In Conversation: Sam Weller and Ensemble Apex

In Conversation: Sam Weller and Ensemble Apex

In conversation with Will Hansen on conducting, collaborations and classical saxophone.

Sam Weller
Sydney, Australia

In Conversation: Sam Weller and Ensemble Apex

In conversation with Will Hansen on conducting, collaborations and classical saxophone.

You've organised several concerts already, boasting a wide range of repertoire presented by the diverse line-up of your ensemble. Would you say that this is one of Ensemble Apex's foundational principals?

Absolutely! The aim of the ensemble is to play both well-known chamber repertoire, as well as what are perhaps the more obscure works within the chamber music canon. In the upcoming concert's program, we have two concertos by Martinu and Prokofiev, written for relatively large orchestras, so we are using the word "chamber orchestra" loosely here! The true chamber works that will be played on the night are Wagner's Sigfried Idyll for 13 musicians, and Copland's Appalachian Spring for 15 musicians. These two pieces are cornerstones of the Chamber Orchestra literature, in comparison to the Martinu Oboe Concerto, which, while being a staple of oboe repertoire is not particularly well known amongst other musicians. The Prokofiev Cello Concertino is very rarely performed- the composer actually died before it was completed! It was finished by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This concerto uses themes from the earlier Sinfonia Concertante, although it is for a much smaller orchestra, and has a much more intimate feel to it. So yes, we have presented varied performances, in order to cover the wide range of repertoire that's out there. I guess we want to do something that’s intriguing for people to come and watch.

You have a number of Special Guests joining you for the upcoming concert- who are they and how did you get them on board?

We are very lucky to have Toby Thatcher, assistant conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra , as well as Umberto Clerici, principal cellist, and Shefali Pryor, who is associate principal oboist. Toby has been something of a mentor figure to me, and he has helped me to develop my own conducting style; I approached him at the end of last year asking if he'd like to work with the group, and we furthered that plan this year when we decided to put on the two concertos. He got in contact with some people from the Sydney Symphony, and both Umberto and Shefali were very happy to do it, which we are VERY thankful for! They are such stunning musicians. It's also a great opportunity for me as a developing conductor to have 3 people that know exactly what they're doing up the front to provide, I suppose, an educational aspect to this concert, rather than having me flap my arms around learning things as I go. But in all seriousness, we are extremely lucky to have 3 outstanding and amazing musicians who will take the performance to the next level.

In addition to being a conductor, you're also a classical saxophonist by trade… what are your experiences in these fields, and how did they lead to the foundation of the ensemble?

I suppose that as a classical saxophone player, you get to learn very quickly that your job prospects are slim. There are no permanent positions in orchestras anywhere, unless you want to go into the wind band world.  If not, you have to make your own work! In year 10, I was introduced to conducting by my music teacher at Newtown Performing Arts High School. Ever since then I suppose that I've always loved orchestral music, and I realised that conducting was the only way to get involved with it! I've never actually performed with an orchestra on the saxophone, so my experience with the orchestra has only been through conducting. It was the only way to get involved with the orchestra, so thought to myself "It's what I've gotta do!" I love saxophone, but I think conducting is what I'm focused on- it's my passion.

So, you plan to take it further?

Definitely. I would like to travel overseas or do my masters… not sure quite yet! Conducting is definitely the long-term goal.

How do you, as Artistic Director and conductor, view your role within the context of the ensemble?

We want to put on the most intriguing concerts possible. In the future, that means that we will mix with other art forms such as speech, dance, singing (which with and orchestra is slightly less common these days!). One of my focuses when I program music is to attract a diverse crowd; that also is amplified by our sponsorship with Young Henry's, who have very generously donated to us for our upcoming concert! Craft beer plus Newtown Hipsters… hopefully their eyes will be open a bit, and hopefully we've attracted people who don't normally come to classical music concerts (with free beer no less!). All in all, we are trying to present music to people who love classical music, as well as people who may be interested in hearing it, but don't get a chance to.

You've sold out your upcoming concert, so we'll wait and see who comes!

Hopefully they all turn up!

What are your goals for the future of the ensemble?

It's very much "as it comes" at the moment, seeing what opportunities arise… For example, I have a good friend who dances with the Sydney Dance Company who is going to collaborate on a project with me- if all goes to plan, we will try to tackle Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin, complete with contemporary dancers. Additionally, the Australian composer, Dr. Nicholas Vines, has generously decided to compose a piece for the Chamber Orchestra, which will be premiered next year; It will be paired in concert with a well-known piece of early classical repertoire. Vine's piece will be a new take on the music of CPE Bach, in the form of Three Sinfoniettas, which we look forward to performing and hearing… it's very exciting for us as an Ensemble to play completely new music. It's unfortunately something that we haven't been doing as much, so I promise we'll pick up the game with that one next year! There are a few more varied projects which we are looking to do in the future- for example, in the past we've collaborated with a number of artists in order to try and diversify classical music. We have presented a concert as part of the VIVID SYDNEY Festival which included orchestrated versions of Dance anthems from the 90's, complete with live DJ, band, and pyrotechnics, so hopefully we'll have a chance to get amongst it again next year. We also had the opportunity to work with the pop star Lorde earlier this year, and finally, we are hoping to record some music at both the end of this year and onwards. Should be exciting!

Ensemble Apex present Special Guests on August 16 at 7:30pm in the Music Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Tickets available here.