George Ellis is one of Australia’s most talented conductors, composers and orchestrators. His extensive academic training in conducting, composition and arranging, in Australia and overseas has given him the opportunity to partake in some amazing projects.
In 2004, he worked for the Athens Olympics, preparing the Millennium choir for the ceremonies. George has also presented a variety of concerts conducting in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, New York, Boston Philadelphia, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Athens, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
He recently spoke to GCT about his love of music and connection to his Greek heritage.
Where were you born and where do you live now?
I was born in Penrith Sydney now live in Balmain.
What part of Greece are your ancestors from?
My parents were born in Alexandria, Egypt as were their parents. Before that, my ancestry is from various places including Mytilini and Constantinople.
Have you been to Greece?
I’ve been to Greece twice. Once in 1982 with my parents as a break from university. The second time was in 2004 to work for the Athens Olympics, preparing the Millennium Choir for the ceremonies there. I also spent 3 weeks in Vouliagmeni with my family on holiday.
Tell us about the musical journey of George Ellis, what music were you involved with as a child & what led to your decision to become a conductor?
My parents took my brothers and I to music lessons when we were young. After a few months my brothers stopped but I couldn’t get enough. I kept learning and by the time I got to high school, I made some friends who could also play music. We formed a band and I learned about chords and harmony, playing guitar and piano when composing music for them. I then went to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to do an Undergraduate Degree in Music where Conducting was a mandatory subject. The subject excited me and my lecturer encouraged me to go overseas. I went to the University of Colorado in the USA where I gained a scholarship to do a Masters Degree in Conducting. I then entered some competitions here in Australia after which I was hired by orchestras to work for them.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am a freelance conductor but have a base at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where I teach Conducting and do some postgraduate research in Orchestral Arranging. My next big project is putting a large orchestra together for a David Bowie tribute concert at the Hope Estate Winery at the Hunter Valley.
What inspires you?
People who have done well in their careers through hard work inspire me. Natural talent is one thing but those who have had to work hard for success are inspiring. People like Li Cunxin, the author and protagonist of the book and film ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’, for example. They didn’t get by on what they were born with but through the hard work they put into gaining their skills.
What do you think has been the key to your success?
Hard work and a deep unfailing love for music – especially Greek orchestral music.
How did the ‘Conductor and the Clown’ come about?
I was Musical Director of the children’s Proms concerts at the Sydney Opera House and I was thinking of new ways to introduce the sounds of the orchestra to the audiences. I thought a good way would be to do it through humour. A clown comes on and interrupts the concert and in doing so, the conductor takes him, and therefore the audience too, through various pieces of classical music- where the clown purposely mucks up. It’s a very funny concert.
Who would you love to collaborate with and why?
The great man Mikis Theodorakis is 92 this year. While this icon of Greek orchestral music is still with us, I would of course love to meet him and work on something with him. It would be amazing to be in the presence of his musical greatness.
With so many epic career moments, are you able to choose a favourite?
It is hard to go past the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 as a highlight of my career. Conducting the Millennium Choir and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in front of 120,000 in the Olympic Stadium and 3.8 billion people watching on television was a magical moment. And we performed in Greek! It will stay with me forever.
How has your upbringing influenced the work you do today?
Both my father and mother were hard workers. My father owned a cleaning business and would be out all hours of the day and night to make enough money for us. My mother was a well-respected Greek school teacher and worked hard at the Greek Consulate in Sydney for many years to help with the household income.
What is one piece of ancestral knowledge that you remember to this day?
My daughter, who had a very special bond with my father when he was alive, once told me how moved she was when she asked him how it was that he came to Australia. It’s a story I didn’t remember but she said to me that he explained it to her in great detail. When she asked him how he remembered it so vividly, he answered, “How could I forget – it was the best day of my life.”
Aside from your family, which Greeks have influenced you?
It’s very impressive that the Greek-Australians I know here are very proud of their heritage. They are expertly fluent in both languages and know both cultures intimately. They are proud of being Greek and they are equally proud of being Australian. Of the many people who fit this description, two shining examples are Nia Karteris of the Greek Festival of Sydney and Father Steven Scoutas of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.
What is your favourite Greek food?
I love how Greeks present seafood. Nobody does calamari and octopus like Greeks.