Key Points:

It wasn't until she went to Germany that Julia Jones realised she would like to "do this conducting thing". It was the late 80s and Jones was freshly graduated from the Guildhall School of Music. Further studies were not an option. No, the pragmatic Englishwoman says, "I just wanted to jump in the deep end".

The German operatic circuit was fruitful and she progressed from humble positions in Cologne and Stuttgart to kapellmeister posts in Ulm and Darmstadt and, eventually, major productions in Frankfurt, Vienna and other international houses.

The DVD of her Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail for Frankfurt Opera is one of the finest available, and her 2005 Cosi fan Tutte with Vienna State Opera had New York Times critic Anne Midgette suggesting that "a few more women would be all the good" if they took on what Midgette saw as Jones' toning down of the "heavy-muscle bluster" of the Viennese orchestra.

Early on, much had been made of Jones being the first woman to conduct Wagner in Italy, but today she prefers not to be drawn into gender issues.

"So what?" is her first response. "Wagner's operas are longer than other composers, but not necessarily more difficult."

Now in New Zealand, conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Hamilton and Auckland next week, she feels "the overview is easier" when I ask what it is like being on stage with her band.

"Everybody is just concentrating on the music so it's very intense. But having done a lot of opera certainly helps when you are conducting symphonic music because the pacing and structure is so much longer in an opera.

"I sometimes find time goes so quickly in a concert. You start a symphony and after 30 minutes it's finished."

Not that Jones doesn't take on the symphonic Titans, having just delivered Mahler's Resurrection with the Portuguese National Orchestra, and she returns to Lisbon later this year to tackle Messiaen's Turangalila.

As it happens, there is a strong French component in her Saturday programme, which features both Ravel's Mother Goose and Debussy's La Mer which she agrees is a symphony in all but name, apart from one proviso.

"Debussy may build the score up from these symphonic ideas but they are not developed in the usual symphonic way. They get treated like an impressionistic painting, putting a little bit of dark red here, and light green there. It's really about atmosphere."

The French connection also slips in when we talk about Martin Lodge's Winterlight, a mini-concerto for bassoonist Preman Tilson. Jones is happy to see the bassoon getting its dues.

As she comments drily, "You usually only hear it in Baroque repertoire or trivial French music".

As for the orchestra's initiative in showcasing local composers, Jones is all for it. "You have to play living composers. You can't sit around playing your Beethoven for 200 years."

While Tilson and Lodge promise 12 minutes of rare delight, the principal soloist - German cellist Alban Gerhardt - offers Haydn's Second Concerto and Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante.

Julia Jones is frank about the Prokofiev, written towards the end of the Russian composer's life. "It's demanding for the listener and can be very difficult to understand at first hearing."

For the soloist, "it's like training for the Olympics in 45 minutes".

Yet when the conductor enthuses about its "beautiful, big, romantic outbursts" and "fast, crazy notes up in the cello's high register", it is only a terminally closed mind that could fail to be intrigued.

"There are many other concertos you can sit at home in an armchair and enjoy. This one has to be experienced live."

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Where and when: Founders Theatre, Hamilton, Thurs July 31, 8pm; Auckland Town Hall, Fri Aug 1, 6.30pm & Sat Aug 2, 8pm.

On air: RNZ Concert Music Alive broadcasts Alban Gerhardt's Wellington performance at 8pm tonight.