Building a bridge from Brisbane to Berlin

An image of Berlin. Photo by Marius Serban on Unsplash

Conductor calls on UQ ties to compose plan for residency scholarship

In a light-filled Berlin living room, the lives and stories of three very different Australians intertwine in the heart of the German capital.

They are a former diplomat, an orchestra conductor and a postgraduate student researching false pregnancies in early modern Europe.

Their point of convergence? A shared alma mater halfway across the world in St Lucia, Brisbane.

The conductor

Like a lot of other eight-year-old boys, Simon Hewett (Bachelor of Music (Honours) ’97) first wanted to be a pilot.

Having dutifully learnt piano from an early age at the insistence of his mother, his love of classical music only took off when he later started learning the clarinet.

“I discovered the world of Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven and that changed my life,” Simon (pictured right) said.

“For every birthday and Christmas from then on, I would ask for CDs, and not just of clarinet music. I became obsessed and I devoured it all: symphonies, operas, chamber music. At 14, I decided I wanted to conduct orchestras. It seems rash now but I’m so glad I did. It opened up a life of extraordinary experiences.”

An image of Simon Hewitt conducting in his earlier years.

Simon Hewitt conducting in his earlier years.

Simon Hewitt conducting in his earlier years.

When Simon accepted an offer to study a Bachelor of Music at UQ in 1994, conducting was not yet available in the curriculum.

However, recognising Simon’s talent, the Dean of the UQ School of Music at the time, Malcolm Gillies, crafted a conducting course for him in his second year.

This opportunity exposed Simon to a number of respected conductors, including Italian conductor Sandra Gorley; Werner Andreas Albert, who had been Chief Conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO); Gwyn Roberts, who conducted the UQ Symphony Orchestra for 25 years; and John Curro, the founder and long-time conductor of the Queensland Youth Orchestra (QYO).

“It's a bracing experience to define yourself as a conductor in front of your peers. It was challenging, but I loved it,” Simon said.

“During my final year at university, I had weekly experiences in front of orchestras: conducting the UQ Symphony Orchestra under Gwyn Roberts’s guidance, and conducting QYO 3 under John Curro’s tutelage.

“John Curro became a mentor for me, and I have carried the lessons I learnt from him around the world.

“After he passed away in 2019, it was an incredible honour to be asked to take over his role as conductor of the QYO. I want to build on his legacy.”

Simon likens conducting to big wave surfing: the stakes are high and if you don’t get it right, you get dumped.

“You have 80 to 100 highly trained musicians with strong opinions of their own; you need to listen, suggest, and persuade to get everyone going in the same direction” he said.

“When an orchestra trusts and accepts you, it is such a wonderful feeling. You get to shape the flow of the music. It’s an immensely thrilling experience.”

An image of Simon Hewett conducting at the Royal Opera House, at London's Covent Garden.

Simon Hewett conducting at the Royal Opera House, at London's Covent Garden.

Simon Hewett conducting at the Royal Opera House, at London's Covent Garden.

After graduating from UQ with first-class honours and a University Medal in 1997, Simon was awarded a German Government Scholarship in 1998, and spent three years studying operatic and symphonic conducting at the Liszt School for Music in Weimar, Germany.

“I had scholarships for both the UK and Germany, but as I felt the UK was a fairly well-beaten path, I decided to take ‘the road not taken’ and went to Germany instead,” he said.

“I spent three years studying in Weimar, but a lot of that time I was also travelling, exploring museums and art galleries, attending concerts and masterclasses, and learning the German language.”

Simon returned to Australia in 2001 and joined the Young Artists’ Program of Opera Australia. He worked closely with renowned conductor Simone Young and in 2003 she offered him a position at the Hamburg State Opera.

Simon started work in Hamburg in 2005. The scale of the Hamburg Opera was unlike anything he had experienced before.

“I mean, just imagine: 40 different operas every season, 15 ballets, 20 symphony concerts. The scale of it was overwhelming,” he said.

