A busy man is Stanley Dodds.

About to take up his post as Chief Conductor of Sydney Youth Orchestras (SYO) for the 2024 season, he’s currently on tour with the Berlin Philharmonic in in Japan – which is where we managed to pin him down for a wide-ranging chat on his journey to the conductor’s podium, the great conductors who have influenced his approach, and what he hopes to bring to one of Australia’s crucibles of young orchestral talent.

Stanley Dodds. Photo © Peter Rigaud

As a young violinist, did you have one eye on the conductor thinking, ‘one day, that’s going to be me?’

I don’t think of becoming a conductor as something predestined in any way. My journey was… what’s a way to describe it? Circumspect.

I remember playing a bit in an opera orchestra in Adelaide when I was still at school, which I enjoyed immensely and my contact with conductors in that setting was very positive. We had some good conductors around that time, particularly Andrew Greene. It made me realise how essential the conductor’s role was.

You were studying and playing in Europe in your teens. What was the view of the conductor’s podium like there?

I played mainly in a chamber orchestra, which was conducted by its founder – a violinist who wasn’t really a conductor. That left a mark on my attitude towards the profession of conducting, I think. I almost had the feeling it was a bit of a fake profession, given what I was seeing and hearing. Sometimes it seemed like it didn’t seem to matter what the conductor was doing, the orchestra still played what needed to be played. But of course, that wasn’t an informed impression at all. I was basically a young violinist concentrating like mad on what he was doing.

You went to Berlin to join the Karajan Academy and worked with a lot of big names in the conducting field. What was that like?

That’s when I realised what a fascinating profession it was and where I became genuinely intrigued by it. Every week you had these world-famous conductors passing through. Claudio Abbado was Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic at that time, so I saw him on a regularly. But we also had Maazel, Mehta, Ozawa … all these figures from that golden age of recordings.

Were they approachable in any sense for a young musician like yourself?

I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation, I think. I was quite new to the symphonic canon for a start and coming from Australia and being face-to-face with people that I’d seen on record sleeves or heard on the radio at breakfast time … there was a definite ‘wow’ factor.

Stanley Dodds: “One problem I’ve never had is a lack of confidence”. Photo courtesy SYO

What was your first experience on the podium?

That was in 2000 when Brett Dean invited me out to an Australian music camp in Canberra. We put together a really interesting program. I remember I did an arrangement of a Janáček string quartet. I went assuming I would only be coaching and that the players would be conducted by the concertmaster. But Brett said, “No, it’s going to be you.” I was thrown into the deep end.

There aren’t many deeper ends to be thrown into. How did that feel?

Well, one problem I’ve never had is a lack of confidence. I can wrangle my way through anything. That served me well in many situations, especially in Berlin. For the two weeks I spent there, I had the time of my life. And for the first time, I saw that pedagogical side to conducting – especially when working with young string players.

But then to actually influence the performance by giving the impulses out the front and doing what’s generally known as conducting… it was such a buzz. It felt so natural to me.

At the end of the camp, Brett said to me, “Look, you’re talented at that, you should take it seriously.” So, I went back to Berlin, enrolled in masterclasses and eventually studied with one of the gurus of conducting, Jorma Panula.

I was fortunate enough to conduct a couple of two amateur orchestras in Berlin. It’s one thing to learn conducting theory, with a couple of cameras in a classroom, perhaps. But it’s a different thing to stand on the podium. Like most crafts, you learn best by doing and right from the beginning, really, I was getting many hours in front of an orchestra. I was able to learn very much in a practical sense how to work with the material, how to work with people, and understand the problems that you are faced with, all the emergency situations that can be thrown at you.

The other side of that coin is that you can take a collective of musicians whose individual abilities might be quite limited, put them together in an orchestra, and all of a sudden, they’re doing something far in excess of what any individual in that group would be able to do. If you do the right work with willing people, you can achieve amazing results.

You’ve been conducting for about 20 years now. Does the job get easier?

Well, I’m not what you call a shooting star in the conducting field. I’m more a slow cooker. I’ve been slow-cooked!

But after 20 years, I know what I can do, and I know more and more what I can’t do. And the more I know, the more respect I have for the task at hand. In some ways, it’s like the job gets bigger, not smaller, although the experience means I’m better informed in how to deal with it.

When I first started, the whole thing was just a buzz. I was at the front and I was doing whatever, and, as we all know, a buzz feels great. But now I can perceive so much more of what’s going on to the after 20 years on the podium.

The conductor is a focus of attention. Are you as aware of the audience at your back as the musicians in front of you?

I think it’s like my wife says: concerts where I keep watching the conductor annoy me because it means they’re trying to get my attention. In a really good performance, you’re not just thinking about the conductor all the time.

As an orchestral player I’ve seen a lot of different personalities in conducting, different characters. Mostly, conductors don’t decide how to be on the podium; it’s a combination of what they were born with and all the experiences they’ve had.

How does your experience as an orchestra player inform your conducting?

For all the hours I’ve spent on the podium conducting, I’ve spent at least the same amount of time on the other side, being conducted. I’ve learned how others go about solving the problems, how they go about structuring rehearsals, how they react to the performance situation.

For me, respect is important. How I use the time in the rehearsal is a sign of respect for the musicians. The time we have together is precious time. Why do something five times when two is all that’s necessary?

I’m also very aware that concerts have a different energy. It’s not just about reproducing what you did in rehearsals. People react differently, there’s a new aura created around the work you’re doing and as a conductor, you have to be ready to step up to and address that – and be part of it, too.

There’s a big misunderstanding, I think, that the conductor is out there controlling things. And yes, there are different conducting styles. There is definitely is the dictatorial style, which accepts no deviation from something which is set down in stone. I’ve experienced that as a musician. And I know myself that when I play under that type of baton, it’s pretty frustrating because you’re not being asked to give anything.

I see the role of conductor as being more like a facilitator. My aim is to try and give the greatest sense of freedom possible within the context.

You’ll be conducting young musicians with the SYO. Is that something you approach differently?

There are things which are much easier with youth orchestras – which is OK if you like things to be easy. Young players tend not to question you much, but I actually try and encourage it.

Another thing I try to do is teach how to hear. It’s an essential part of the playing together. You have to listen. You have to learn how to mediate between what you hear, what you see, and what you judge.

What kind of changes in leadership culture have you observed over the last couple of decades?

I’ve been in orchestras for 30 years and, as I mentioned before, the league of conductors I experienced at the end of the 1990s was largely a menagerie of old men. There was still the aura of the Maestro vibrating in the room.

Fast forward to today, and it doesn’t work like that anymore. The young Maestro is much more open, much more aware of the manner in which an orchestra is addressed. And happily, there are plenty of young Maestros now emerging. The world is very different to the one I began working in and it’s a better place – especially for women. The emergence of many young female conductors is a corrective long overdue. I look forward to the time when that’s simply not an issue anymore.

Also that sense of the enormous distance between musicians and conductor we touched on earlier has become a lot smaller. And yet one has to remember though, that the relationship between a conductor and orchestra is an extremely hierarchical one. I think that’s why it’s such a fascination to the general public because we’re not used to the idea of someone having what seems to be absolute power.

But in the end, a concert is 100 people playing and just one person deciding how it all goes. For that to work, I think a certain amount of mutually respectful distance is necessary. The conductor-as-best-buddy model isn’t one I’ve seen work well over an extended period of time. But I find you can respect the distance without resorting to unnecessary formality.

Sydney Youth Orchestra performs Symphonic Voyages at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, 23 November. For more information on SYO concerts, visit this link.

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