“IF YOU look back at the history of classical music, you realise we’re not so different. Beethoven, Mozart, back then, was pop music.”
Sitting across the table was Zachary Tay, conductor and founder of the edgy young Melbourne orchestra Orchestre Nouveau.
Growing up, the 24-year-old from Malaysia had the luck of appreciating the best of two worlds in music, even though he did not know it then.
“I studied piano at seven (years-old), my teachers kept pushing me because they felt it would lead somewhere… and I told my mum one day I didn’t want to do this anymore, it was really tough,” he said.
“And she said, ‘You’d thank me one day, so keep pushing at it.’ And I did.”
In high school, he picked up the guitar, drums and bass.
He realised one thing – they all spoke the same language, classical or otherwise.
Orchestre Nouveau was founded in Tay’s final year as a music student at Melbourne University in 2007.
“The orchestra started off as a straight classical orchestra, and we played classical gigs around Melbourne,” he said.
“And then we became more forward thinking.”
He never forgot Benjamin Zander’s precious words, years after the sprightly charismatic conductor of the Boston Philharmonic delivered a TED Talk in 2008.
Everybody loves classical music, they just haven’t found out about it yet, Zander had remarked with great enthusiasm.
Intuitively, Tay understood. The classical training he had received over the years never did snuff out the “rocker” in him.
“What Zander is basically saying is that the language of music is hugely accessible. It’s a display of humanity at its best. It’s an expression of the human emotion,” he said.
“It is true that what the classical conservatoriums have done has made it very difficult for people to access this genre of music.
“So what we do when we program our concerts is to program songs that are easier to listen to, less complex, so that people who don’t study music can appreciate it and bring something home.”
The orchestra made its first foray into classical-mainstream crossover music in 2009, a year after Tay graduated with a Masters degree in conducting.
Malaysia’s indie pop powerhouse Juwita Suwito was coming to town, and he jumped at the opportunity to collaborate.
“When you were a student, you pursued music because of its artistic quality… to be really good at what you do,” Tay said.
“But then having experienced both the classical and the rock scene gave me a very interesting perspective.
“These two worlds didn’t know each other very well. We could act as the bridge between two worlds that would otherwise not intersect.”
Recently returned from a trip to St Petersburg where he studied under Maestro Alexander Polyanichko, conductor for Russia’s Mariinsky Opera; and performed with the St Petersburg Academic State Symphony Orchestra – Tay is raring to go again.
This time, pushing the boundaries “even closer to the edge”.
Tay said the orchestra’s next performance at BMW Edge, Federation Square on October 17 was one of its most ambitious attempts to date, combining a 60-piece classical orchestra with Melbourne indie band Autumn Gray.
“People who come expecting to hear their favourite bands playing, we’re going to give them times one hundred,” he said.
“We want people to leave with a sense of possibility.
“Who says we can’t do rock?”
An Autumn Gray Symphony will take place 7pm Sunday October 17 at BMW Edge, Federation Square.
Meld Magazine has three double passes to An Autumn Gray Symphony to give away. For your chance to win, email your name, age, address and phone number before October 15 to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject heading “Autumn Gray Symphony”.
When did you first arrive in Melbourne?
I came to Melbourne in 2004.
What do you say to people when they tell you they don’t know how to appreciate classical music?
I encourage people to listen to it first. There are millions and millions of hours of music out there. You can’t listen to one hour of it and go, ‘I don’t like it’. There will be something that you like.
What’s playing on your iPod?
Shostakovich Piano Concerto No.2 – it’s a piece I’ll be conducting on the weekend (Oct 3).
What are you reading at the moment?
Robert M Pirsig’s Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.
What’s your favourite beverage?
Coffee. Lots and lots of it.