APO’s Ben Gemmell talks to the new Director of Artistic Planning about what she’s looking forward to doing with the APO, her love of adventure sports and her rock-painting hobby.
Where are you from?
Complicated question! I was born in Bristol, England to a German mother and an American father. My parents spent 12 years in the UK and moved back to the United States – North Carolina to be precise – when I was three years old.
I have some early memories from England and grew up with a fair amount of British culture, thanks to the miracle of television. I guess I would have to consider myself a North Carolinian. Although we lived in the Appalachian Mountains during most of my pre-school and elementary years, we moved to Charlotte when I was seven or eight, and this is where we lived the longest.
I left the States in 2006 and have since lived in Cardiff, Wales; Glasgow, Scotland; Belfast, Northern Ireland; and Berlin, Leipzig, and Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany. Having moved so many times in the past 14 years, I am ready to stop moving and plan to make Auckland my long-term home.
How long have you been in New Zealand? What have you enjoyed about your time here so far?
My husband and I arrived in New Zealand on St Patrick’s Day, 2020. But rather than head to the pub for a pint, we headed straight into self-isolation, soon followed by the lockdown!
Luckily, we were allowed to go out for some fresh air and exercise every day, even if we weren’t allowed to visit stores or restaurants or to take public transport. We have really enjoyed getting to know an empty and quiet Auckland on foot while imagining how it will all be when the city comes back to life.
How have you kept yourself entertained during New Zealand’s lockdown?
Daily long walks through the neighbourhoods surrounding the city centre. We love the water, so we have spent time at the Viaduct Harbour admiring the many sailing vessels and watching the ferries dock. We can’t wait to get out on the water and fortunately, Level 3 has allowed us to start looking for a permanent place to live.
During the lockdown we were immensely grateful to get to hear the APO every Thursday night through its Encore Livestreams. We can’t wait to hear the orchestra live at the Town Hall for the very first time!
What is your musical background? Can you play any instruments?
My parents were both classical music fanatics. Their first dates were three consecutive nights at the Paris Opera, after which my dad proposed! So if it were not for my parents’ mutual love of classical music, I wouldn’t be here.
Music was ever present in our house, and my mother would often stop me half-way through the living room to quiz me on what composition was playing on the radio. When I was nine years old, I started violin lessons with Wolfgang Roth, Principal Second Violin of the Charlotte Symphony.
A few years later, I volunteered to make the switch from violin to double bass for my school orchestra. My teacher didn’t have time to teach me the bass, so she sent me to a small room at the back of the auditorium with an instructional book and told me to come back to class when I had mastered the basics, which I did!
I don’t remember how long it took, but fortunately for me, school bass parts were fairly easy to master. I stuck with the violin privately, which I also played in the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra. I also sang in the children’s chorus for Opera Carolina and performed in various musical theatre productions growing up.
If I had to do it all over again, I would play the banjo! In addition to classical, I love many other kinds of music, but I think playing bluegrass is the most fun. If anyone knows a very patient banjo teacher in Auckland, please let me know!
What attracted you to the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra?
I had the good fortune to meet Barb Glaser back in 2006 when I was first contemplating an overseas move. We have kept in touch through mutual contacts and I always knew she would be someone I would enjoy working with. When I learned there was a vacancy at the APO, I started watching the orchestra’s videos on YouTube.
I was really impressed by the orchestra as an ensemble and by individual musicians. There are so many talented and personable players at the APO. I also had the opportunity to meet with Giordano Bellincampi during the interview process and we hit it off straight away. We share a lot of our core programming philosophy and have a similar view about what repertoire is important for orchestra development.
What are you excited to bring to the APO?
As much as I am excited to bring some American repertoire from some of my favourite composers, I am more excited to learn about musical traditions here in New Zealand and how we might incorporate these into our programming. Having worked for an orchestra in the American South, I had some wonderful opportunities to experience the powerful combination of gospel music or traditional Appalachian music with an orchestra.
With Auckland’s diverse communities, there is so much culture here, both locally and internationally, that we can draw on to reflect this city. I look forward to exploring musical expressions that I am not already familiar with.
What was one of your highlights from watching our Encore Livestreams?
For me, a highlight so far has been the operas in concert. They are so well produced and staged. Coming from an opera family, I’m so glad the APO has the chance to include this vast world of the repertoire!
What are your interests outside of music?
My husband and I enjoy sailing, adventure sports (we recently went white-water rafting and zip-lining in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe), as well as boogie and swing dancing. One of my new personal hobbies is painting rocks.
I am already a member of two rock groups here in New Zealand: Auckland Rocks and Tauranga Rocks. If you are curious to see some of the rocks I have painted, feel free to visit my Facebook site! I need a new name for my site since I am no longer in Berlin – ideas welcome!
What makes you happiest?
Professionally? When a concert that I have programmed hits home with the audience and the orchestra. Personally? Exploring new places and cultures.
What might surprise people to know about you?
I waver between being very considered and methodical and logical – all good qualities for a planner – to being a bit impulsive! Some impulsive things I have done include bungee jumping in China (while on an orchestra tour) to running for political office. Don’t worry, I won’t do the latter again!
Quickfire! What is your favourite-at-the-moment...?
Book: Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin
Movie: Priceless starring Audrey Tautou
TV Show: Downton Abbey
Food: Anything spicy (especially Asian, Cajun, Mexican)
Song: Oh no! This is so cheesy… ‘Con te partirò’. Top of my head!