"I'm perched on my piano stool at home in Hamilton. I should be studying Beethoven's Second Symphony for a concert I'm conducting with Northern Rivers Symphony Orchestra coming up in November" says Nathan Aspinall. On the phone, he tells me he is in a sun-streamed room with scores by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms littering the floor. A recent music graduate from the University of Queensland where Aspinall studied French Horn, he is now the Queensland Symphony Orchestra's conductor-in-training.
Aspinall gained five years experience through Symphony Australia's Conductors' Program and has been at the helm of Australia's major orchestras in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Tasmania. In his last year of study at UQ, Aspinall was mentored by QSO's chief conductor Johannes Fritzsch who was so impressed by Aspinall's acute abilities and enthusiasm for Germanic music that this young conductor was chosen as the recipient of the QSO's inaugural Young Artist Residency Program.
Like many young musical aspirants, Aspinall lives with his parents. Finding rented accommodation where fellow residents and neighbors can happily endure long stretches of piano playing at any time of day or night is near impossible. 'No-one in my family is musical but they are really supportive and appreciate I've gone for conducting hell for leather."
"I'm career conscious. I hope one day to study overseas either in Europe or America there are so many opportunities overseas". For Aspinall, it seems there are many in Queensland, the diary is chockers and smiling colleagues refer to him as "a rising star". In November, he conducts QSO's "Maximus Musicus" a trailblazer concert that introduces primary children to the orchestra through an appealing Icelandic story about a mouse.
Aspinall is also an Assistant Conductor for Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, Opera Queensland's conductor for the forthcoming production of Carmen, which opens on the 26 October. About the role he says, "I attend the rehearsal, check for balance across the orchestral sections and between the singers and orchestra. I'm always alert in case there is something the maestro needs me to listen for or follow up in a sectional. It's a great experience seeing how Joel-Hornak rehearses. When he stops the orchestra, I pay attention to what he wants to improve and compare this to what I might have wanted to follow up if I'd stopped at the same place. I also closely observe how the players interact."
What are you focusing on when studying the players?
"It's important for the conductor and concertmaster to be onside. I think a key to success is to know what you want. Concertmasters appreciate conductors who are clear about what they want and efficient in using rehearsal time. Valuing the concertmaster by considering his or her interpretative ideas or consulting them about things like bowing is important. I've never had anyone be overtly disruptive and never had problems in a rehearsal. Keeping hold of the bigger picture as you rehearse is important. If there is a problem the concertmaster calls the players into line. I thought I'd find conducting my French horn teacher Ian O' Brien scary but it wasn't at all. He's such a nice guy. Ian was so good about it".
What are the challenges of conducting opera?
"Compared to symphonic music, opera is more complex, there are multiple things going on and it's not just simply a question of conveying your ideas about the music, you need to communicate with the singers and you must be flexible because you need to synchronize with scenery, theatrical cues and crucial production issues. Ballet is also demanding and just as involved."
Intense, thoughtful and communicative about all things musical, flinty and driven, in his spare time Aspinall enjoys reading biographies of great conductors or watching them in action on YouTube. Discovering a YouTube clip of Bernard Haitink inspired his dream to conduct.
"Haitink was so amazing, relaxed, organized yet really in control. I thought conducting looked really fun". Another hero is the exciting eccentric conductor Austrian Carlo Kleiber. "He was so very detailed and clear of what he wanted and had an incredible way of conveying colour and structure through the hand".
I ask what Aspinall looks like when conducting from the audience's perspective.
"Furtwangler looked intellectual in rehearsal and poetic in performance. Rehearsals are for shaping every nuance but in performance the music has to come alive, breathe and be spontaneous. I look like the music looks. If the music is tense and violent then so am I."
There's no doubt conducting is the air Aspinall breathes. I push to discover if he does anything else in his downtime besides studying. Reluctant to be steered off our musically blown course, there's a silence broken by laughter as he admits to reading travel and cooking books and enjoying a round of golf in Victoria Park with his mates.
Otherwise, any spare time is devoted to revisiting, rethinking and rekindling insights about scores he already knows, learning new ones or bolstering piano skills. Aspinall's zest, analytical mindset, voracious hunger to learn and steely drive tempered by an ideal balance of humility and a no fuss recognition of his own talent are all qualities destined to propel him into the stratosphere of a successful career.
Carmen Opera Queensland – 26 October - 10 November. More information»
Maximus Musicus QSO – 6 & 8 November, Brisbane Powerhouse. More information»