Conductor Development Program: A History
Between 1993 and 1997, Symphony Services International’s predecessor, the Concerts Division of the ABC, offered training days and short courses for the benefit of young musicians who aspired to become conductors.
In 1997 Nathan Waks, the ABC’s Director of Music and later inaugural Managing Director of Symphony Australia, introduced a more rounded program to provide training for young Australian conductors. The program was officially named the Conductors Master-Course and consisted of a three-week intensive training period which culminated in the Symphony Australia Young Conductor of the Year competition.
The first step in redefining conductor training in Australia occurred when Symphony Australia entered into a partnership with Jorma Panula. Recognised as the world’s most influential conductor trainer and renowned for his decades of leadership at the prestigious Sibelius Academy, Panula’s involvement lifted the program to a new level and proved how seriously Symphony Australia took the issue of conductor training.
For the next few years, around eight young conductors were selected annually via audition to participate in Panula’s intensive two-week training course. The best four candidates were then selected to compete for the title of Symphony Australia Young Conductor of the Year.
Involvement in the competition consisted of tutoring with Jorma Panula, call time on the podium with a professional symphony orchestra and a final live performance judged by Panula and others. The prize for the winner was $20,000.
In 1999 Symphony Australia implemented a strategic plan that would invest heavily in Australian conductors over the next ten years and set a goal of seeing at least one Australian participant on the world stage.
This goal has been far exceeded with graduates of the program, such as Benjamin Northey, Matthew Coorey, Nicholas Milton and Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo amongst others, all now conducting orchestras around the world. In May 2010, Benjamin Northey conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Later in 1999, Jorma Panula took on the directorship of the entire Conductor Development Program and the length of the course expanded from a 3-week to 12-week program.
By early 2000 all of the major Australian symphony orchestras were involved in the course, providing an average of 20 orchestral calls per year, with six or seven international conductors contributing to the program annually.
Jorma Panula, by then in his 70s, needed to scale back his commitments so the course started to involve a wider group of international guest teachers.
2001 was the final year of the Symphony Australia Young Conductor of the Year competition. Symphony Australia decided the time was right to focus more on training.
While Jorma Panula still led the program, a number of other guest conductors were now fully integrated into the teaching framework. The delivery of the Major Performing Arts Inquiry (Nugent Report), also in 2001, saw the allocation of an additional $100,000 per year to support the development of Australian conductors. This new funding resulted in a significant increase in subsidised podium time with professional orchestras, already a significant distinguishing feature of Symphony Australia’s conductor training.
In 2004 Panula retired from the program, though remaining involved for some years as an International Advisor. The internationally distinguished British conductor Christopher Seaman, formerly a guest teacher of the program, was selected as Director.
Since then, Christopher Seaman has been very involved in all the conductor courses, including the Scholar Conductors program, which provides a unique opportunity for high school-aged musicians to directly learn from a senior, internationally experienced conductor. 2015 marks the final year for Christopher Seaman as course director and after an 11 year tenure he leaves the Program firmly established at a high international level. In 2016 and beyond, the participating orchestras will have more of a hand in the shaping of the Program with their chief and guest conductors becoming more involved as teachers and mentors for the participating conductors.
Christopher Seaman was a visionary and dedicated Course Director for 11 years, participating in many of the annual teaching modules with a range of orchestras and also carrying out the auditions process and teaching the Scholar Conductors course for school-aged students. During this time, many successful graduates passed through the program and many credit their success at least partially to his guidance and mentorship.
In the two decades that the program has run, a substantial number of young musicians have embarked on careers as conductors. Their success can at least partly be attributed to the expert tuition and podium opportunities they received through the SSI program and the orchestras’ participation and funding. SSI has also supported graduates in their careers through the Podium Program, a grant program that allows participants to travel overseas to pursue exceptional opportunities (job auditions, further study, competitions and participation in summer schools etc) in order to ultimately bring greater experience and skills back to Australia.
2016 will be the final year of the national Conductor Development program. In recent years, chief conductors and regular guests of the Member orchestras have become increasingly involved in delivering opportunities to emerging conductors. From 2017 the orchestras will provide their own development activities to Australian artists.