New Zealand diaries

"I took my harp to New Zealand" - a travel tale by Asni

This series of articles was originally published in "Harpa" magazine throughout 2004

Sunset in Upper Moutere

Sunset in Upper Moutere

V. A Trip to Nelson

The next item on my tour schedule was a couple of workshops and another lunchtime concert at Victoria University Wellington. The Wellington School of Music is famous for its composition courses – the grand old man of New Zealand classical music, Douglas Lilburn, taught here for a long while, and many of New Zealand’s contemporary composers have gone through his hands. The university also offers a solid early music curriculum.

My first workshop did not have anything to do with either harps or early music, though. It was a class on German pronunciation for singers. And so I saw myself confronted with lieder by Schubert, Strauss and Hugo Wolf! I relished it – I love lieder, but I am seldom given the opportunity to do any work with that sort of repertory. Anyway, the experiences I’ve gained in working with singers as a continuo player can easily be applied to the interpretation of lieder, and so I had a great time teaching that class.

The next day saw me back on very familiar territory – a masterclass on Monteverdi’s "Lamento d’Arianna". And to finish off the run, another lunchtime concert. I choose my "700 Years of Pop" programme, which may not have been the most fortunate choice – I had an indistinct feeling that some people at the university would have liked a more "authentic" programme better. Besides, in the meantime I had been offered further performance opportunities in Wellington – and I had already decided to postpone my departure, which had originally been scheduled for the end of May, until the end of June, when my visa and work permit was going to expire.

But first, I had the opportunity to introduce myself to the local harp community. The Harp Society New Zealand currently counts 125 members – quite a remarkable number for such a small country. Although there had been informal gatherings and activities since quite a long time, the society was not formally incorporated until a short while ago. This was done mainly in order to be able to apply for funding for the upcoming International Harp Festival, which will take place in Wellington from 6-8 February 2004. But the smaller scale activities have not been abandoned over this major project – for instance, the regular monthly gatherings, that offer the members that live in the Wellington area the opportunity to get to know each other, and perform some of their pieces.

In addition to being invited to the Society’s April harp gathering, Carolyn Mills had asked me to hold a masterclass for her students – another challenge, given that I had not touched a modern pedal harp myself for several years! The event was open to the public, and a remarkable number of people turned up to watch the students and me at work.

Now that people knew who I was, the first private students began to file in. Among the very first was a young woman who had suffered a stroke at an early age and could not use two fingers of her left hand. After my concert at Victoria University, and after hearing me talk about the three finger technique I use, she came up to me and said: "I’ve always dreamed of playing the harp, but I never thought I could. But your technique might work for me!"

At the end of April, I was going to go up north, to Auckland and Hamilton, for some more concerts and classes – but it was still a few weeks to go until then. I used the time to get in touch with concert organizers and arrange for some more work in May and June. One of the most supportive people I met in Wellington was Rosie Salas – a singer herself, she had studied early music in London together with my former teacher, and she was thrilled to have me around, and even more thrilled to learn that I was looking for permanent work.

She had already offered me to play in her vastly popular lunchtime concert series at St. Andrew’s on the Terrace, and now we started to plan a full scale evening concert sometime in June, which would involve a few other musicians. So far, all my concerts in New Zealand had, of necessity, been solo recitals: I was looking forward to the opportunity to introduce myself to the Wellington public in my capacity as accompanist and continuo player – which is what I have always liked doing best.

Southern beech trees

Southern beech trees

But another opportunity to work with another musician suddenly offered itself from a somewhat unexpected quarter: Robin Ward, my fellow triple harp player, was planning a solo recital in Nelson at short notice – mainly to gratify his grandmother, who was coming for a visit from the United States. Since there was so little time left for him to prepare an entire solo programme, he asked me if I was interested in sharing the concert with him, and perhaps do some harp duos as well. The latter we had to invent from scratch, since there is notoriously little original repertory for two triple harps! "Gut Vibrations" was the apt title we came up with for this concert.

On a Wednesday morning at 3 am we took the Picton boat to the South Island again – this time, I was saved a lot of harp related hassle by the fact that we were driving in Robin’s car. How he managed to fit three large harps into the trunk of his smallish hatchback will ever remain a mystery to me, but fit in they did. I was invited to stay with Robin’s family on their small deer farm in Moutere, an area of spread out farms that could barely be called a village, just outside Nelson.

Nelson looks back on one of the longest musical traditions in New Zealand. The concert was to take place at the renowned School of Music, the oldest institution of that kind in the country. It had been founded by the German conductor Michael Balling in the late 19th century, during his two year stay in New Zealand. As the concert was entirely organized by Robin himself, we spend the day after our arrival plastering every available shop window and public notice board in Nelson with our posters. But despite the legwork, the turnout at the concert was so poor that we were just barely able to pay back the rent for the hall from the money we got at the door. Which goes to show, yet again, that any amount of enthusiasm cannot compete with the financial security a well established concert series has to offer.

Although we had to go home without the expected pocket money, and still pay for the ferry passage, I didn’t consider it too much of a loss – after all, it had been a chance for me to visit Nelson, which I hadn’t had the time for on my previous trip to the South Island. Apart from sporting the usual stunning scenery, the Nelson area is one of New Zealand’s sunniest and warmest spots, which does not only make for an excellent wine. The region has been attracting all manner of alternative lifestyle seekers, some of which are quite talented as wood turners, glassblowers, potters, or in other arts and crafts. It was probably a good thing that at this stage, I was still expecting to have to pack my suitcases in a few months’ time – otherwise shopping might have made the financial losses even more severe!

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