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

Sulphur and fumes at Rotorua

Sulphur and fumes at Rotorua

VII. Wellington — and what happened next

From Matamata, I slowly circled back to Wellington through the imposing center of New Zealand’s North Island. The range of widely different landscapes that exist side by side in a small area in New Zealand is quite overwhelming. Only a short drive separates the gently swelling green hills of the Waikato from the hellish sulphur fumes and bubbling volcanic mud pools of Rotorua. A little further south, Tongariro National Park is home to giant trees in a forest belt that surrounds the bizarre and desolate rocks capes on the three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu – a landscape that is truly evocative of Tolkien’s evil realm of Mordor.

Maori culture can be experienced in Rotorua – crossing over to Napier on the East Coast, there are some fine examples of Art Deco architecture to be found in that charming old-fashioned seaside town. From there it is another half day’s drive through the vineyards of Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa back to Wellington on the southern tip of the island.

Looking up towards Mt Ruapehu

Looking up towards Mt Ruapehu

Back in Wellington, some changes and some important decisions were due. My stay in Auckland had given me the confidence that there was a real possibility for me to succeed in finding work, and staying in New Zealand. My work permit was valid until the end of June, but my flight back to Germany was supposed to leave on the 30th of May – so the first thing to do was to get my plane ticket changed to a later date. Meanwhile I had been offered a few concerts in June already, so this was an easy decision.

Since I was now going to stay considerably longer than I had originally intended, I felt it was time to look for my own place to live – so far, I had been enjoying Keith’s and Cathy’s generous hospitality. Besides, they expected their son back on a visit from his work in Mongolia, so they needed my room. Carolyn Mills helped me find a room in the house of one of her colleagues from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – an offer I gladly took after seeing his house with its marvellous view across Cook Stait to the South Island. This is how I first came to live in Island Bay – and I have since made a point of staying in the area.

The next task was to try and get my work permit extended – to that end, I had to first find some work! So I got to work and used every contact I had made in the past two and a half months, and by the end of a few weeks I had managed to not only get quite a few written offers of work for the next few months, but also letters of recommendation from some of the leading musicians in Wellington. The concert season promised to be busy – a Monteverdi Vespers was scheduled for the end of June, another church concert with music by Schütz and Monteverdi in late August, and a programme of Purcell and Handel in September. All of these could use some harp continuo! Then there were plans for an early music festival in Christchurch in November, and of course the Harp Festival in February. I even had an offer for a series of concerts in 2005.

By now I also had some regular private students, and they all wrote me letters stating they intended to continue their lessons. Now the only problem would be to convince the immigration officials to give me another work permit – and given the usual reluctance of bureaucracy to accept freelance work as a legitimate occupation, I was none too confident that all this would be sufficient.

My sturdy Nissan Terrano - and the South Island spring

My sturdy Nissan Terrano - and the South Island spring

But first, there was another concert on my schedule: Rosie Salas, from St. Andrew’s on the Terrace, had offered to organize a full-scale evening concert at her church in addition to the lunchtime concert I had already played there. She suggested that I do a programme together with Pepe Becker, one of Wellington’s star sopranos. This concert would be my first opportunity to present myself to the Wellington public as an accompanist and continuo player – the thing I love to do best. Pepe is not only well versed in classical and modern repertory, she also runs her own early music vocal ensemble, and is a wonderful interpreter of Celtic folk songs. Hence, we decided on a programme of love songs, laments and lullabies throughout the centuries – starting with a French medieval love song, stopping by Monteverdi’s "Lamento d’Arianna" and finishing with Gershwin’s "Summertime". Joining us was Robin Ward with his triple harp – not only to do some of our harp duos, but also to join in the accompaniment. And the lush sound of a two triple harp accompaniment is certainly not something that can be experienced anywhere very often!

