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Saturday 10 October 2009

Youngest orchestra conductor Brent John Stewart

Posted in: Hall of Fame
By Matt Akersten - 25th June 2009

Brent John Stewart
A lifelong passion for music led 24-year-old Brent John Stewart to become Australasia's youngest Principal Conductor. "Music has an incredible grip on my emotions - it can turn me into a water feature very quickly," the Wellington-based baton-waver confides. Tell us about your journey with the piano. How long have you been playing, and where has it lead you?

Brent: My piano playing started when I was eight years of age.  I was just utterly fascinated by the teacher who accompanied the school during assemblies.  I remember approaching my Mum and asking if I could learn the piano – and so it began. 

I continued to learn the piano through my secondary school years and even won an award from the Trinity College of London for achieving the highest mark in New Zealand for one particular year.  However the piano is horrifically lonely and I expressed that despair to my piano teacher who suggested I learn the drums.  WELL!  Every boy wants to be a drummer, but instead I was enrolled into classical percussion classes.  What gobbledygook I thought.  However, I just excelled at it, having an already sound background with the piano. 

Several thousands days later…. after completing a Bachelors of Music with first class Honours and a Diploma in Secondary Education I now work as a professional Percussionist, Conductor and of course, Teacher.  I am the Musical Director of the Hutt Valley Concert Orchestra, a guest conductor with the Kapiti Concert Orchestra and I have conducted and trained many choral groups from Barbershop Quartets, full scale choirs, Stage Musical Choruses, to chamber choirs like Baroque Voices. 

As a pianist I have played for improvised theatresports, accompanied soloist at national and international competitions and have worked a lot with singers.  However at the end of the day my biggest joy is teaching secondary school music.  I love being able to share my mania of music and getting students engaged with a huge range of repertoire such as Symphonic, Opera, Ballet as well as more modern styles (I did after all play drums in a rock band and we got second in the Rockquest Auckland Regional).  While studying in Auckland I also did a double major in composition and have been very supportive of NZ composers by performing world premiers as well as teaching about their works to my students.  I especially enjoy teaching high level secondary and I want to be in a school that teaches scholarship music.  I firmly believe that students who are classically trained with a high level of music literacy will end up being a lot more versatile as musicians.


What do you love about playing music, and conducting?



That's really difficult to explain.  Music for me is like feeling small when you stand beside the ocean.  It's bigger than me, and has awe-inspiring things to be found.  As simply a listener, I love unlocking all the secrets to be found in any genre of music.  These aren't secrets that the composers or performers necessarily left for me to find, I discover my own secrets that make each individual piece of music special.  It's like tasting a glass of wine and being able to explain all the ingredients.  With music I hear so much, I go into such a deep analysis and it effects me on such a radically spiritual level.  When listening to music I just can't sit still – I'm terrible in the orchestras as a percussionist because I can't stop swaying in the same direction as the violin bows – how embarrassing.  This is where conducting comes in.  Since I was a kid I was secretly air-conducting all the time to concert FM and my one classical CD that I got for my birthday.  My baton was usually a coloured pencil and the orchestra was my stereo system playing in my room.  I can't think of anything more embarrassing than your Dad walking in on you conducting your stereo!  On looking back I realise I wasn't crazy, just passionate.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Bucklands Beach, Auckland. I have an identical Twin Brother Paul whose existence wasn't known until birth, surprise! And I also have two older brothers Shane and Kerry. I have a supertastic Mum and Dad who through their own relationship have taught me so much about love.

When did you come out as gay, and what was it like for you at the time?

I sadly didn't 'come out' until I was 21 years of age. As a teenager I knew I was gay but it was something I just kept to myself, I had other things to worry about anyway, such as school work.  I considered 'coming out' to be when you tell your family because I was already out to many of my friends. 

Coming out was certainly not a bed of roses.  I cowardly wrote an individual letter to each member of my family and gave them a day to digest the information before I arrived in Auckland to hear their rebuttal.  Paul, my twin already knew 3 years earlier - long story.  Anyway, I decided no matter what their reaction was I wasn't going to get angry or get upset because I had well over a decade to come to grips with this so why should I expect them to take a day.  The reaction was honestly mortifying, and really tested that unconditional-love-thing I had for my parents.  I have slowly worked patiently with them over the last few years and my relationship is now already better than it ever was with them.  Slowly they're realising that I'm still the same guy, they just know something more about me.  The most amazing thing was when my Dad invited my partner over to have dinner - wow!     

Why do you think Wellington is so much better than Auckland?

There is such a zany atmosphere here. The arts are huge and well supported and the people here are so kind, spontaneous and wear bright colours. The city here is so compact, people come into town at night and in the weekends. There is just so much buzz. Auckland city is pretty much deserted after the working-day, and this has a lot to do with Auckland’s massive suburban sprawl.  Wellington is just like its slogan, "Absolutely Positively Wellington".  It is however, ironic when they print that slogan on their parking tickets.

What's your relationship status?

My partner Richard means the world to me.  We met in Auckland when I was playing as a soloist with the Auckland Philharmonia and he moved soon after to Wellington to be with me.  We both firmly believe we are in this for the long run and we currently live in Waikanae Beach in a beautiful 3 bedroom house with a lounge that looks over to Kapiti Island.  Richard isn't a musician, which is why I love him more!  He comes to all my concerts and apparently loves them!  He's incredibly selfless, empathetic, intelligent, handsome, and tries hard to laugh at most of my jokes.

What do you think are the most pressing issues currently facing the NZ's gay people?

Religious Discrimination!  Grrrrr!  I have a strong faith in God and believe that at the end of the day our main purpose in life is to love one another.  Passed down from Randal to Heather to I, "ask God to teach you how to love more deeply".  The best prayer ever!  However, sadly some churches preach a message of hate and fear and are instead pushing people away..  God made me the way I am, end of story.

What's your worst habit?

Only ever seeing the good in people. I've been stepped on a few times. I'm getting a little better now and becoming less naïve.

Your favourite music at the moment?

John Psathas, Three Psalms Piano Concerto performed by Michael Houstoun and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marc Taddei. This piece is absolutely gripping and rhythmically delicious. If you hate waffly classical music, then listen to this. It contains a Timpani part powerfully executed by Larry Reece that's pretty close to sounding like a drumkit part. Seriously, it's perfect for those who like music to sound aggressive and dramatic.

Your favourite movies?

Anything by Pixar!

Your favourite TV programmes?

Boston Legal. I love how eccentrically charming it is. Incredibly refreshing and I love the relationship between Denny Crane and Alan Shore.

Your favourite websites? I love news, very addicted to it. But most of all, I love the iTunes store!  I love being able to buy singles rather than entire albums.

If you could have one wish granted what would it be?

To conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony!

What's coming up in the near future for you?

You can check out upcoming concerts that I'm involved with at the following URL's or email me on


A video clip of Brent John Stewart conducting a rehearsal of the Hutt Valley Concert Orchestra is shown below.


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Matt Akersten - 25th June 2009