Musicians hear countless sounds. Each day is filled with innumerable musical moments, to pick out a personal favorite is nearly impossible.
But for Gemma New—the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Resident Conductor and Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra—picking out one moment isn’t quite so difficult: it is the very first sound the SLSO played under her baton.
It’s spring 2016, and Gemma came to St. Louis to audition for the role she would eventually win and hold for the next four years.
She lowered her baton in a firm downbeat to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and the SLSO responded with what she called “the most glorious sound”—a unison D, followed by a few measures of lyrical work by the woodwinds.
“It was love at first sight,” she said.
Little did she know then, but the next four years would have her lead the SLSO and the Youth Orchestra in a combined 77 concerts spanning from the annual concert in Forest Park and films including Star Wars: A New Hope to concerts with the Youth Orchestra, holiday concerts, and a trio of tremendous classical programs with the SLSO.
The end of the 2019/2020 season brings with it the conclusion of her tenure as SLSO Resident Conductor, as demand for her internationally continues to skyrocket. Gemma looks back on her years in St. Louis with a wealth of fond memories. That unison D was the start of a relationship that has flourished for four years but was also the start of what will certainly be a long-term relationship.
“I’m going to miss the musicians, first and foremost,” she said in an interview by phone. “There’s something so loving and caring about this orchestra. They are not only a group of amazing professional musicians, they’re engaging and thoughtful and take care of one another. That’s what makes St. Louis a very special orchestra.”
Gemma led the SLSO in numerous works, including tackling orchestral heavyweights like Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Respighi’s Pines of Rome in classical concerts.
All told, Gemma prepared almost 350 pieces with SLSO ensembles, including works as a cover (fill-in) conductor. She regularly conducted Live at Powell Hall concerts including tributes to Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. She charmed audiences of 15,000 people at Forest Park in 2017 and 2018. She conducted the SLSO in live performances with Wyclef Jean, the Indigo Girls, and Live From Here with Chris Thile—a nationally syndicated radio program heard by millions of listeners. Film scores she conducted include Jurassic Park, North by Northwest, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Disney: A Decade in Concert.
But one of her most important roles was that of a teacher and mentor as Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this season.
“I’ve definitely been encouraged and inspired by these young musicians,” she said.
The Youth Orchestra represents the next wave of great musicians, Gemma said, and she loved “seeing how dedicated and passionate they are.”
She’s undoubtedly grown along with each season’s Youth Orchestra as they work to prepare a trio of concerts each season.
“It’s astonishing and fascinating to see what we achieve,” she said, noting that leading a youth orchestra presents different challenges from leading the SLSO, but has just as many rewards.
She’s watched the Youth Orchestra prepare some of classical music’s best-known and most-respected works—Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Debussy’s La Mer, and others—while maturing into more refined musicians.
Meanwhile, Gemma herself, during her time as Resident Conductor, has refined her craft, and her star has risen in the classical music landscape. Over the past four years, she’s made debuts with the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, and will continue her role as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor.
She credits SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève and former Music Director David Robertson for being generous with their time and resources. Both became valued mentors to Gemma.
Gemma says she’ll miss the serenity of Forest Park and the many wonderful restaurants that served as settings for her to create lifelong friendships. But it’s the people of St. Louis, who she described as “incredibly warm and welcoming,” along with members of the SLSO, that’s she’ll miss the most.
“Thank you for being such incredible colleagues and a great city for allowing to have a wonderful four years,” she said in reflection. But she doesn’t quite say goodbye. For Gemma, it’s more of a “see you later.”
Already, she’s scheduled to return to St. Louis to conduct the SLSO in April 2021. She’ll conduct a program of American works including Copland’s ephemeral Appalachian Spring Suite; Century Rolls, a piano concert with pianist Emanuel Ax written by John Adams (one of her favorite composers of today); a new work by up-and-coming composer Jessie Montgomery; and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess—melodies Gemma calls “irresistible.”
The SLSO has a longstanding tradition of American music, and Gemma says, “to be able to perform American music with this orchestra is an absolute honor.”
Although concert cancellations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic cut short her tenure as Resident Conductor, Gemma doesn’t dwell on it. She’s instead casting her gaze to the evolution of her relationship with the SLSO.
She hopes to one day conduct the orchestra in Prokofiev’s mighty Symphony No. 5, which she was supposed to conduct in April at her final classical concert as SLSO Resident Conductor.
“Conducting is a long road,” she says. “I’ll forever value the opportunity to work with the SLSO and its musicians and gain ideas from them.”
If she has a final thought about her time in St. Louis, it’s anything but final.
She pauses briefly.
“I look forward to seeing everyone again soon.”