A conversation with the conductor and page turner Kelly Lovelady
Artists have suffered tremendously from the pandemic. Many have lost their income and realized that the safety net protecting them is even more fragile than they had feared. Add to this the underlying socio-economic challenges that the cultural critic William Deresiewicz aptly depicts in his recent book, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech. At first glance, the democratization of the arts through digital technology might let you conclude that “There’s never been a better time to be an artist.” Many artists, however, feel differently: There’s never been a worse time to be one. Despite (or in fact, because of) the gig economy, as well as the long tail of digital platforms and crowdsourced funding mechanisms, revenue for most creators is falling. They may now have “universal access” to the audience, but “at the price of universal impoverishment,” as Deresiewicz puts it.
As we are all desperately wanting to turn the page and open a new chapter, I spoke with someone who’s not just an artist but also professional page turner: London-based Australian conductor Kelly Lovelady. Lovelady is the founding Artistic Director of Ruthless Jabiru, a chamber orchestra dedicated to exploring humanitarian and social justice stories through new music to promote compassion, sustainability, and social consciousness.
Kelly, you are a conductor who also works as a professional page turner. What are the key skills of a page turner?
Everything I bring to my freelance score reading work, page turning included, originates in my skillset as a conductor, but in some ways, I think there’s also a conceptual overlap.
There’s more to it than just being the hands-free mechanism for a celebrity pianist! A great page turner has to be an exceptional musician with an intuitive sense of phrasing, structure, and performance. Spatial awareness and physicality are obviously important, as is a complete trust in your score reading ability. You have the power to make or break a performance, not least for the performer themselves, so your capacity to adapt, react, radiate calm, and solve problems on the fly is really where it’s at.
Not every job is the same: sometimes the repertoire and/or player need you to be a machine and for others, the approach is a much more human, delicate touch. You need to know when and how to navigate between these – essentially by reading every breath, movement, flicker of the eye.
All the qualities I’ve listed here apply as much to conductors as they do to page turners. Both are intermediaries who facilitate the best work in others. Both require 100% reliability, laser-focus, unflappability in the face of every possible logistical nightmare; and all with very little margin for error. Both hinge on the ability to elicit the trust of colleagues. The key difference for me is that as a conductor I go in completely prepared, but as a page turner it’s the opposite – for the most part, the job is to sightread hugely complex music in real-time, before a vast paying audience and often broadcast live to the nation and beyond. I think of page turning as classical music’s answer to extreme sport: it helps to be an adrenalin junkie! Every hair-raising ride further steels your nerves. For me, it’s all conditioning for when I take to the podium.
As an artist, how has the COVID pandemic affected you?
I’m definitely not alone in having lost significant opportunities and engagements due to the closure of theatres. While obviously a necessity, this was disappointing as the process of generating conducting work is usually years in the making. At the same time, I’ll admit part of me felt strangely comforted that the financial instability I’ve weathered for years as a cultural freelancer was suddenly normalized.
Many from our sector and beyond began speaking out about coping mechanisms and lifehacks that had previously felt taboo. I’ve always seen financial creativity as one of the foundations for creativity more broadly: there’s a lot to be said for resourcefulness, and in that sense, the resilience of the self-employed workforce saw us well-equipped.
Alongside guest conducting, assistant conducting, and score reading for the major London orchestras and arts centers, my musical practice also includes creative direction of my London chamber orchestra, Ruthless Jabiru. As Artistic Director and conductor of my own ensemble, I realized my unique ability – and responsibility – to create work for my members to relieve the financial and emotional strain of the moment. As a result, I’ve devised an ambitious series of recording projects culminating in the orchestra’s debut album for 2021 release. The project isn’t public-facing at this stage, and with the right venue partner on board to ensure safety protocols for our players and team, it should be COVID-proof!
I’m excited about the creative vision: working in collaboration with composer Soosan Lolavar on the beautiful, intensely expressive music borne of her combined British and Iranian heritage. We’ve just completed a successful Crowdfunder campaign, but I still have a lot more funding to source before I can get this project off the ground. It’s a harrowing thought considering the competition for grant funding even before the arts sector was decimated by all this, but I can’t see any alternative than to throw all my energies into bringing it to fruition. I’m aiming to engage 40+ musicians and creative freelancers across the series so the budget’s not small, but a lot of us really need this to happen.
Did you feel supported by the UK government or other institutions?
I’m sorry to say it, but no. I’m grateful for emergency grants from Help Musicians UK and the Theatre Artists Fund, but here in the UK a huge number of professional musicians and creatives were ineligible for government-sponsored aid for various reasons, myself included. The last numbers I read were that 2.9 million self-employed and 40% of career musicians had been excluded from the official support system – that’s a lot of us to have slipped between the cracks. People are in both material and spiritual crisis; which is why I’m so compelled to engage them in a rich and fulfilling project uncompromised by the limitations of the pandemic.
It’s more than just a paycheck – it’s a reunion, a creative outlet, a mental challenge, a transformational experience, an overcoming of hardship. This project will be a lot of different things for different people but all vital for us to get through this.
What are your personal hopes for this year?
Definitely to get our album funded, recorded, and out into the world! 2021 will be Ruthless Jabiru’s 10th year in existence, so I’d really love to be in a position to celebrate that through our album launch, short film series and a handful of other anniversary projects. It all hinges on finance, so if anyone reading this would like to join us in the solution – get in touch!
I’d also love to return to larger-scale team projects, working as a guest- or assistant conductor on symphonic and opera productions. The bonding that happens on these is next-level: you go in not knowing anyone and come out the other side as part of a family who will be forevermore connected by the memory of those intense weeks and months of work together.
The shared experience of immersion and evolution within a score with a conductor you’re assisting is equally powerful. I adore these projects! It’s powerful to be given voice and purpose within a team like that – especially when you consider it in relief to the curious headspace of the page turner, where the more invisible you can make yourself, the better you’re doing your job.