BTS – A Young Maestro

Image: Sydney Youth Orchestra

Philip Bacon Studio | Opera Centre, 3 Dec ‘19

Sam Weller is encircled by his Apex Orchestra in a cheerful, button-up shirt. 

‘I like how the strings are playing.’ He says, part-way through Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance. ‘Everything has bite, and menace, and… accuracy.’ This last word is emphasised, with a cheeky smirk. 

The rehearsal room commanded by a patient, good-humoured conductor is always luxurious. 

Bushfires are wreathing Sydney, so I’m bleary-eyed on account of the smoke outside. But I’m thrilled to have scored an invitation to observe the Apex BTS. I’m intrigued by The Young Maestro after witnessing musical fireworks go off at his Powerhouse Museum concert in August.

(Fireworks/waterworks from me.)

In the rehearsal room, Weller is amusing, even when he’s being critical. (‘That was just so un-together.’) He conducts with stamina, energy and precision; is unruffled by the musical challenges that come up, seeming to come out with just the right descriptions to overcome stumbling blocks. (‘There’s too much junk/that was too muddy’.)

***

In interview with Sam Weller, 16 August 2020

In 2020, the odds are arrayed against all musicians, for reasons that need not be listed. 

Yet Weller and his ‘adaptive collection of charismatic young musicians’ are busier than ever.

How does a twenty-two year old build a musical machine like Apex? 

There is a real sense of ‘fun’ in the Apex rehearsal room. Do you strive to create this, or does it just come about naturally?

I think to create meaningful art, you need to have fun somewhere along the process. There is also an overwhelmingly infectious energy that spreads when 50+ people reach a common goal. I don’t ever set out to manufacture fun or create fun when we are rehearsing, it just washes over us when it needs to. I’m really glad you noticed this dynamic in our rehearsal because I think it’s core to the ‘Apex experience’. 

What are the challenges of leading 20+ people to a shared goal? What happens if musicians get unruly, seem tired? If people pull out of a concert?

All of our musicians are absolutely indebted to the task at hand and are always working to help us reach our goals. That being said, there’s definitely a certain level of fatigue that any artist can reach when trying to perfect something. As soon as music becomes forced it loses its sparkle. I think we work incredibly hard as an ensemble and I think each program pushes our players; however, I’m always aware of giving the music and the players some time to breathe as so the concert or next rehearsal won’t suffer. At the end of last year I threw a surprise encore on the orchestra: ‘Fiddle Faddle’ by Leroy Anderson. This is a very lighthearted piece that’s lots of fun to play but was so important in keeping up the momentum of our rehearsals whilst we dig into Stravinsky, Varese and Ligeti. 

Who do you take inspiration from, as a leader?

This is a great question, and a REALLY tough one. My role models have changed so much in the past couple of years. In terms of conducting a constant source of inspiration for me is Paavo Jarvi. I was very fortunate to participate in masterclasses with him in 2019 and since then I’ve held myself at a much higher level of accountability in my music-making. Another two conductors that I really admire are Ryan Bancroft and Karina Cannellakis both who deliver such sincere and personal interpretations of their work but have the most amazing sparkle when they are on the podium. 

I’m very lucky to have an extremely supportive family both direct and extended who cheer me on from the sidelines. I love them all to bits. My work ethic is definitely a mix of my mum and dad. My mum is extremely focussed and to the point, whether my dad has more of a larrikin attitude. 

How much involvement do you have with the overall development of the ensemble? From the conversations I’ve had, it seems that not only do you conduct Apex, but you’ve also made and moulded it, and manage it in all areas.

It started out as a name for a one-off concert with many of my friends at the Sydney Conservatorium. Now we are an Incorporated Association with a board. Initially, I ran most of the logistics with ad hoc help from my good friends. Eventually our concerts became bigger and bigger and that became impossible. Casey Green and Matt Druery drive the logistical/operations bus and I’m so lucky to have them by my side. We also have an extended team of board members who are integral to the orchestra’s decision-making and development. Each board member brings a specific energy and area of expertise to the table without whom we wouldn’t be on the trajectory we are today. We are a small organisation so my job still entails lots of behind the scenes budgeting and planning, however, we hope to expand when the time allows! When planning for Apex I’m always open to suggestions and I really enjoy hearing suggestions from the musicians and also the public!  

What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do with the ensemble?

The ultimate reward is seeing our collaborations come to fruition. I often say that I feel like I have done my job when I see a second violinist looking over to the third bassoon and sharing a moment mid-performance. I also really enjoy hearing what the audience has to say about the concert experience so I’ll try and get into the foyer straight after a concert. We are particularly focussed on attracting a new generation of orchestral music fanatics so it’s great to hear when someone is excited by a new experience they have had or are asking when the next concert is. 

What drew you to conducting?

I do owe my interest in conducting to my high school music teacher, Emlyn Lewis-Jones. In Year 9, I had never properly watched an orchestral rehearsal, so I asked to sit in on a couple of rehearsals with the school’s orchestra. At the time they were working on Rossini’s William Tell Overture, so I rocked up to rehearsal with a score and a pencil and scribbled some notes to myself. By Year 9, I had been taught by some really fantastic conductors and educators, so luckily I had a really good prototype to build my gestures off. Later in the term, Mr Lewis Jones announced he was taking some leave, and asked if I might like to finish rehearsing and conduct the performance of William Tell. I was perhaps over-enthusiastic, but also petrified. Anyhow, this led to a performance at the Sydney Opera House in an exchange performance between Beijing and Sydney with the orchestra! I have my first concert that I conducted saved on the desktop of my computer. It truly was an amazing experience, but my god, I’m glad I kept practising. 

Now, tell me a little about the launch of your digital season. 

After months of silence it has been so great to make music with Apex again. We kicked off the digital season with a video called Shostakovich Made Me Hardcore. This project has been particularly special to us in light of the recent impact of COVID 19 on the artistic community. Initially created as a promo for our 2020 season, much of which has now moved to 2021, the video and new piece of music has become a symbol of artistic solidarity and a statement of hope and strength from young classical musicians in these uncertain times. We were set to record the music with a large ensemble in-studio, but due to the lockdown, we were forced to record individually at home. Whilst this wasn’t our initial concept for the work, it has come together showing the comradery and collaboration that is so inherent to creating art.

Following that, we have recorded a range of music by Dvorak, Schoenberg, Ella Macens and Ben Robinson in some stunning venues around Sydney. These recordings took place with strict social distancing measures in place. I took on a new role as hygiene marshall so I’m glad to add that to the CV. Starting Thursday the 13th of August we will release videos on our Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages (@ensembleapex) and we hope that each video brings some excitement to your day!  They are packed with the Apex trademarks of fun, energy, passion and outstanding music. We have some smaller repertoire planned moving forward but stay tuned on our socials!

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