Toby Deller

Artist of the month: Karin Hendrickson

9:34, 4th January 2019

The associate artist at Sage Gateshead speaks to Toby Deller about starting out in Pennsylvania, building a network in London, and what’s missing from classical concerts

‘I came to the sound of the orchestra through my mum’s work in musical theatre – the earliest imprint of an orchestra in me is theatre lights going dark and that moment of anticipation and the overture beginning. And I think it was those few minutes before the overture that I loved best as a kid – that moment of: it’s going to happen! What’s going to happen?’

One thing that might happen is that Karin Hendrickson appears baton in hand and gets things going. Particularly if you are at Sage Gateshead where she has recently taken up a post combining associate artist at the venue with assistant conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia (which also includes directing the junior orchestra at the Sage, Young Sinfonia).

‘There’s always a physical flashpoint,’ she says of the process of starting a performance, ‘that begins to release the sound. How hot or fast that flashpoint is what influences the sound you get from an orchestra. I just love so much that my job is to be the highest level collaborator, to create these flashpoints of musicianship and physical release. It feels like such a divine responsibility in a way, which is why it’s such a disaster for the orchestra when you put a mediocre conductor on the podium.’

By the end of her school years – she grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania – Hendrickson was leading an extremely active musical life that culminated in being given music directing responsibilities at a small local theatre. ‘I was accompanying the chorus at school anyway, so I did have quite a bit of music going on. But it wasn’t fancy. It was a – very blue-collar, actually – working musician’s experience.’

That galvanised her into music studies at Peabody conservatory in Baltimore and then the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she studied conducting with Gustav Meier and Colin Metters respectively. She then worked as Marin Alsop’s assistant at the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and began picking up concerts in the US before returning to London on an Exceptional Talent visa.

My job is to create these flashpoints of musicianship and physical release

‘I had started sensing that when you train at the Royal Academy of Music for three years, your network is built in London. To rebuild that network in the United States was going to be very difficult. I was granted the visa in August of 2015, and I came back to the UK with absolutely no work and just a bit of savings I had from my work in the previous year. And just started hustling and hitting the pavement.’

Her endeavour paid off with her appointment in Gateshead last autumn. ‘It’s kind of a junior music director position for a period of time during which you are doing all the things a music director would be doing in terms of programming and curating. And brainstorming with staff about how to develop things that increase your audience engagement, increase the learning and participation parts of the work that you do.’

These areas are particular preoccupations of hers. Speaking of the wider classical music industry, she argues, ‘We know that in general we have an audience that we can somewhat rely on in terms of expectation and tradition. But it’s all the rest, the other 94 per cent of people who don’t come to orchestral concerts: why are we not curating something towards them?’

The risk is that we miss opportunities to engage curious people through our adherence to concert formulas that we may well enjoy, but others don’t. By way of analogy, she says, ‘I go to see Monet’s Water Lilies because I love the Water Lilies. On the flip side, going to see Picasso, there’s something about him that I love – I don’t understand yet what it is but I know that it is there and if I keep searching and if I have somebody help I think I would discover what that is and draw me closer to art in general.’

So it may not be enough to rely on the mystique of ‘the big reveal’, as she calls it, that captured her own attention as a child. ‘I think at the end of the day we need to take more time in developing the human element of our concerts, whether that means letting the conductor or some of the players engage with audiences or showing a certain strand or line of programming. It might be wrapped around a single poem that people connect to on a very visceral level then showing that there’s some music that reflects this poetry. So they’re not coming to a concert to hear curated museum pieces, they’re coming to a concert to discover more about humanity, about themselves and about somebody else.’



2007 conducting training begins at Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, MD, USA

2010 graduates Peabody Conservatory; begins postgraduate conducting masters at Royal Academy of Music, London

2013 graduates Royal Academy of Music, Distinction

2013 assistant conductor Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, working with Marin Alsop

2015-2018: various projects including Royal Opera House (chorus master); Royal Ballet (cover conductor); CBSO; National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain; Southbank Sinfonia; Garsington Youth Opera

2018: appointed assistant conductor, Royal Northern Sinfonia; associate artist, The Sage Gateshead; music director RNS Young Sinfonia

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