Formed, directed, and conducted by 20-year-old Sydney-based double bassist John Keene, ensemble nouveau is a student orchestra with a smattering of successful performances already under its belt. John spoke to fellow double bassist Will Hansen to discuss music-making, young artists and his musical ideology.
What is your motivation behind creating a student-dominated youth orchestra?
My motivation for creating the orchestra was threefold; firstly, to provide a rich educational environment for students and semi-professionals to learn new repertoire and to engage in a fun but supportive environment in a large ensemble or orchestra. Secondly, to give emerging musicians the opportunity to play a solo work with an orchestra, as these opportunities are unfortunately quite rare. The third reason was to give young composers the chance to write for a large ensemble, which doesn't seem to happen as much as it does for smaller ensembles. I guess it also provides a platform for me to develop my own conducting as well!
How did you discover a passion for conducting?
Through a friend and mentor, Simon Thew, previously the conductor of the SBS youth orchestra. We were just chatting one day when he suggested I might like to get into conducting- so I had a lesson with him and was mightily inspired. I then put together my own group of musicians to record a composition of mine for a recording competition called Tropscore, where I had to write a score for a Tropfest film. From there just dabbled as much as I could and became a bit more involved, and here I am now with ensemble nouveau!
What have your experiences with an orchestra been like up to this point, both as a player and conductor?
As a musician, I started off as a pianist… so there wasn’t much there in the ways of orchestral playing. I started playing bass soon after and joined my first youth orchestra in year 8- I was part of the Sydney Youth Orchestra from years 8 through 10, and participated in a few additional youth orchestras through the rest of School. At the end of High school, I became the youngest Sydney Symphony Orchestra fellow, and performed in several subscription concerts throughout 2015 and 2016. In terms of conducting, I was the string director of Cherrybrook Technical High School's string ensemble, so I was conducting on a weekly basis in a school setting. I've also been a member of the Symphony Services international core conductor's program, the last year that it ran was 2016, and I was fortunate enough to participate in the final year of the program. Through this, I had many opportunities to conduct the Adelaide, West Australian and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, as well as the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in various masterclasses- I ended up participating in 8 different masterclasses last year! Now I've got regular concerts with ensemble nouveau, and haven’t performed with a professional orchestra yet.
How does being a double bassist influence your role as conductor?
That's an interesting question! I think that the most important thing for me is that it frames my way of thinking about my role as a conductor, in that I don’t intend to portray myself as the “man up the front” … In actual fact, having already played in orchestras for many years I’ve developed an understanding that conducting is much more of a collaborative process; I'm one of the many musicians that's there to work with everyone else. I've obviously been lucky enough to see a varying range of conductors come through the SSO, and have seen the differing ways in which they work with the orchestra; consequently, I have discovered what works and what doesn't, and how the musicians respond. I guess that as a conductor, my main goal is to try to make the music into something better than what it was at the start of the rehearsal process. Not to say that it starts off badly, but the principal goal when I work with an orchestra is to make it better. There's also a way of speaking to an orchestra, which I empathise with as a double bass player, and a certain level of politeness; and there is a rigor in the work ethic that you need which I try to bring to ensemble nouveau despite it being a student project. I suppose that being a double bassist in an orchestra has helped me refine my conducting skills by essentially being on the receiving end and reciprocating what I see.
You commission a new work by a young composer for most concerts- where do you place the importance of modern Australian music in today's orchestral canon?
With the exception of the "Symphony in a day" concert this year, it is one of my primary goals to commission new works for each concert. Obviously, all kinds of Australian music are important, as they improve art and allow for the possibility of codifying a cultural paradigm in Australian music; it’s important for both educational and archival purposes. In terms of the orchestra itself, these kinds of opportunities for composers to write for orchestra are extremely rare, especially for young musicians who have the potential, and will do a great job, but who don't necessarily have the forces available. So, ensemble nouveau was created, in addition to the two reasons mentioned earlier, to provide a platform for them to have a work rehearsed and performed- they can see how the process works and learn from that experience. It's another opportunity to add to the canon of Australian music, but in the rare setting of a full orchestra or large ensemble.
You select works from a very diverse range of repertoire- what is your reasoning for this, and do you plan to continue supporting contemporary composers?
It's not just an orchestral project for performance, but is one that encompasses a holistic brand of music that includes concerti and new compositions, as well as the existing canon of repertoire. The idea is that it's an educational experience as well as a fun one for the musicians who perform and write orchestral compositions. The repertoire we choose is completely broad but also challenging, with anything from the earliest Haydn symphonies up to the mid-20th century with Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra. The Repertoire is challenging, and not necessarily unpopular, but it's not what generally comes to mind as what's being heard… this allows the musicians to broaden their own knowledge of repertoire. For example, this week we will perform Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, which everybody will no doubt know through HSC music; however, the work is so rarely performed that seeing it in concert will be a unique experience for both the audience and performers.
Who do you look up to in the music world?
I would say that my favourite composer is Beethoven, as he's always been someone who has inspired me each as a conductor, composer, and performer. For performers, I'd have to say Alex Henery, my teacher, who has been with me for nearly 8 years now. He has been a fantastic bass teacher and mentor throughout my education in double bass. For conducting, I guess there's a few people… Simon Thew, who initially got me into conducting, Richard Gill, who has been at the forefront of Australian pedagogy and music education, and of course my teacher, Eduardo Diazmuñoz.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
We've got six concerts planned so far for 2017- we've already had one, and the second is on this Wednesday. Following that we have two more concerts of a similar nature, then a "Symphony in a day" event in which we will learn Beethoven 3 in a day! Finally, there will be an all-Mozart program at the end of the year, in October.
How do you hope to change the music world?
I don't know yet, really! I'm just experimenting with becoming the best musician I can. I really hope to improve the music scene and have people engage more with music; both people who aren’t musicians and people who are perhaps looking to be inspired to continue and perfect their craft. I’m not necessarily trying to make a "John Keene Stamp" anywhere on the music world- for me it's about enhancing and enriching the lives of people.
ensemble nouveau's second concert for the 2017 season, Tribute to Schoenberg, will take place in Recital Hall West at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, at 7 PM this Wednesday, April 26th.