“Every day, we had multiple rehearsals of three or four operas and two or three ballets simultaneously. Simone and I worked together with the chorusmasters, the ballet masters, and our staff of 10 in-house pianists to train the singers, the orchestra, the onstage opera chorus, the dancers – 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“And every night the curtain went up, and the show had to go on. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and everything I had dreamed of doing as a 14-year-old. It was a brilliant time.”

Simon left Hamburg and moved to Berlin in 2008, but maintained his connection to the Hamburg State Opera by accepting a position as Principal Conductor of the Hamburg Ballet, which involved conducting 40 to 50 ballet performances a season.

In 2011, he also accepted a position as Principal Conductor with the Stuttgart Opera. He has since conducted all over the world, appearing as a guest conductor at the Royal Opera in London, the Paris Opera, the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna State Opera, among many others.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have pictured myself conducting in such prestigious places” he said.

“When I stopped to think about the incredible musicians who have stood where I was standing, I felt humbled.”

When Simon and his wife, Maria, were considering returning to Australia, Simon had an idea to put an apartment they own in Berlin to use – for a good cause. He wanted to build a bridge to help other students to travel the path he had trod.

So, a year-and-a-half before boarding the flight back home, he reached out to an old acquaintance to set the wheels in motion.

An image of conductor and UQ graduate Simon Hewett.
An image of conductor and UQ graduate Simon Hewett.

The diplomat

Adjunct Associate Professor Ian Kemish AM graduated from UQ with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History in 1987, and went on to join the Australian diplomatic service. A poignant moment shortly after taking up his first ambassadorial position in Berlin transported him back to his third-year studies into the history of the cold war.

On 30 September 2006, Ian found himself sharing the tarmac of Berlin Tempelhof Airport with the Governing Mayor of Berlin and fellow ambassadors from several other countries to commemorate the lifting of the Berlin Blockade 57 years earlier.

The blockade was one of the first major international crises of the Cold War, and saw the Soviet Union cut off Western Allies’ rail, road and canal access to West Berlin – administered by the Western Allies – which sat within the Soviet occupied zone of Germany. This left West Berlin residents without access to food, water, coal or medical supplies.

The response was the Berlin Airlift, where Allied forces supplied resources to West Berlin by air. Australia was one of seven countries to participate in the airlift. At the height of the crisis, a plane was landing at Tempelhof airport every 30 seconds. This went on for almost a year, until the Soviet forces removed the blockade.

An image of Ian Kemish (left), former Governing Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit, and the French Ambassador to Germany at the 2008 commemoration of the raising of the Berlin Airlift.

Ian Kemish (left), former Governing Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit, and the French Ambassador to Germany at the 2008 commemoration of the raising of the Berlin Airlift.

Ian Kemish (left), former Governing Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit, and the French Ambassador to Germany at the 2008 commemoration of the raising of the Berlin Airlift.

The annual ceremony to commemorate the airlift was one of Ian’s favourite moments in the diplomatic calendar. As he stood alongside his German hosts and counterparts from other nations, he looked back on his time as an undergraduate on the other side of the world.

“One of the things that had led me to Foreign Affairs was an abiding interest in international relations” Ian said.

“To actually be there, in the place where collaboration and friendship overcame aggression all those years ago, was truly surreal.

“There’s an eerie moment when, after each of the participating countries are acknowledged, the beautiful tones of the German anthem ring out. And just at that moment, a lone war-time Dakota aircraft flies overhead.

“To represent Australia and share that moment with my German friends and diplomatic peers was very moving.”

Ian and his wife, Roxanne Martens, were living in Berlin at the same time as Simon and his wife, Maria Crealey. Their paths first crossed when Maria was employed in the Australian Embassy in Berlin as the International Arts Market Development Officer, where she worked closely with Ian.

“When Simon followed Simone Young over to Hamburg, I was working for the Australian Council for the Arts in Sydney,” Maria said.

