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Celebrating seventy years of symphony

Happy birthday to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

On the morning of 24 August 2016, to the sound of a karanga, 23 NZSO players, crew and staff arrived at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori O te Waiū O Ngāti Porou, in Ruatoria – a township of 750 people near the East Cape.

They were greeted with a whole-school haka and a formal welcome; they shared kai and were shown a traditional kite made by the students; they performed to the school, parents and local community members, including some patients from the local hospital – none of whom had ever seen a live orchestra. As the players walked back to their bus, they were chased by half a dozen small boys who saw them off with an impromptu but enthusiastic haka of their own.

It is not an experience any other national orchestra in the world could claim.

It had been a long journey, in both kilometres and years. The NZSO is New Zealand’s oldest national professional performing arts organisation, and Monday 6 March 2017 is the 70th anniversary of its first public concert. It is celebrating with a free concert in Wellington – and among the audience will be a few who still remember that first appearance seven decades ago.

The National Orchestra gave its first performance at the Town Hall in Wellington on 6 March 1947. The programme, shown here, included a variety of mostly 19th-century works. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, ref: Eph-B-MUSIC-NO-1947-01-title

The National Orchestra gave its first performance at the Town Hall in Wellington on 6 March 1947. The programme, shown here, included a variety of mostly 19th-century works. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, ref: Eph-B-MUSIC-NO-1947-01-title

Our national orchestra was established in the wake of the Second World War, at a time when people and politicians were finally free to turn their attention to future-building. The new optimism was reflected at the orchestra’s launch on 24 October 1946 when Governor-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, V.C., was introduced as ‘launching a peace offensive in the interests of music’.

It was a humble beginning. The original band consisted of talented but often self-taught musicians, many of whom had never heard a symphony orchestra. They were led by Vincent Aspey, a miner’s son from Huntly who had fortuitously persuaded his mother to buy him a violin he saw in a second-hand shop when he was nine years old.

Seventy years later, the NZSO is an orchestra of international standing. It has played with the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, David Oistrakh, Renée Fleming and Sting, and been conducted by Igor Stravinsky. It has recorded extensively for Naxos and EMI and in 2016 was nominated for a Grammy alongside top international orchestras.

The NZSO has performed in the Albert Hall, the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw and the ‘Egg’ in Beijing. Its European tour of 2010 earned it standing ovations and rave reviews – The Neue Luzerner Zeitung called it a ‘sensation’.

Most importantly, through seven decades the NZSO has tirelessly toured up and down the country, bringing world-class music to our local concert-halls.

Not that it hasn’t had its critics, like one ‘disgusted mother of thirteen’ who wrote to her local paper in 1954 calling the orchestra an ‘expensive luxury’ (quoted in Joy Tonks’ The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: The first forty years). Former Prime Minister David Lange claimed not to see the point of helping fund an orchestra when he preferred Dire Straits.

It’s a question that will surface from time to time, especially in a world where you can carry the Berlin Philharmonic around in your pocket. Depending on where your values lie, there are many answers that come to mind.

One of the most compelling was articulated by an audience member when the NZSO performed Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in Christchurch a few months after the February earthquake. In an email to the NZSO in August 2011, the audience member commented:

Just wanted to let you know that I have come home from the Leningrad performance in Christchurch absolutely uplifted, it was a glorious experience, standing ovation… I felt like I turned the corner and could put some of the difficult last months behind me.

The immediacy and communal vibe of a concert have the power to affect people in a way nothing else can. As the digital age advances, promoters all over the world are finding that consumers want experiences more than products. A live NZSO concert is to a recording what a rock concert is to iTunes – it cannot be replaced.

For us here in New Zealand it’s a long trip to hear a world-class orchestra overseas. The NZSO enables people to have this experience who otherwise could not – as demonstrated by its long but memorable journey to Ruatoria, and dozens of dedicated concerts for small communities, hospitals, schools or rest-homes each year.

The NZSO seeks to provide something for everyone in New Zealand’s diverse communities. 2017 has begun with a tour with New Zealand’s Modern Māori Quartet, and will finish with the annual ritual of The Messiah, an integral part of people’s pre-Christmas celebrations. In between, the NZSO will perform community concerts in Porirua, Palmerston North, Manukau and Takapuna; a Spring Pops tour of seven cities called ‘Pianomania’, with Freddy Kempf; and Lands of Hope and Glory, a (mostly) British programme to coincide with the Lions rugby tour – in addition to its more serious concerts of classic and contemporary repertoire.

Eve de Castro-Robinson was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) to compose The glittering hosts of heaven. It celebrates Matariki, the Māori New Year, and was premiered at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, on 14 June 2013.

Eve de Castro-Robinson was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) to compose The glittering hosts of heaven. It celebrates Matariki, the Māori New Year, and was premiered at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, on 14 June 2013.

The unique way in which the NZSO can serve was demonstrated 10 days after the September 2010 earthquake, when it made its scheduled concert free for residents, hoping the gesture would lift their spirits. Like the Wellington Town Hall in 1947, the Christchurch Town Hall was full to capacity.

In that historic first concert, the audiences knew something very special had been created. Their optimism has been proved well-founded over seven decades. At a time when nationalistic rhetoric is gaining momentum internationally, New Zealand’s musical ‘peace offensive’ may be more important than ever – speaking the common language of music and reminding us what humanity is capable of at its best.

