Letters of note
At 31, Gabriel van Aalst is now the chief executive of one of the world’s most successful chamber orchestras – and it’s all thanks to his audacious letter-writing skills.
It’s been quite a year for Gabriel van Aalst, the newly-appointed chief executive of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, London. He’s just had lunch with the Orchestra’s founder and life president, the 90-year-old and ever active, Sir Neville Marriner, to discuss next season’s concerts.
And he’s been involved in a whirlwind of international celebrations in honour of Sir Neville’s 90th birthday − all spearheaded by the man himself. Fortunately van Aalst is a happy traveller, given that he spends approximately three months a year on the road, overseeing a hundred concerts.
“I’m this 31-year-old from Australia, who has somehow been entrusted to celebrate this man. When I was a kid, Neville and the Academy constituted this conglomerate of quality. I never dreamed in a million years I’d ever be involved with them,” he reflects.
Van Aalst, a UTS graduate, has had the privilege of working closely with Sir Neville since 2012. He has also been working with guest conductor, American pianist Murray Perahia, as well as the orchestra’s music director, Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest virtuoso violinists.
“The most amazing experience is to sit down with these three luminaries and discuss what we’re going to play, when and where,” says van Aalst.
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields began with a small group of friends in 1958 in Sir Neville’s front room. It’s since become one of the most recorded orchestras in the world.
“Everyone talks about the Academy sound. It’s this beautiful rich lyrical string sound – that’s what it’s famous for,” explains van Aalst. “Sir Neville was a string player and it’s always been built of the finest instrumentalists in London. Chances are, if you have a classic collection, we’ll be on it.”
Van Aalst has English-Irish roots, and a legal and theatre family background. It’s no surprise, then that he graduated from a double-degree in Media Arts and Production and Law at UTS in 2006. He fondly remembers making dozens of experimental films.
“UTS provided an amazing environment with fantastic on-site facilities”, he recalls. “There was the right balance between theory and hands-on access to equipment, we could go out and just do everything. That was really exciting.”
He wrote the first of a number of letters in response to an ad on the university notice board, which resulted in a stint on Jim Henson’s sci-fi TV series, Farscape.
“As a 21-year-old, working on this huge international film project was just the best.”
Van Aalst went on to work at SNTV Nickelodeon cartoon channel, all the while playing piano and violin for the Sydney Youth Orchestra, which he’d been involved with since the age of 19.
Upon graduating from UTS, he wrote another letter to the producers of The Producers, the Mel Brooks musical in Melbourne. He informed them, cheekily, that they should hire him because he wanted to be a producer too. To his surprise, his unorthodox approach worked and he was invited to join the production.
However, it was a chance meeting (and a few more unorthodox letters) with John Bell of the Bell Shakespeare Company and producer Andrew McKinnon at a Sydney Youth Orchestra party that landed him the role of associate producer and company manager on One Man, where he worked with renowned actor and theatre director Steven Berkoff. At that stage, he was 24 and still hadn’t completed his law degree at UTS.
He toured Australia for three years with, among other shows, Porgy and Bess. This, plus working with Miriam Margolyes (pictured, top right), whom he describes as “hysterical”, marked a turning point in his career.
“If Andrew McKinnon hadn’t taken that risk, I would not be where I am today,” he says. “That job allowed me to develop my skills, finish my law degree and made me realise I wanted to work in the arts.”
A new opportunity came in the form of a job as orchestra manager for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Living on the road, doing 150 concerts a year gave him the confidence to move to London.
His biggest challenge now is to expand The Academy’s presence in the UK, and to make it as viable and successful at home as it is abroad.
Story by Lorenza Bacino