“I’d actually gone up to the HR department to resign because of the move, and they asked me how far Berlin was from Hamburg.

“They told me a consultancy position had just opened up in Berlin at the Australian Embassy, so I spent the week after my wedding writing a job application, and – somehow – I got that job.”

Maria and Ian worked together for three-and-a-half years during his time as Ambassador, keeping in touch intermittently over the years after he returned to Australia in October 2009.

While Maria and Simon were still in Berlin, Simon was already thinking about ways he might pave a path to Berlin for the next generation of Australians as he and Maria considered a move back home.

Then in July 2018, an unexpected email from Simon arrived in Ian’s inbox: in Berlin, an apartment was going to sit empty. For Simon, it was an opportunity to partner with Ian to create something meaningful.

And Ian didn’t hesitate. “I love this idea,” he wrote back.

A shared affection for Germany and a drive to return the opportunities they had each been given brought the two couples together again – first via email and then in their hometown of Brisbane in 2020.

In a series of meetings, a plan was hatched: Simon and Maria would leave their Berlin apartment for a student to occupy, and Ian and Roxanne would provide $10,000 per student each year to support their research and living expenses. This donation is being matched by UQ.

An image of Ian Kemish with his wife, Roxanne Martens, and senior German Foreign Office representatives at the Australia Day function in Berlin in 2008.

Ian Kemish with his wife, Roxanne Martens, and senior German Foreign Office representatives at the Australia Day function in Berlin in 2008.

Ian Kemish with his wife, Roxanne Martens, and senior German Foreign Office representatives at the Australia Day function in Berlin in 2008.

For Ian, the residency was a natural extension of his diplomatic work fusing stronger ties between Australia and Germany.

“Germany is of course an industrial powerhouse, but it's also a model global citizen – it couldn’t be more distanced from its past. Now, it is the second largest donor country in the world in terms of aid, spending $23.8 billion in 2019,” Ian said.

“It’s a country that is a very positive partner for Australia, including in our own immediate region”. 

Ian cites the creation of an agreement between Germany and Australia to work together on the development of the Indo-Pacific as one of the key achievements of his time as Australian head of mission in Germany.

“We Australians mustn’t be myopic in viewing the UK as the centre of Europe: building a national partnership with Germany is important, and I believe we need to connect young Australians and promote that link.

“The goal of the residency is to encourage a truly global mindset here at UQ.”

An image of Ian Kemish and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel at the New Year’s reception at the Chancellor’s Office in 2008.

Ian Kemish meets Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel at the New Year’s reception at the Chancellor’s Office in 2008.

Ian Kemish meets Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel at the New Year’s reception at the Chancellor’s Office in 2008.

For Ian’s wife, Roxanne, it was the chance to 'unlock a door' for a young person who might not ordinarily have easy access to international travel.

Describing her idea behind the residency, Roxanne remembers encouraging her young children on walks up Mount Taylor in Canberra by setting them the challenge of reaching the first knoll. She noticed that once they’d got there and could see the top of the mountain, it was that bit easier to keep going to reach the summit.

For the residency, Roxanne saw the move to Germany as that ‘first knoll’, and their role was to help budding students on their way.

“What many people take for granted is having a stable foundation and a good education,” Roxanne said.

“The most important part is getting over the first hurdle; then you can see the summit. But many young people don’t have enough support to reach the first hurdle.

“Our goal is to give them that support. We wanted to provide someone – who had never done it before – with the opportunity to live and work abroad. From there, the world just opens up.”
Roxanne Martens

This was a vision shared by Simon, who saw the residency as a way to foster the talents of local kids.  

“Both Maria and I are proud Brisbanites, and we want those up-and-coming young people, who share our roots, to know they can do anything they want,” Simon said.

“Australians and Germans have a wonderful relationship. Germans use their troubled history to think about their future in such a productive way.

“I want to use my connections to help young Queenslanders build bridges to the rest of the world, starting in Germany.”

