The New Zealand Connection

New Zealand music has always been very special to me, perhaps primarily because it began to really thrive in the 60s as I was growing up myself. Living out of New Zealand now for well over half my life, when I perform works by New Zealand composers at the keyboard, I feel connected. Here are a few tales about my New Zealand connections.

Douglas Lilburn: Sonatina n° 2

In 1994, I was engaged to play in the chamber music series of the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris in the Salle Gaveau in Paris. The idea was that an invited soloist would perform both standard solo repertoire and chamber music with members of the orchestra. The orchestra were being given financial support by an organisation called Musiques Nouvelles en Liberté. One of the conditions for this grant was a work written after 1960 in each concert. We were performing the Zemlinsky Trio for clarinet, cello and piano with Richard Vieille, clarinet and Paul Boufil, cello, and the Ravel Trio with Philippe Bride, violin, and Paul Boufil, cello. The solo works I chose were 4 Studies op.4 by Karol Szymanovski, and the Sonatina n° 2 by Douglas Lilburn. The Lilburn, written in 1962, would be the work which would qualify this concert for a financial grant. Lilburn’s name appeared on the posters for this concert alongside Ravel, Zemlinsky, Szymanovski. Plus the hall was full because this was sold as part of a subscription series. This was the first time I realised how important it is to include contemporary music in programmes of mainstream repertoire. Douglas, being the only contemporary composer on the programme with a full house, received a check and wrote to me personally on this occasion. I was delighted. Watch a video presentation in French of this work performed at a BTW concert in Le Quesnoy.

Jenny McLeod: 7 Tone Clock Pieces

When I premiered these pieces at the NZ Embassy in Paris on March 17, 1989 it was unofficially… The New Zealand Embassy in Paris offered me a recital in the salons of the residence, just off the Avenue Foch, where they had a concert-size Pleyel grand which, in the 80s, had been fairly well kept up and still had a beautiful sonority. In those days the ambassador was John McArthur. He and his wife Piera had always been wonderful to me and they were extraordinary hosts. Piera McArthur is now one of our finest NZ artists. The embassy couldn’t pay me a fee. But they put on great receptions. They had an amazing cook!. I asked John and Piera if we could make it a “black tie” occasion. Parisians love showing off. Dressing up helps them to somehow pitch their ears on  the ends of silence. The programme would be New Zealand and French music. The first 8 Fauré Nocturnes and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit sounded fantastic on this beautiful Pleyel. But what about New Zealand music? I had heard that Jenny McLeod, having discovered the “tone clock”, was then writing her first Tone Clock Pieces. It seemed exactly what I needed for this programme, something totally fresh.  So I contacted Jenny. There were a few problems though: the embassy date would be hard to change and the first performance of 7 Tone Clock Pieces had already been scheduled several months later in Wellington, where Margaret Nielsen was to premiere them…

However, a) my concert wasn’t a paying event…and  b) there was this strong Paris connection between Jenny and I. She had studied with Messiaen (the 5th piece was a birthday present to Messiaen for his 80th!) and I had studied with his wife Yvonne Loriod… Another problem was that maybe the pieces wouldn’t be finished on time. Working from the manuscript, I started on what I had so far, one page at a time. Some days, Jenny would fax me a new page that I would quickly learn before the next.  All this remained a secret between Jenny and I until the first publication of the 7 Tone Clock Pieces when she acknowledged that I had given the first performance on March 17, 1989. Fourteen years later , I had the immense privilege to “officially” record the first 7 Tone Clock Pieces in 2002, for Te Waiata Press while on tour in New Zealand. Jenny was there at my side in the Adam Concert Room in Wellington.  What a luxury that was , feeling those pieces mature for fourteen years before recording them! William Dart said my playing was “incandescent”. The fire had certainly been burning for long enough! Here some extracts from the live concert in the Salle Gaveau, Paris in 2007.

Jenny McLeod Tone Clock Piece no 5 (Vive Messiaen!) 

