Nicholas Milton at the podium… “high-powered, physical and passionate”. Photo: Martin Ollman.

WHEN retiring chief conductor and artistic director of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Milton, takes to the podium, it’s always as if a whirlwind has hit the orchestra, so high-powered, physical and passionate is his directorial presence.

And when he greets patrons at the interval, as he invariably does, he always looks as if he’s been through the ringer, only to pick up and return to the stage with renewed vigour.

Milton, 53, a musical polymath armed with four master degrees in violin, conducting, music theory and philosophy, and a doctorate in music from conservatories as diverse as the Sydney Conservatorium and the Juilliard School, was the first Australian conductor ever to be nominated for a Grammy, but he’s surprisingly modest about his own role with the CSO.

When we catch up by phone to Berlin, he prefers to give all the credit to the orchestral musicians, whom he describes as “engaged and passionate music lovers who are compelled to bring something special to the city of Canberra”.

It’s early in his morning and he’s preparing to rehearse singers for the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s revival of “Tosca”.

That’s the biggest opera company in Germany and it’s been a testing week for Milton because of an unexpected cast change when the leading baritone playing the villain, Scarpia, had to quarantine after a colleague at La Scala was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“And on the very day he was meant to arrive in Berlin, but never mind, we’ve got another sensational singer – it’s a great thrill,” Milton enthuses.

Nicholas Milton.

Until 2027 he’ll be the artistic director and chief conductor of the Göttingen Symphony Orchestra but he’ll be back at Deutsche Oper to conduct Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” later this year and expects that now he’s departed the CSO, he’ll be “taking the opportunity to do other things in Europe”.

Milton has been dividing his time between Australia and Europe for many years now, filling directorial roles with the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra, the Innviertler Symphony Orchestra in Austria, then in Germany with the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra, the North German Philharmonic Orchestra, and the State Opera House in Saarbrücken, while finding time to join the Australia-Germany Advisory Group.

He’s been at the helm of the CSO for 15 years, succeeding the late Richard Gill in the role, while also taking up the baton at Opera Australia and Willoughby Symphony Orchestra.

Milton wants to pay tribute to Henry Laska, the long-time CEO at the CSO, saying, “Henry and I were a team together, joined by success and friendship and a love of the orchestra”.

But he sees the instrumentalists as the centrifugal force of the CSO.

“It amazes me that the musicians are so committed… it’s like a family, a joyful 15 years and an enjoyable and exciting time of my life,” he says.

“After 15 years that has never changed and it’s always been something I’ve been able to draw on.”

Before signing up, Milton had been, among other things, the violinist for the Macquarie Trio, which performed regularly at the NGA and at other places like University House, helping him get to know people and places in the ACT.

During his 15 years at the CSO, Milton became known for having fun with the audiences with his familiar quips, jokes and humorous description of musicians.

“Yes, Canberra always enjoyed that, but of course you can only do that as artistic director, not when you’re a guest,” he says. 

“I wanted to make the CSO a symbol of hope and a beacon of beauty for the city. We achieved that by making the orchestra very approachable. I always feel welcome in Canberra.”

Retiring chief conductor and artistic director of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Milton at the State Opera House in Saarbrücken. Photo: Sarah Walker.

Milton is clearly proud of what the orchestra has achieved, saying, “it’s been a joyful journey and at the end I felt there was nothing in the canon that the CSO couldn’t play. I found it to be a wonderful family, considerate and friendly, coming together to create a moment of beauty”.

He describes the effect of the pandemic on this 2020 farewell season as “very sad… it would have featured the Mahler 5 and a big prom concert, but it was not to be”.

Among his special memories are the time when, after extensive refurbishments at Llewellyn Hall, they were returning with a massive “Carmina Burana” involving 400 choristers. The concert sold out immediately, so Laska suggested they open the rehearsal to a few people – that sold out, too.

“At the end of the first movement, ‘Oh Fortuna’, we got a standing ovation, incredible!”

Another highlight was Andrew Schultz’s “Century” symphony, premiered in the parliamentary triangle during March 2013, with Milton conducting, to a standing ovation, wolf whistles and fireworks.

A programming highlight was the development of the Australian Music Series, curated by composer Matthew Hindson who, Milton says, opened up new commissions to Australians.

As for the Proms at Government House, “they are such a Canberra thing… the orchestra does this better than any other orchestra in the country and it’s become a real tradition”.

And another thing, “not all orchestras have placed such an emphasis on hiring largely Australian musicians, this is a point of difference for the CSO.

“I want it to be an orchestra for Australians in Australia’s national capital.”

Nicholas Milton is succeeded at the CSO by incoming artistic advisor, Jessica Cottis.

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Ian Meikle, editor