Current Issue #488

Drawn to the City: The Conductor

Drawn to the City: The Conductor

Each month, illustrator Leo Greenfield sketches and profiles an Adelaide character who makes the city tick. This month: Nicholas Carter.

Nicolas Carter, principal conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO), sees music as a language that starts when words stop; a language that requires “emotional intelligence” and, in the case of an orchestra, a great deal of rapport.

It was clear from the outset of our conversation that the ASO is a place of close bonds. Carter’s baby daughter Claudia also joined our discussion, quietly sitting on her father’s knee, signifying that to be involved with the ASO is to be part of a family.

A conductor “might be the person at the front of the room” but Carter sees his role as one of collaboration; a job that is about the interpretation of music through seeking unity with the orchestra. The conductor is the figurehead of the operation and must have a clear musical vision. Carter is even clearer when he says he “wants to leave the musicians empowered”.

The role of conductor is about “sparking the fire” and creating performances with diverse repertoire that expand the musical palette of both the musicians and the audience.

Some members of the ASO have been working and performing with the orchestra for more than 40 years, an achievement admired by Carter who notes how these musicians encourage him, as it is “mutual trust and respect that are needed for the way we make music”.

“Music is a language, but it doesn’t convey a direct meaning – it’s emotional,” he says, identifying that classical music can be capricious; it is pure abstraction, but this is the exciting part. Carter aims to build not just a strong relationship with the orchestra but also rapport with Adelaide audiences – “it’s our job to find the language to encourage exploration.”


Carter, originally from Melbourne, believes that Australian orchestras should have Australian conductors, and he brings to this role a wealth of experience from across Australia and Europe. Since 2011, Carter has been primarily based in Germany, and recently made Berlin his official home.

This doesn’t stop him from making at least six trips to Adelaide a year for his principal role here. A visit to Adelaide is always different and it is hard for him to narrow down a distinct routine. The life of a classical musician is in flux and depends greatly on the programming and repertoire. The movement between the cities magnifies the tradition that he works in, saying “every day is a masterclass in music”.

Carter might often be on the move, but that seems very contemporary in a world so closely connected via media. You need to be aware of modern tastes and the “idiosyncrasies from around the world. It’s interconnected, but you still need a home, a sense of place”. And it seems the nourishing environment of the ASO is giving this to him in return.

Leo Greenfield is a freelance illustrator

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