Jenny McLeod Tone Clock Piece no 6

Jenny McLeod Tone Clock Piece no 7


Nigel Keay: The Dancer leads the procession

I first met Nigel Keay when he was a Mozart Fellow at Otago University in the 1980s. Many years were to go by before we would meet again in Paris where he has now settled. Nigel Keay’s The Dancer leads the procession was dedicated to me and given its first performance in February 2007, when it featured in a Between Two Worlds programme of New Zealand solo piano music and the Brahms Trio op 8, that I gave at the Salle Gaveau in Paris. The Halles Saint-Pierre, a contemporary art museum in Paris, sponsored by the Ville de Paris and quite a lively centre in the quarter of Montmartre where I now live, decided to organise concerts once a week. I was offered three concerts in their first season and played a New Zealand work in each along with standard repertoire. Nigel’s piece was played during one of those concerts and also presented on a Chamber Music New Zealand tour. Pieces evolve in the course of natural processes that performers all know about. I’m always nervous in the beginning, after a few performances the music becomes more comfortable, once you have a few solid decisions well established: but then there’s a third stage when the music becomes pleasurable. I think listeners have the same kinds of reactions to new music. The influence of the gamelan was hard to achieve on the piano. But Nigel has a fine ear and was a great help during preparation. He knew what he wanted from the beginning. His harmonies are very subtle, but his writing for the piano is rhythmically complex. Listen to Nigel Keay’s The dancer leads the procession.

Nigel Keay: Diffractions for piano and orchestra

I performed this piece with the Ensemble 2021 at the Fondation des Etats-Unis on June 14 2007, conducted by the composer. Terence Dennis gave the first performance of this work on September 13, 1987. And it was also performed by David Guerin on October 31 that same year.  It’s a Schoenberg influenced, fairly early piece by Nigel, but I enjoyed the atmosphere we had with the Ensemble 2021.  The piece just seemed so melodic to me. It sings suavely like Billie Holliday.

Jack Body: Sarajevo

Jack Body has been a close friend for years. A fabulous composer, he is also totally committed to promoting New Zealand music as a whole. Several times we had tried to organise events around New Zealand music in France but logistics always seemed to get the better of us. Contacts that I had at Radio France suddenly weren’t there anymore, things like that.  Anyway, I have always loved this piece, ever since I heard Michael Houston’s first performance of it. It featured in one of my Halle Saint-Pierre concerts and then I played it again at the Salle Gaveau, on February 14,  2007. “Remembering… imperfectly” creates a wonderful atmosphere and is such a great title for the first movement. How quickly men forget the violence they do to each other! The “Totentanz” makes one hell of an effect and then the “Lachrymae” is one of the most beautiful evocations of the human voice I know. Listen to the Gaveau performance of Sarajevo.

Lucien Johnson: To the Sea

Lucien wrote the three short pieces that form the work To the Sea for the concert I gave in the Salle Gaveau on February 14, 2007. When I had the idea of doing this programme, it was to Lucien that I “committed” myself. I was looking for an idea for a programme that would be original. The Salle Gaveau is a very important hall in Paris. But it’s also very hard to fill. I had played several times there but not for some years.  When you play in the Salle Gaveau, you do what’s called a co-production with the organisers of the hall, so I knew I would have to convince them. Organisers are not too keen to have 50 minutes of contemporary music in a programme: that’s a lot of rights to fork out.  But somehow I just didn’t want to go out and do the same old type of programme once again. The date the hall proposed to me was February 14th, Saint Valentine’s Day. I thought about my friends. Then I had this idea of asking two French friends to do a Brahms Trio in the second half and play a complete first half of contemporary New Zealand music. It was thirty years since I had been living in Paris. This event seemed like a kind of party.  Anyway the organisers went for my idea and so I did it. Lucien Johnson is a remarkable musician. He plays all sorts of instruments and goes for colors that you wouldn’t even suspect. He also knows how to understate things and I just knew he would compose something first rate. The third piece is stunningly beautiful. Listen to the Gaveau performance of Lucien Johnson’s To the sea.