Bird & Bird partner: Music is one thing we can cling to and seek solace in

The conductor talks Beethoven and Mozart ahead of the Sydney Lawyers Orchestra's upcoming Christmas show

Bird & Bird partner: Music is one thing we can cling to and seek solace in
Thomas Jones

Thomas Jones went from being a professional violinist to a lawyer, but music has never stopped being a significant part of his life. For the Bird & Bird partner, who co-leads the firm’s technology and communications group in Australia, music is more important than ever in the fractured world we live in today.

This led Jones to establish the Sydney Lawyers Orchestra (SLO) in 2014, of which he has been conductor for years. In light of the orchestra’s upcoming eighth annual Christmas concert, which takes place this week on 14 December 6:30pm at St. Stephen’s Uniting Church in Sydney, Jones talks putting a spotlight on Australian music, what Bird & Bird’s support of the SLO means to him, and the importance of being open about mental health issues.

What spurred your love for music and made you value it the way you do now?

Music’s been a huge part of my life since I started playing the violin at the age of I think seven. After I finished school, I studied music at first here and then at Indiana University in the US. For quite a while, I was a full-time professional musician – violinist playing chamber music, soloist. And I was also doing some orchestral playing. Music has always been something that was really a central part of my life. It's a powerful means of self-expression. It's a powerful way to bring people together, it's a powerful way to reach and understand the most fundamental things about our existence – our faith, our humanity. And so I think it's very important that people have music in their life in some way.

2024 will be the 10th anniversary of the orchestra's first performance. That was something we did to commemorate the victims of the MH17 flight that was shot down, but it was also something I had been thinking about probably for a year or so before as a way to fill a gap in the legal profession for a means of self-expression and community in the making of music for lawyers and people associated with the law.

I care deeply about music, and so I'm unwilling to compromise on the quality of what we do. If we're going to do this, we've got to do it really well. We owe that to the composers, and we owe that to each other. It's always been my philosophy for the orchestra that we take it seriously, and we seek to achieve high-quality music. Music is something really precious and it's important, particularly now, in a world that's so fractured. Music is one of the things we can cling to and seek solace in.

What does it mean to you to have had Bird & Bird’s support for the SLO’s Christmas concerts?

I'm very proud that I'm a partner at a firm that does have a very positive attitude towards the arts and to contributing to society. Bird & Bird has supported the orchestra since I joined – mainly our rehearsals during the week are all at the firm, and we have refreshments while we're playing. So that's a tangible way the firm supports the orchestra.

Bird & Bird is a global law firm, and I'm pleased to say that amongst my fellow partners, there’s actually a very high proportion (I would say for a law firm) of people who are musicians or who have musical or artistic skills, which I think says something about the firm's culture. Our former chairman, one of the Italian partners, is a really good jazz pianist. There was a partner (who unfortunately left) down in Munich who actually played flute with the Berlin Philharmonic. There’s a partner in the Netherlands who is also an extremely good violinist.

So there’s a whole lot of support from the firm. I should mention specifically my PA, who has been absolutely tireless in handling a lot of the administrative side – e-mailing players, printing music, organising, liaising with the church and venues, and so on. Without the firm’s support, this would not be possible.

On the SLO’s part, you’re playing in support of Beyond Blue. Can you tell me more about that partnership?

So all of our concerts are free – we never charge admission. That's part of my philosophy, that the orchestra should be making music accessible – it should be a way for the legal profession to give back to the community. But we do look to raise money for charities; all of our concerts pretty much since the beginning have been in support of charitable efforts, whether it be for Save the Children, the Red Cross, the Ukraine crisis (as it was last year) or Beyond Blue (as it is this year and has been before). We try and support a number of charities, not just one. This year, it was a tough choice – I was thinking about others as well. But part of [the decision-making process] is the consciousness that one of the reasons the orchestra is there is to give people this creative outlet in what can be a very stressful working life and profession. And I think it's very important for us to be open about mental health issues – a lot of great musicians and brilliant people have had mental health challenges. So I think it was a good fit that way.

For this year’s concert, how did you go about choosing the music the SLO is going to play?

The Christmas concert is usually not too long; it's an early evening concert that goes about an hour or so. And so we tend to play shorter pieces or movements from larger works. There's probably a greater degree of randomness to [the music selection process] than some might expect, and there's always a balance between what I'd like to do and what's realistic given the constraints. Before COVID, we had two or three concerts a year and rehearsed pretty much throughout the year; this year we started rehearsing quite late. We like to play great music – I like to conduct great music, and I don't like compromising too much on that. At times like now, where there's so much tragedy in the world, a lot of suffering and a lot of confronting things happening, I think it's important to hear great music.

And I think as I've got older, some composers just resonate very, very strongly with me, and probably at this stage, no one more than Beethoven. I think this is perhaps because of his incredible resilience and his faith in the human spirit despite huge personal adversity, unhappiness in his life and his love life, and his deafness. And there was also a degree of madness about Beethoven that was wonderful in the best sense. So Beethoven’s music is increasingly something we've played.

When I was in Vienna for a partners’ conference, I stayed in a hotel right next to where Mozart wrote The Marriage of Figaro. There’s a saying (it's not the original saying) that when you play Mozart, you feel close to God – I think that is absolutely true. There is a genius in Mozart's writing and an otherworldliness that is extraordinary.

And I really have a passion to bring back to life early Australian music – this is something we've been doing a lot with the orchestra now. A couple of years ago, we actually played some works of Frederick Septimus Kelly that “premiered” for the first time in (sort of) 100 years – we might do that again soon. At the moment, we're also playing pieces written in the 1920s by a totally forgotten Melbourne composer called Henry Tate, who was from the late 19th century, early 20th century.

Finally, we’re being joined for this concert by two wonderful young singers from Pacific Opera – Ellen Mcneil and Leon Vitogiannis. They're doing two duets, one from Don Giovanni. I met up with Peter Coleman-Wright AO, one of the artistic directors of Pacific Opera – it was a connection that was in a way facilitated by Her Excellency.

Next week, Jones discusses how being a former professional musician helped him in law, and tells Australasian Lawyer who his favourite performers are.

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