07/04/2015 05:30 EDT | Updated 07/04/2016 05:59 EDT

Gemma New of Hamilton Philharmonic is 1 of continent's few female conductors

Picture the typical image of a conductor. He's poised. He's animated, leading rows of classical musicians with a sweep of his arms. And he's male.

Gemma New is helping to change that last detail.

New is the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra's newest music director, hired in May after a two-year search. The 28-year-old is also one of the few female conductors in North America. According to the HPO, she's one of two in Canada. (Tania Miller leads the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.)

The HPO didn't plan that distinction, said executive director Carol Kehoe. The selection committee was attracted to New's ideas, her musical pedigree and her personality.

"She's smart and energetic, and very warm and down to earth," Kehoe said. "When we were looking for a candidate that was suitable for Hamilton, she came out on top."

At the end of 2014, the classical music website Bachtrack reported that only five of the world's 150 top conductors were women. Widely reported figures from the League of American Orchestras show that in 2012-13, 80 per cent of American orchestra conductors were female. As for America's 103 high-budget U.S. orchestras, 91 per cent are male. The gap extends to composers, too. Bachtrack reports that there are more composers named John than there are women. 

New is aware of the gender gap in conducting, but she's not sure why it exists. It's historical, certainly, but it's never deterred her.

"I grew up in an environment where girls could do anything," she said.

New has a double degree in physics and violin performance from New Zealand's University of Canterbury. "There were a lot more boys in the class than there were women," she said of the physics classes. "It didn't really faze me."

"I strongly believed, and I was always told, that if you had a passion and a mindset and a career path you want to pursue, then you can do it."

New grew up in New Zealand surrounded by music. Her mother and paternal grandmother were violinists, and her parents had a huge collection of jazz and blues.

'Something none of us could do by ourselves'

She started playing violin at age five and piano at age eight. She played in her first orchestra at age 12, and fell in love with the camaraderie and fulsome sound of dozens of musicians working together.

"We were creating something none of us could do by ourselves," she said.

She first conducted at age 15 with a group of musicians she brought together for a performance to thank a teacher at school. That brought a revelation. "I thought, 'This is the way I can best express music,'" she said. She became the conductor of the Christchurch Youth Orchestra, and went on to get a graduate degree in music from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

Conducting requires mutual respect, she said. Most of the musicians she conducts are older than her, so it's important to keep that in mind.

"I'm not a dictator," she said. "I'm a collaborator and we're a team. My viewpoint of how I conduct is by facilitating or allowing the musicians to bring out the best they can offer as a group rather than telling them what to do."

New first heard of Hamilton when Jamie Sommerville, HPO's former music director, got in touch with her. The orchestra invited her to be a guest conductor, which she did last April.

New is "everything we want in a music director," said HPO board chair Robert Savage in a statement.

'Warm and down to earth'

"She's an outstanding musician and an experienced conductor; she's also smart and creative. And on a personal level, she's warm and down-to-earth.

"We think Gemma is a great fit not just for HPO but for the city as a whole."

New is associate conductor at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and founder and director of the Lunar Ensemble, a music collective in Baltimore, Md. This spring, she conducted eight concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a 2014-15 Dudamel Conducting Fellow.

The board chose her from six short-listed candidates, who auditioned as guest conductors during the 2014-15 season. Each attended community events. Audience members gave feedback.

HPO goers can expect next season to have "exciting music and concert programs," she said.

'Life in its grittiest form'

The season will include Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, as well as compositions from composer-in-residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte, Kelly-Marie Murphy and the music of rock veteran Ian Thomas.

New will conduct the March 12 family show Cirque de la Symphonie, which will include acrobats, aerialists and contortionists.

She'll also conduct Russian works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the Feb. 6 event, Gemma Conducts Shostakovich, along with the Murphy piece A Thousand Natural Shocks.

She is particularly excited about the Shostakovich show, which she describes as "full of human emotion and life in its grittiest form."

This season, she said, "Audiences can hear a clear message of the music and be inspired by all its genius details."