two female conductors standing side by side with batons flying while they conduct an orchestra

Sydney Con graduate coaches Cate Blanchett to convince as conductor

6 February 2023
Conducting for the movie Tár takes special skill
Conductor Natalie Murray Beale, a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, is an artist who works across opera, concert, film and video game scores. Here, she shares her thoughts on making the film Tár and coaching actor Cate Blanchett to achieve a realistic portrayal of a professional conductor.
Actor Cate Blanchett is conducting in a rehearsal room. Her baton is up in the air but she is looking down over the musical score.

Actor Cate Blanchett as conductor Lydia Tár in the film Tár. Credit: Focus Features

Director Todd Field’s film Tár, set in the international world of classical music and starring Cate Blanchett as a world-class conductor leading a major German orchestra, is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress. Helping Blanchett prepare for the role, was Natalie Murray Beale, a Sydney Con graduate and a leading conductor in London and Europe in her own right.

Murray Beale is credited in Tár as the music consultant, conducting supervisor and coach to Blanchett. She also conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the Tár concept album, featuring 21-year-old British-German cellist Sophie Kauer (a cellist in real life who auditioned for the film when she was still a student).

“Todd Field is the greatest storyteller, a curious observer, and wonderful human being,” says Murray Beale. “And Cate Blanchett I adore, respect and admire in ways I can hardly describe – as both an artist and person.”

“We worked hard, had many rigorous conversations, and a great deal of fun along the way too. The process of discovering what the music scenes would eventually become was engrossing. It is most certainly a career highlight for me.”

Working with Cate Blanchett

Murray Beale, who graduated with a Bachelor of Music (Education) in 1997, says working with Blanchett was “hugely revealing”.

“She is such an exceptional artist, that she would allow me to interrogate my own creative practice and discover new things. She is extremely curious, wildly intelligent, and her commitment to preparation and continuous growth is very inspiring. She is also a great listener which is such an important quality for a conductor to have.”

Conductor Natalie Murray Beale on a conducting podium waving her baton, she is looking straight ahead, brown hair, black suit

Natalie Murray Beale conducting in Barbican Hall, London. Credit: Mark Allon

Learning to conduct is a very specific skill, Murray Beale told Limelight Magazine, and in Tár the camera takes you up close to the performers. “The joy I find in working with actors is their incredible skills of listening and reacting, being free with their bodies, spatial awareness, an openness to trying new things. We always have the best conversations, too.”

“To achieve a convincing reality in the music scenes, Todd made some unique choices that were as much about capturing an authentic sound as they were about truthful visual elements. He engaged a real orchestra, the wonderful Dresdner Philharmonie, who play and act in the film.

“The character Olga Metkina is played by a very fine young cellist, Sophie Kauer, in her first ever acting role. So there are musicians acting, and actors playing music. The music scenes in the film were all recorded live on-set, not in post-production, so that the atmosphere and the acoustic of the room were able to be captured.”

Rehearsals for Tár

Murray Beale says Tár was a particularly special film for a conductor to be involved in, with so much music at its centre and featuring some of the greatest orchestral works by Mahler and Elgar as well as “haunting” new music by Icelandic musician and composer Hildur Gudnadottir.

“The music scenes are about rehearsing and focus on the conductor or composer's workspace, whether it's a concert hall or in a studio with a piano. It was fantastic to speak with the props department and designers about the many small details relevant to creating a realistic conductor's world.”

a black and white photo of an orchestra packed tightly in chairs in the small Abbey Road Studios with Natalie Murray Beale

Natalie Murray Beale conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with cellist Sophie Kauer at Abbey Road Studios for the Tár Concept Album.

These fictional rehearsals and real-life audio recordings are part of the Tár concept album released by Deutsche Grammophon. The album features performances from Dresden Philharmonic, London Contemporary Orchestra (conducted by Robert Ames), and London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Natalie Murray Beale).

Watch Natalie Murray Beale on ABC TV Weekend Breakfast

Becoming a conductor

Since graduating from the Con in 1997, Murray Beale has worked with many leading opera companies and orchestras and has been lucky to learn from inspirational conductors including Esa-Pekka Salonen (working closely as his assistant), and Valery Gergiev, as chorus director for the London Symphony Chorus. Her repertoire includes a wide range of stage works, from the operas of Mozart and Gluck through to Bartok, Poulenc, Janáček and Adams.

Some career highlights include, conducting London's Philharmonia Orchestra on tour to Colombia, performing in a 10,000-seat stadium with the Orchestre du Capital de Toulouse and directing the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn in the European staged premiere of John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

She now lives in London where she is a Professor at the Royal College of Music and for four years led the team at Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells, as Creative Director.

Studying at Sydney Con

Murray Beale says she was “drawn to Sydney Conservatorium of Music as a dynamic centre for great music making. Its proximity to the Sydney Opera House was also compelling and exciting.”      

On her time at the Con, Murray Beale explains, “all the best moments were getting together with friends and colleagues, dreaming up performances and feeling equally brave and risky in executing them.”

“I was influenced in a number of ways. In my Bachelor of Music Education degree, I enjoyed analysing the way people learn and looking at creating positive environments for rehearsing and performing. In my postgraduate degree, I had more space to develop as a performer and build my skills and comprehension of opera," says Murray Beale.

Tips for young conductors

Does she have any practical advice for young conductors wanting to study at Sydney Con?

“Be curious and passionate about what you do, but don't be in too much of a rush,” Murray Beale says. “The work you do now, and in the future, will require a lot of time and patience. Be rigorous and follow many different people and ideas, for you never know where they will lead you.”

Hero image: Natalie Murray Beale at Barbican Hall, London (Mark Allon) and Cate Blanchett performing in the movie Tár (Focus Features).

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