Working with Pepe was sheer pleasure, and she has since proved not only a great musical partner, but also another valuable contact in the Wellington music scene. Another important person I met was Robert Oliver, viol player and music director at one of the Wellington churches, and one of the old hands in the local early music scene. His address had actually been given to me by a friend in Europe, but it was only now that I finally got in touch with him. He almost instantly developed a whole range of projects that could use a harp – including a performance of some of the harp consorts by William Lawes. A rare treat, for I had not had the opportunity to perform these pieces since my student days, for lack of a suitable ensemble.

With all these people backing me up, I finally felt I could try and apply for my work permit extension. And just as I was about to hand my application in, there came the biggest surprise of all: Robin Ward had decided to take his degree in early harp, which he hadn’t been able to do previously for lack of a suitably qualified teacher – and Victoria University was offering me a position as artist teacher.

This changed the situation in a number of ways: so far, I had just been playing for time, trying to stay in the country for as long as possible and see how things went. Now, I would have to make a commitment to staying at least until Robin finished his degree – and with just one student, the job at Victoria alone would not be sufficient to make a living. Besides, I wanted to make sure that I would not be handed my hat and be politely asked to leave as soon as my services at the university were no longer required.

But then of course the job offer from the university enabled me to apply not just for an extension of my work permit, but to enter a different immigration policy that would enable me to apply for permanent residency after a certain period. New Zealand is probably the only country in the world that offers an immigration policy which is tailored specifically to the needs of freelance artists (and sportspeople). In fact, the country is trying to actively recruit artistic talent - a direct consequence of the international success of the Lord of the Rings movies, which demonstrated convincingly to the government the potential economic power of cultural exports.

The requirements of this policy were not that easy to meet, though: an international artistic profile, a nationally recognized institution to back up the application, and a financial warranty from a private sponsor, ensuring that I would be housed and fed, in case of need, without becoming a burden on New Zealand’s social security system. Dr. Greer Garden, the head of music department at Victoria University, wrote me a generous supporting letter, and it was a great personal satisfaction to realize that ten years work on the freelancing front had actually supplied me with a sufficiently impressive international profile.

The last requirement proved the hardest – signing oneself to a considerable sum of money, even if it is not likely to be required, is not something one can easily ask even of a livelong friend, and there was no one in New Zealand whom I had known for more than just a couple of months! But I did not take into account the generosity of New Zealand’s people – in the end, I had four different people offering to sign the paper for me! Most helpful in this entire process were my wonderful students: Jenny Wrightson, who ended up signing the paper, and Mandy Wong, an employee at the Department of Labour, of which the Immigration Department is a part – she provided me with invaluable advice on how the system works, and what to pay attention to in my application.

The road goes ever on and on ... - Maniototo, South Island

The road goes ever on and on ... - Maniototo, South Island

Now all I needed was to undergo a health check – in true 19th century fashion, I was tested for syphilis and tuberculosis – and to wait for some papers from Germany to arrive. Then the government announced some very substantial changes to immigration law a few days before I finally had everything assembled to file my application – luckily I was not affected by these changes! A few weeks later I had the precious sticker in my passport. Since then, things have developed much the way they ought to – I have been busy playing concerts and teaching a gradually increasing number of private students.

It took me some time to find a suitable and affordable place to live, but eventually I found a true dream home with a view straight across the ocean to the still snow-clad South Island mountains. A very special moment came recently when Keith Harrison, our local Wellington harp builder, showed me the pilot model of a small medieval harp he had developed with one of my instruments in mind – and a very fine instrument it turned out to be!

I have been involved in all sorts of musical activities in this creatively bubbling place that is Wellington. Currently the city is gearing up for its spot in the international spotlight when the international premiere of the third Lord of the Rings movie comes around – and I am exceedingly looking forward to performing at some of the fan parties that will accompany the big event. And I have just taken my new car, a sturdy four-wheel driven Nissan Terrano, on another round of the gorgeous South Island, just as stunning as the first.

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