In these unsettling times, it’s important to stay connected and to continue sharing our experiences. To this end, we started a interview series called ‘DSO Conversations’, where we chat to musicians about how they have dealt with the changes brought about by COVID-19 and how they are adjusting to the ‘new normal’ now that restrictions are lifting. For our third interview, we talked to DSO’s Resident Conductor and Principal Clarinet Stephen Pevely. Stephen has been part of DSO since its inception in 1989. When he is not playing in or conducting the orchestra, Stephen works as a geologist. We corresponded with him over email about the impact COVID-19 has had on his life and musical practice, and about his experiences with DSO over the years.
Tell us a bit about your life and work. How has it been affected by COVID-19?
I work for Energy Resources of Australia who process uranium ore at the Ranger mine just beyond Jabiru, 260 km from Darwin. The mine is finally closing at the end of the year after nearly 40 years of operation, so apart from the usual geological stuff around ore reserves, I have been getting involved in the many mine closure projects that are happening. Closure and Rehabilitation will continue out to the end of 2026 until the mine is finally incorporated into Kakadu National Park.
Like many of us, I have been working from home instead of the office in the CBD over the past few months. I’ve quite enjoyed it, especially when my two teenage boys burst into the “office” after school and say “Hello Dad!” and then the tranquillity ends. I have good connectivity with the work servers, so I can do most of what needs to be done without leaving the house. I have a weekly catch up over coffee with colleagues in the CBD office who are still there, albeit in reduced numbers. For me the whole COVID-19 situation has been similar to being here over Christmas when Darwin normally clears out, except the weather is drier! With a land mass of 1.4 million square km and a population of ~240,000, the Territory is in a fortunate position compared to, say, the UK, where all my siblings and relatives have been doing much tougher isolation restrictions.
How has COVID-19 affected you as a musician? Did you find more time to play at home and were you still able to connect with musicians? What have the biggest challenges been?
This is where COVID-19 has really slowed things down. I would normally be out two nights a week at least (and I know of musical colleagues who are out playing four nights a week!); Mondays with DSO (both myself and Natalie) and Thursdays conducting the Arafura wind Ensemble (AWE), so I have missed the playing, conducting and socialising. However, both Natalie and myself have welcomed the respite from the weekly rush to make rehearsals. It has made us reflect on how hectic our pre-COVID routine really was. The family have occasionally got together to play some clarinet quartets (as both our boys play clarinet of course), and I have done some practice to get some reeds and an embouchure going, but never enough.
You first joined DSO when it was founded in 1989. How has it changed or grown over the years? What do you enjoy most about being part of the orchestra?
The DSO in 1989 (pre-crippling public liability insurance premiums) was very different. Our Artistic Director Martin Jarvis had some great schemes to take the orchestra on tour all over the Territory and we all went with ‘boundless possible’ unquestioning enthusiasm. We were, I think, a larger, more youthful band and did an exhausting number of concerts a year, which included quite advanced repertoire considering our overall capability. But, for me, it was the perfect training ground to take in all this great orchestral music I had heard and loved as a younger player. The more we did, the more I wanted! The longer tours especially stand out and were great fun to be a part of.
Over time, I feel DSO has matured into a tighter, more refined entity in concert performance, as new conductors have honed our musicianship. Having a professional management team continues to enable all this, but as a largely volunteer ensemble we still come together to make music for the pure enjoyment of it and that positive dynamic is what our guest musicians from interstate always comment on. Given our extreme geographic isolation and fragile demographics, it’s really miraculous that we are able to stage such truly marvellous concerts. We are still subject to the vagaries of available talented and committed community musicians, but they continue to join and sustain our numbers and we are still here in 2020. I met my wife, Natalie, in the orchestra and after over 25 years we still play in it together. It’s still a huge part of my outside-work life and when I do get to conduct it, well, that’s when I try to bring all I’ve absorbed over the past 32 years to the fore.
As we gradually move towards to the ‘new normal’ and DSO begins rehearsals for smaller chamber music performances, there are opportunities for musicians to immerse themselves in this part of the classical repertoire. What excites you about this, both as a player and a conductor? What are the main differences between playing in a chamber music ensemble as opposed to a full orchestra?
As a devotee and performer of chamber music involving winds for almost 40 years, I’ve always felt that the DSO has never dedicated enough time to exploring this genre. The ‘new normal’ is a great and overdue opportunity to do so and to showcase the talents of the hugely capable wind, brass and percussion musicians who inhabit the back two rows of DSO. I hope to use my knowledge of it during upcoming performances, when I will direct and lead some of the best of the repertoire for winds. The musical intimacy involved in the playing of chamber music is very special. That’s not to say I am not looking forward to the excitement of once again being part of the full orchestra for a Shostakovich symphony or Respighi tone poem. There are also some wonderfully intimate moments for the wind section in most large orchestral works, so the two musical forms are often intertwined!
What are you listening to at the moment?
Unfamiliar Beethoven! I was asked by our Artistic Director Jon Tooby to take the first socially distanced post-COVID rehearsal this week while he completes his 14 days quarantine in Darwin. We played through both Beethoven’s Egmont overture and incidental music from Goethe’s play of the same name, and his Symphony No. 2 in D, so I’ve been immersed in those scores. This is the first time the DSO has ever played through this less popular symphony or Beethoven’s virtually unknown incidental music. For both myself and the orchestra, it was a reminder that there are still hidden gems that are only truly revealed to musicians through performance. I think all of us came away from rehearsal exhilarated and moved by the absolute genius of his music. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday night!
Do you have any thoughts on how DSO and other musical groups can keep reaching out to the community during times of crisis?
There have been some fine examples of innovative musical streaming during the lockdown, including DSO’s ‘Portraits’ series and the entertaining gigs during the Nightcliff Seabreeze Festival. It’s now a great time to bring our music to the community at large, as they emerge from isolation during the best time of the year to be outdoors in the Top End, hopefully eager to be entertained by the many forms of high quality community-based music. The Arafura Wind Ensemble have been engaged by Darwin City Council in their own ‘Band in the Park’ twilight and Sunday series for 2020, which will bring some great popular tunes to green spaces throughout the Darwin suburbs. We also have four concerts at the iconic sunset venue at Café de la Plage near the Dripstone cliffs with vocal soloists Fiona Wake and Shalom Kaa. Then there are the upcoming intimate chamber music concerts that DSO has planned. How good is the Territory in the dry?!