Edward Rooney

Edward Rooney is the news editor at the Herald on Sunday.

Encounter: For the record

Edward Rooney encounters the passion of Peter Thomas, Auckland Symphony Orchestra's new conductor.
Who Peter Thomas
What New conductor of Auckland Symphony Orchestra
Where Real Groovy Records
Why He's taken up the baton with Auckland's leading community orchestra
Real Groovy Records on Queen St has a laidback air this Tuesday afternoon as hipsters breeze in and around the music and merchandise store. Freshly roasted coffee scents the air. Music has been turned down so there's barely more than the bump of bass. I can't make out what it is.
Two compadres of the coffee kiosk guy greet him with deftly delivered handshakes; a slap of palms and sliding fingers. Cool. Casual. I drop my gaze back to the man I'm here to talk to, conductor of the Auckland Symphony Orchestra, Peter Thomas.
He's kind of cool, considering his day job is head of music for Epsom Girls' Grammar School. And he's almost casual in black duffle coat, black sweater and grey chino trousers. His leather shoes are, however, very shiny.
He's taken off his coat in the warm, sunny, window seat and declined my offer of coffee. "Just had one, unfortunately," he explains as I grab an unnecessary long black.
As a fellow father-of-five, I don't need to ask Peter what he does with his spare time. He's already busy with the school role, orchestra and family, aged between 18 months and 18 years. That's crazy levels of busy for a 40-year-old. So why has this Birkenhead resident taken on the mostly volunteer-run orchestra, putting on about a dozen free performances a year?
"I've been associate director for three years and the decision was made last year for me to take the role [conductor] from the beginning of this year," he shrugs, kind eyes framed by wire-rimmed glasses.

Casual like.
The Auckland Symphony Orchestra was set up in 1975 under the guidance of its only other conductor, Gary Daverne. It mixes works such as the theme from ET with Rachmaninov and Stravinsky at free shows alternating between the Auckland Town Hall and the Bruce Mason Centre on the North Shore.
The musicians are drawn from all parts of Auckland and from all walks of life - chefs, cancer researchers, teachers, posties. Not only are they not paid for playing, they pay an annual subscription to be in the orchestra.
Like anyone meeting in a record store, I ask Peter what kind of music he's into. "I'm constantly surprised by what I find on my iPod," he laughs.
I tell him I blame my kids for anything that might embarrass me. "There's a bit of that," he agrees. "But my tastes range broadly from mediaeval to contemporary. The last album I bought was the new Radiohead and the one before that was some Elgar."
Being a music teacher keeps Peter "primed" to new music. "Really, there's too much to listen to and not enough time."
I readily agree, stealing a longing glance at all the bins of vinyl albums, knowing I will never in my lifetime manage to browse through half of it.
Peter tells me what a conductor does, and I'm chastened by how little I know.
He chooses the orchestra's programmes and gives the final nod to all the pieces, although there's a very strong committee that supports him with his work.
As he talks, his hands inevitably make sweeping gestures and I can't help wondering if he's forcing himself to rein them in while our photographer snaps away.
Peter's not at all stuffy, happily admitting the orchestra tries to perform something for everyone. "We don't mind if the audience claps in funny places or laughs at something we're trying to be serious with."
I ask how the orchestra will change under his tenure with the baton. Firstly, he graciously credits Gary Daverne for his achievements and guidance. "He's left us with a strong tradition of free concerts that are well attended. They are very big shoes to fill."
So what will be different? I continue to pry. "I'll just try to bring a different angle to things," Peter says finally.
I'm guessing he doesn't want to get offside with his players, many of whom have been around much longer than he has. So I ask about them.
"They are quite extraordinary individuals," he gushes. "Every week, they come together and let me lead them astray. They come together to create this sound; it's more than a sound, it's a feeling and a bond. It's quite a privilege to lead them."
And there it is. The passion of Peter. More of it reveals itself as he boasts the orchestra has no trouble finding enough players.
"We've got quite a waiting list for membership. The people we can draw on is quite exciting."
I test his faux self-modesty once more by asking how much control a conductor really has over the orchestra. "Don't they just do what they do while you wave your arms?" I ask.
"It's not just about keeping time," he explains, his left hand moving up and down to a silent tempo. "It's about bringing the orchestra alive. They won't start without me," he says with a proud paternal smile. "I control speed, volume, nuances like how hard they attack. It takes real trust from the players."
Feeling I've gained a rapport, I ask Peter to show me around the classical LPs and recommend some music. I think he's disappointed to hear I prefer The Rolling Stones over The Beatles, Beethoven over Mozart.
LPs and 45s dangle on strings from the ceiling. He points out more than a dozen LP covers stapled to the walls around one corner - all The Sound of Music. "Look at all those. We put that on last year," he says referring to an Epsom Girls' and Auckland Grammar co-production.
Finally, he suggests some Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, even some of Mozart's later works. He finally opens up about some pieces he'd like to try with the orchestra: Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and - perhaps out of politeness to my irredeemable tastes - a Beethoven allegretto from the movie, The King's Speech.
The first Auckland Symphony Orchestra concert under Peter's baton is on Sunday, May 1 at 2.30pm in the Great Hall at Auckland Town Hall. No tickets required. More info at: www.aucklandsymphony.gen.nz
 

- THE AUCKLANDER

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