While Maria said the residency was largely Simon’s idea, it was one that has deeply resonated with her, and one she is excited to be a part of.

“Simon’s always been interested in maintaining a connection to UQ and giving back. He feels like he received lots of support from people when he needed it most,” Maria said.

“From both our experiences, one of the great things about going overseas and spending time in a place – and really spending time there, not just holidaying – is that you bring all that depth back with you when you come home.

“Both Simon and Ian have said they’d like to grow and maintain that depth by keeping in contact with the recipients over the years, building an alumni network centred around this Berlin apartment.

An image of Simon and Maria's apartment in Berlin.

Simon and Maria's apartment in Berlin.

Simon and Maria's apartment in Berlin.

“At the beginning, Ian said to Simon, ‘sometimes when you’ve got an idea, the very best thing to do is just start’.

“It’s amazing to see that happening.”

All four of the program’s backers – Simon, Maria, Ian and Roxanne – are great believers in the humanities, and are concerned that they are at risk of being overlooked and undervalued here in Australia.

They hope to foster a stronger understanding of German research strengths in the humanities. They believe that Germany’s central role in European history, its unblinking focus on all aspects of its complex past, its prominence as Europe’s largest economy, its management of refugee and migration issues, and the coalition-driven, bipartisan nature of its political system make it a profoundly interesting research partner for humanities scholars.

The student

One of the young Queenslanders benefiting from this generosity is UQ PhD student Paige Donaghy (pictured right), the inaugural recipient of the Berlin Residency Award.

Her thesis is investigating molar births – also known as false conceptions – in early modern Europe (1500s—1800s) and how they were understood in medicine at the time. Molar births were described as ‘unformed lumps of flesh’ women gave birth to, displaying similar or the same signs as true pregnancy but not producing a live child.

“Unlike regular births, these ‘pregnancies’ were documented at the time to last up to 30 years and, in many accounts, were described as having characteristics such as eyes, teeth and hair, but were not alive,” Paige said.

“I’m investigating the early modern history of this false conception phenomenon, but linking it back with the modern day, where we don’t discuss them much at all.

“It’s important because these pregnancies are still happening today in around one-in-1000 pregnant women.”

Paige’s heart is set on Berlin, as the city holds some key original texts in its archives; critical materials she simply can’t access in Brisbane.

She stumbled across the idea during a summer research program during her undergraduate studies looking into the early modern period in Europe.

“I started reading a lot of these old medical texts and kept seeing references to these false conceptions, and it was strange because I’d never heard of them before,” Paige said.

“I talked to a few other historians and they had no idea what it was. They said it would be a really great area to research.

“I’ve only met one other person who studies this specifically – a historian in Italy – so it’s a really fascinating area to be in.”

The arrival of the global pandemic means Paige has yet to arrive in Germany, but as she sips a coffee in the temperate Brisbane spring at St Lucia, she speaks keenly of the light-filled Berlin living room she’ll one day call home once travel restrictions have been lifted.

“I’m really excited about being on the ground for such an extended period, and being able to network and really involve myself with the strong history of the science-research culture over there,” Paige said.

“I’m hoping to spend a lot of my time at the Institute for History of Medicine and Medical Ethics at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin – a big research hospital in Berlin doing some amazing research similar to my own – going to seminars and conferences and really just talking to people there.

“There are so many opportunities beyond just the research side of it.”

An image of PhD student Paige Donaghy, the inaugural recipient of the Berlin Residency Award

Celebrate philanthropy on
Giving Day 2020

Last year we celebrated UQ’s very first Giving Day where, in just 24 hours, we exceeded our ambitious fundraising goal of $1 million.

This year, it’s all about you, our ChangeMakers.

We want to celebrate the power of our UQ community and all that you have helped us achieve.

Because of you, we can continue to do good in this world.

Join us online this Giving Day, Wednesday 21 October, as we say thank you to you.