Last week my 88-year-old mother retired from the orchestra she has played in for the last 24 years – Hamilton’s Phoenix Players. Deteriorating vision was making it difficult for her to continue, so she reluctantly put aside her violin. Her fellow players farewelled her with a special afternoon tea – an emotional occasion for someone who has been a keen violinist and member of various orchestras since first learning the instrument in New Plymouth back in the 1930s. The Phoenix Players (previously the Lyric Players) consists mainly of retired people who put on concerts for ‘old’ people in rest homes and hospitals around Hamilton. Happily, there will still be music in Mum’s life: she will keep going to NZSO and Chamber Music New Zealand concerts, and has recently signed up for an opera tour of Switzerland, France and Germany, to the trepidation of her anxious offspring!
My mother’s experience is similar to that of many other New Zealanders who enjoy not just the experience of playing in orchestras and ensembles or singing in choirs, but the camaraderie of belonging to a close-knit group and the many friendships they forge through music. These people also make up a substantial proportion of the audiences at shows put on by touring and local groups and artists.
There is no shortage of such performances, for New Zealand has a long and rich tradition of classical music. Choirs were often formed by settlers coming out to New Zealand on immigrant ships, and Māori rapidly took to choral singing. Operas were staged by touring companies as early as the 1860s, and local musical theatre groups were established soon after. From the 19th century many small towns had their own small choir, orchestra or band. Te Ara’s entries on Choral music and choirs, Brass and pipe bands, Opera and musical theatre, Orchestras and Classical musicians refer to our strong amateur and semi-professional base, and also the crucial role of music teachers and conductors, who were often memorable characters. (Mum has vivid recollections of her first violin teacher, Miss Evelyn Dowling, who conducted a Saturday morning orchestra that was compulsory for all her pupils. At the half-time break, the 20 or so children would be told to change from slippers into shoes and Miss Dowling would lead them and her two fox terriers on a run around the block.)
New Zealand’s classical music scene nurtured some gifted individuals who went on to develop professional careers and gain international recognition, including singing superstars such as Kiri Te Kanawa, Donald McIntyre, Īnia Te Wīata and Simon O’Neill, pianists Richard Farrell and Michael Houston, and conductors Warwick Braithwaite and John Matheson. From it also emerged a diverse group of composers including Douglas Lilburn, Jenny McLeod, John Psathas and Gareth Farr.
Please enjoy our classical music entries, and the wonderful images, film and of course sounds that accompany them!