Many Sydney-siders will know Dr Nicholas Milton as the Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and Choir – a position he has held since 2001. Slightly further afield, he has held the same position with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra since 2007. Even further afield, he has held Artistic Director positions with the State Opera House in Saarbrücken, and with the Jena Philharmonic, and has conducted opera productions with the major opera companies in Berlin, Leipzig, Dortmund, Munich, Vienna and for Opera Australia in Sydney. We spoke to him from his current home in Göttingen, Germany where he is Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Göttingen Symphony Orchestra.
Among his many accolades, Nicholas is also the only Australian conductor who has been nominated for a Grammy Award – in 2016 in the category Best Classical Instrumental Solo for his recording with Joseph Moog of piano concertos by Grieg and Moszkowski.
In 2008 he conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in the Mozart concerto Finals round, and in the 2012 and 2016 competitions he conducted the SSO in the major Romantic concertos. But his journey with The Sydney begins long before he conducted the Finals.
What has been your journey with The Sydney, from your first involvement to conducting the concertos in 2016?
I well remember attending concerts of the first competition in 1977, when I was having lessons with Harry Curby at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He performed as leader of the Sydney String Quartet in the chamber music round, and I vividly remember an extraordinary performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet with Piers Lane. Amazingly, I don’t think Piers has changed that much since. He looks exactly the same! I have followed the competition avidly ever since. It has been a wonderful experience to conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the finals for the last three competitions (2008, 2012, and 2016).
Where are you now?
I have been based in Germany for many years. I’m Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Göttingen Symphony Orchestra in Lower Saxony. It’s one of Germany’s finest concert orchestras, having won an extraordinary number of awards for its many recordings. In Berlin, I have just done a series of CDs with the Konzerthausorchester, and in October I’ll be conducting Tosca at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
How are you using this time of social distancing and venue lockdowns?
In Germany, my orchestra performs cross over concerts in a venue that seats 5000 people. So, it’s huge. In July, we were one of the very first German orchestras to perform, albeit with social distancing. It was challenging, as all musicians were seated so far away from one another. But we performed Dvořák’s New World Symphony and recorded it as well for a DVD. In September, my orchestra will start regular concerts in that venue. Even with social distancing, we are able to accommodate an audience of 1000.
Travel is extremely limited at the moment but is there a wanderlust journey you would like to undertake in the future? What do you hope to find there?
Yes, I’d like to swim with a whale shark in Western Australia.I’d like to find a whale shark!
Is there a particular work, or a composer, who has taken you on a ‘journey’ – perhaps of discovery, emotion or evolution – as you get more deeply involved?
The symphonies of Brahms and Mahler continue to provide me with the deepest pleasure. I’m doing a Mahler cycle at the moment, and my recent journey with the Sixth Symphony was amazing. I’m also reading a book of Mahler’s letters at the moment, and it has been absolutely fascinating tracing his often incredibly difficult journey through the letters, his correspondence with Strauss and Bruno Walter among others, and reading of the passion with which he applied himself to his position in Vienna.
I have also been lucky enough to have been invited to the Deutsche Oper Berlin to conduct a Mozart cycle, and we’ve been revisiting the big operas. This year, Così fan tutte and Abduction from the Seraglio, with the most wonderful cast of singers, and in the coming season I’ll be conducting Don Giovanni in Berlin.
What advice or encouragement would you offer to the competitors of The Sydney in 2021?
Enjoy yourselves. Try to make some friends … you’ll probably find that some of the relationships you make will be enduring. Try to create some unforgettable moments in time. Be bold, be courageous.