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Working every waking hour is barely enough for this ambitious Sydney-based conductor

Words by David Matthews

There’s a portrait of George Ellis by artist Evert Ploeg that took out the People’s Choice award in the Archibald Portrait Prize in 2007. In it, Ellis is framed squarely, conductor’s baton held between thumb and forefinger. His shoulder-length brown hair, tingeing grey, flares out behind him.With his arms caught in the upbeat, his face is one of pure concentra- tion, one eyebrow raised, his fingers held out in front of him.

Here’s George Ellis, front and centre at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, trying not to look at himself on the monitor; there he is in sequinned thunderbolt tails in press shots for a David Bowie orchestral tribute concert; there’s Ellis again in Mao’s Last Dancer, kitted out in full formal duds. Jump on his website and the George Ellis Orchestra presents in all white, all black, “at the beach” and “ready to rock”. There he is again in 2011, leading the orchestra on stage with The Church.

He speaks with an ease and a passion about his work: being sought out by countless local artists to add orchestral flair to their tracks, orchestrating Lou Reed’s music for his Sydney performances, working with Hans Zimmer, composing for film, conducting at two Olympic Games in front of tens of thousands of live viewers and billions more around the globe. The list of credits runs long.

“I’ve been trained by the best people, and what I noticed, when I was working with them and studying with them, was in order to be able to do what they were teaching me to do, I had to spend hours and hours and hours and hours trying to achieve it.” He believes in talent, sure, but doesn’t call himself gifted. His talent, if anything, is his capacity to grind, to self-criticise, to always strive to improve. “Still to this day – and we’re talking 32 years later because I started professionally in 1990 – I’ve worked for hours and hours and hours a day. I live by myself, I have my own studio, and I spend virtually all my time on music-making and planning upcoming concerts.”

If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is.

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