO and Christchurch Symphony, but Covid lockdowns have put a bit of a dent in his year.

"There is only so much you can do on your own in your own room looking at scores. It is really important to be able to work with an orchestra at the right level."

When the residency comes to an end, he will apply for opportunities to extend his skills, wherever they might be.

"I have no concrete plans so I’ll go wherever an orchestra wants me. There are very few conducting positions available, it’s really competitive."

Ideally, Hardaker would like a career based in New Zealand and says Covid has highlighted the need for more New Zealand-based conductors.

"It’s a danger, really, to rely on only international people."


Dunedin Symphony Orchestra’s 
Halloween Spooktacular, Dunedin 
Town Hall, Saturday, October 31, 


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