For someone who never considered becoming an orchestra conductor as a possible career, Benjamin Northey has reached stellar heights.
He's the new principal conductor in residence at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, chief conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in New Zealand, and an in-demand freelance conductor throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
But it comes at a cost - being away from his wife and two young children for more than half the year.
As a student in Ballarat, attending secondary school at Ballarat High School and later Ballarat Clarendon College, Northey played an array of instruments and assumed his career would involve playing, writing and arranging music.
It deviated from that track and he now conducts orchestras of talented musicians, bringing his interpretations of works of the masters, and more current compositions, to life.
This weekend he is at the helm of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for its Season Opening Gala featuring Beethoven's Ninth Symphony which will be accompanied by 10 circus artists from Circa presenting the music in its physical form.
Fellow former Ballarat resident and mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark, tenor Paul O'Neill, bass Warwick Fyfe and Latvian soprano Maija Kovaevska will join the MSO Chorus for the final movement of the well-known symphony.
The symphony will be performed alongside a world premiere by revered Australian composer Deborah Cheetham of her Dutala, star filled sky, a work created in response to Beethoven's Ninth.
Audiences see conductors as the person at the front of the stage waving a baton and gesturing to the various sections of the orchestra, but the job is far more than that.
Preparation for a concert begins weeks or months before the date.
"Most of the conductor's work is done in preparation for a concert. There's time spent studying the score and learning music - I have to turn up to an orchestra with a picture in my mind and able to imagine a piece of music from start to finish.
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"I need to communicate that to the orchestra in rehearsal. My tool is physical gestures ... communication of sound and impulse to the orchestra through the art of physical movement without words."
Mr Northey said a week of rehearsals was physically exhausting for a conductor.
"I've got a full time physio and exercise to keep my shoulders in the right place. You hear of conductors becoming injured and compromising your upper body and legs - but it's very good for you from an aerobic point of view.
"I wore a FitBit for a rehearsal period and the entire time I was on the podium my heart rate was about 120bpm."
During Mr Northey's tenure with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra there has been a significant shift in the types of events and music the orchestra performs. While traditional classical concerts are a big part of the orchestra's annual program, a new generation of audience has come to the MSO through their popular film series, playing the scores from blockbuster movies while the film is screened, and collaborations with presenters such as renowned physicist Dr Brian Cox.
"It's an example of the kind of concert the orchestra is doing that we never used to. There's much more collaboration ... and the link between music and other things demonstrates music's power to connect with other aspects of life," Mr Northey said.
"We are trying to present the orchestra in different contexts. We still do standalone concerts but many more interesting and diverse offerings with the orchestra that have certainly been remarkable in attracting a new generation.
"It used to be the rationale behind doing collaborations that you give people a great experience and they might get interested (in the regular season concerts) but our research suggests that's not what happens - we have many audiences for different kinds of events, it has diversified."
Helping introduce a broader cross section of the community to orchestral music was not something a young Northey ever had on his career radar.
"I wasn't one of those young people who always wanted to be a conductor - some people ever since they've been able to hold a chopstick have wanted to become conductors.
"I always loved music and had a wonderful Ballarat music education with remarkable teachers and went to a number of different schools which offered really good music programs.
Ballarat High School and Ballarat Clarendon College hosted Mr Northey during his adolescent years, with school music performances balanced with working as an amateur musician, playing in about 20 local theatre productions and with bands at functions.
"At 16 and 17 I was getting opportunities in Ballarat that I wouldn't have had if I'd been in Melbourne. I think the difference is Ballarat, because it has less people, there seems to be more chance to get experience."
His main instruments were clarinet and saxaphone, with talented dabbles in woodwind and flute.
"There's a rich tradition of arts which Ballarat is renowned for. That's why there's been an extraordinary number of artists and musicians come out of Ballarat."
He started studying music at university, but dropped out after a year to work as a professional musician and it wasn't until he was 26 when he went back to university to complete an undergraduate degree in classical saxophone and composition.
"Then I met a teacher who saw what I had to offer, who said I had a broad range of experience, could arrange music, was good with people and he asked me to think about coming to study as a conductor.
"I thought it was insane and seemed ridiculous but he convinced me and a threw myself in to it 150 per cent and things progressed really quickly.
In 2001 he got in to Symphony Australia's conductors development program, then won a national young conductor of the year and went to Finland to study for four years.
He began to be offered work back in Australia and has built his conducting career now for about 20 years.
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This year's MSO program leans heavily toward Beethoven to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the great composer's birth. - something Mr Northey is looking forward to.
"I've always loved conducting Beethoven. It's such astonishingly good music - the intensity of it, beauty of it, the full gamut of emotions it communicates to an audience. I just really enjoy the intersection of politics and music he brings to his pieces."
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