UPCLOSE: BENJAMIN NORTHEY
HK Magazine: Have you played with the HK Phil before?
Benjamin Northey: This will be my fourth time. I’ve got a good familiarity with the musicians and they know me too, which is really fortunate. We did “Planet Earth,” another BBC series, last year. That makes a big difference because we don’t have to discover the lines of communication from scratch—we already have a good base to work from and a good familiarity. They’re such a wonderful orchestra: They make my life very easy. HK: Why do you think this BBC series lends itself so well to live music screenings?
BN: A lot of it comes down to the composer. The composer in this case is a British guy named George Fenton. He did all of the music for “Planet Earth” [and “Frozen Planet.”] You talk about visuals taking the audience on an adventure—it enables people to go to extremes of the North and South Poles in this case—but your subconscious mind gets the emotional cues from the music. That’s how all film music works. The best film composers are the ones who can add layers to the vision, and that’s certainly what George Fenton does. Take a wide cinematic shot of a vast glacier landscape: Fenton paints that in music and makes it suddenly majestic and epic.
HK: What challenges are there when you add a visual element to a concert?
BN: It changes everything. In a normal orchestral performance, you are able to be in control of the pacing of the work. As the conductor the tempo of the work is your responsibility and you have quite a bit of freedom in terms of interpretation. Whereas with the [visual element] there are key elements that need to be captured exactly. If a polar bear rolls down a hill, it has to correspond with the exact point in the music. If there’s a scene where a fish is snapping at another fish, it’s synchronized to a particular point. I have a lot more technology in front of me for this show: I have my own TV monitor, which has the timecode of the visuals running along in minutes and seconds, and I have that also on my musical score. I have to make sure those two things are lining up the whole time. If it drifts a little bit, I have to make sure we get back into absolute synchronization. HK: Do the musicians also have these visual prompts? BN: It’s all up to me, unfortunately! So it’s a big responsibility to carry for these kinds of concerts. I’ve done a lot of them now. You get more experienced and they become a little easier, but it’s still a different mindset than conducting a regular concert. You’re very much in the service of something bigger than just the music.
HK: What will the audience get out of “Frozen Planet” beyond the normal orchestra experience?
BN: I’ve conducted this concert once before. It’s really epic, in terms of its scale. It’s a great experience for people to come and see things that they would never have seen before, and have an amplified experience, emotionally—and to think about what the music is adding to the visuals and how it really changes things. It’s a great way for people to discover the orchestra, and have a really interesting night out, too. To learn something about the world is the big message behind this show.
HK: Do people say “good luck,” or do they say “break a leg”?
BN: You can say good luck, that’s fine. Backstage, we never say good luck: we say “toi toi toi.”
Benjamin Northey is an Australian musician, arranger and the Chief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in New Zealand. He’ll be in town conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s screening of the BBC’s “Frozen Planet” set to live music. He tells Jessica Wei about the challenges of conducting a live screening and how music drives our emotions.
Watch Northey and the HK Philharmonic bring “Frozen Planet” to life Jun 3- 4, 8pm at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui. $180-480 from urbtix.hk.