Consider what it takes to make an ideal conductor. It would preferably be someone on an upward career trajectory, setting both players and audiences on a journey of discovery just as the LA Phil did when it snared the charismatic Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel a few years ago.
Since by tradition many of the greats started out in the opera pit – think of Toscanini, von Karajan and Solti – they might have cut their teeth in opera too. On top of that they will be an accomplished all-round musician, for example with a background in violin, piano or perhaps singing. And they will of course be someone who rules with authority but is actually a nice guy or gal underneath. It is early days, but Nicholas Carter seems to tick all those boxes as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s new incoming Principal Conductor. Judging by his career so far, the 30 year-old is just on the threshold of making a rather big name for himself in the conducting world, and the ASO is the lucky beneficiary. In terms of opera alone, the Melbourne-born conductor has directed more performances than many others twice his age. Plucked out in his mid-20s by Simone Young to serve as Kapellmeister at the Hamburg State Opera, he was thrown right into the deep end. The north German city has one of Europe’s busiest opera houses, staging 35 to 36 operas per year. “Hamburg was amazing,” says Carter. “I literally did all the Wagner operas, Strauss, Mozart and Verdi. I would be up at six in the morning, conducting rehearsals through the day and going until 10.30 at night. Then I had not other option but to stay up until 4am learning Act 3 of Die Meistersinger. I loved my time in Hamburg”. To have done a complete Ring Cycle plus all Wagner’s other operas from Rienzi to Parsifal, is itself no mean accomplishment for a young conductor still learning the ropes. But it didn’t stop there. Carter then went to Deutsche Oper Berlin where, as Kapellmeister and musical assistant to Donald Runnicles, he has been conducting more Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, Puccini and Britten.
These are experiences one would of course never get in Australia. Yet somehow during this flurry of activity Carter found time to forge what has become a five-year relationship with the ASO. It began when Simon Lord, the director of artistic planning, invited him to guest conduct here in 2010 in a small concert with the orchestra. On the strength of that experience, return invitations came almost every subsequent year. “There were no shocks or surprises,” Carter says. “A relationship and mutual respect have been building over those years. To begin with, I was 25 or thereabouts, at an age when one is still in need of experience, but the orchestra seemed to think there was some talent worth investing in” So much so, that a decision came early this year to appoint him as the ASO’s next principal conductor. It surprised many. No other Australian state orchestra had chosen someone so young; nor had an Australian-born conductor been appointed to such an orchestra since Stuart Challender was signed to the Sydney Symphony in 1987. Most surprising though, was just how convincingly this good-natured young man was shaping up on the podium. In his return visit in 2014, his maturing command and authority was striking for someone so young. His gestures were sharp and decisive, and musically he was imparting a beautiful ebb and flow to line in three larger works of the repertoire: his Isle of the Dead (Rachmaninov) was dreamy, his Carmina Burana seamless, and his La Traviata with State Opera SA lovely in its flowing style. Clearly, this man understands musical line. It adds up: as a school kid he not only played violin and piano but sang as well. At nine he joined Melbourne’s National Boys Choir, which trains its singers in the traditional bel canto style, and toured as far as Munich and Salzburg. “Germany was always a spiritual destination for me,” he says. From that point Carter developed a deep and abiding connection with Austro-German music. A pungently expressive Mahler Fourth, saturated with colour, abundantly showed this when he conducted the ASO again just last August. “My sound world is very Germanic,” Carter explains from his present home base in Berlin. “Over here there’s a real focus and obsession with ‘sound’, whereas Anglo-Saxon orchestras tend to focus on rhythm. I’m not suggesting of course that Germanic orchestras don’t care about rhythm, or that Anglo-Saxon orchestras don’t think about sound, but the emphases come from different heritages.
Photo: Alice Healy
“The Germans measure rhythms in grams and kilos, while the Anglo-Saxons measure it in seconds and fractions of seconds. You feel it. In German orchestras the sound comes from the ground; the sound comes not from the instruments but from the players’ feet. It shudders up from the ground in a thick blush of sound.” He says his aim in Adelaide, which he fondly describes as “a little Germany” due to its Lutheran background and love of the arts, will be to combine the best of both worlds. He will maintain the ASO’s existing “precision and clarity” while at the same time seek to “develop and further nourish the sound”. He says the ASO is “an elite orchestra but an orchestra for all the people” which, under 10 years with Arvo Volmer, could not be in better health. “In that time he covered the entire repertoire. The orchestra feels at home with it all, from Scandinavian to German and Russian composers”. Carter will continue living in Berlin with a twomonth old daughter and wife while regularly travelling to Adelaide. He foresees making use of those long plane trips. “I think I’ll be studying plenty of scores onboard. It’s just the thing when you can’t stand the sight of another lousy film or terrible sitcom”. Nicholas Carter conducts the ASO in a concert version of Wagner’s Die Walküre Act 1 Carter & Wagner Saturday, February 13, Festival Theatre aso.com.au Photography by Alice Healy and Tony Lewis