The NZSO and everyone who has been touched by it – whether a senior citizen in Auckland or a school student from Ruatoria – have every reason to celebrate what NZSO Chief Executive Chris Blake has termed a ‘national treasure’.

We wish you all at the NZSO a very happy 70th birthday!

What’s new on Te Ara

It’s been six months since we established the Research & Publishing Group here at Manatū Taonga, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and started taking a coordinated approach to maintaining all our websites. Te Ara is a very important part of the group’s work and we’ve been putting in place processes to ensure its ongoing development and maintenance.

Some of the areas of work over the last few months have included establishing a system for internal champions of each theme – they’ll be keeping an eye on content, helping respond to queries, evaluating and proposing updates and developing relationships with authors and experts. We’ve updated Peoples stories and the Workplace safety and accident compensation entry, reviewed the Shipping, Railways and Public Transport stories, and kept up with regularly changing subjects such as sports and awards. We’re also working through the final te reo translations of Māori content so we can publish these over the coming months, and continuing to upgrade image and multimedia content to replace Flash-based content with fully accessible and mobile-friendly content (e.g., videos and interactives).

Over the next few months we’ll turn our attention to content and technical updates, including reviewing and updating census and other statistics in the Social Connections theme and reviewing the Treaty settlements and Iwi entries. Updates are also under way for the Penguins and Shags stories following new discoveries about their taxonomies, and the Coins and banknotes entry to reflect new banknote designs. Very soon we’ll be testing and releasing a new mobile responsive design along with interface enhancements to improve story navigation, and developing a new approach to keywording.

This work is part of a wider programme that includes a big contribution to the First World War commemorations, with major work appearing in NZHistory’s First World War section, as well as new work on the Te Taiwhakaea Treaty Settlement Stories project. It’s keeping us busy and provides opportunities to update Te Ara in tandem with other websites. Our updates to information about flags, for example, includes a short update on Te Ara linked to a longer piece on NZHistory. More significantly, developing the Te Taiwhakaea Treaty Settlement Stories project gives us the opportunity to review all our existing Treaty and Iwi material and ensure optimum content for our readers.

How many New Zealanders served on Gallipoli?

Gallipoli armistice

Gallipoli armistice

In 2013, I wrote that the long-accepted figure for the number of New Zealand soldiers who fought at Gallipoli – 8,556 – had come about by historical accident. Noting that historians now doubted this figure, I expressed the hope that research prompted by the centenary of the First World War would shed more light on the matter. That research has since been undertaken, and we now know that twice the ‘traditional’ number of New Zealanders landed on Gallipoli. This new figure of about 17,000 lines up well with the fact that about 20,000 troops left New Zealand in time to have potentially been sent to the Dardanelles.

The recent research project overseen by New Zealand Defence Force and Ministry for Culture & Heritage historians investigated three sets of evidence. First, it is now clear that nearly 11,000 men of the Main Body and the first three reinforcement drafts had been thrown into the battle by the end of May 1915. Secondly, Matthew Buck’s research into personnel files – every individual First World War serviceman’s record is now available digitally on Archives New Zealand’s Archway website – shows that more than three-quarters of the 6th Reinforcements, the draft least likely to have reached Gallipoli, in fact did so in October/November 1915.

The clincher came when handwritten notebooks kept by the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General (DAAG) of the New Zealand and Australian Division for the intervening period, June to August 1915, were unearthed by John Crawford in Archives New Zealand. These showed that nearly two-thirds of the New Zealanders who landed on the peninsula in this period were new arrivals, while fewer than one-fifth were men returning from hospital.

The April/May and October/November evidence comes with a margin of error, but the DAAG data is robust. It is now clear that between 16,000 and 18,000 New Zealanders landed on Gallipoli during 1915. Twice as many New Zealand families as previously thought have a direct link to the Dardanelles. These findings give Gallipoli an even more secure place in our national mythology.

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For more information about the new research see New research dramatically increases the numbers of New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli, or find out how to research your connection to Gallipoli with Researching New Zealand soldiers on NZHistory.

Small but perfectly formed

Reed's Lilliput books and a 20 cent coin

What is it about unusually small things that make them inherently attractive and collectable? I have in my possession three diminutive books and their novelty size is the only real reason I hold on to them.

In the 1960s and 1970s, New Zealand publishing house A.H. & A.W. Reed produced a series of tiny books measuring 35 by 50 millimetres. The series included a Māori-English dictionary, a book of Māori place names and another of Māori proverbs, all of which I own. Amazingly, they contain between 500 and 600 pages within their bright vinyl covers.

Quaintly branded ‘Lilliput’ after the island inhabited by miniature humans in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s travels (1726), the wee volumes were published with tourists in mind. They were very popular – according to Gavin McLean’s book Whare raupo: the Reed Books story, the Lilliput Maori dictionary sold 61,200 copies in the 1970s. Despite this, they became too expensive to produce and Reed decided to stop publishing them in 1977.

I wonder how many buyers actually read these books. And how reliable is the information they contain? Reed worked with Māori scholars and leaders when publishing their extensive catalogue of Māori books and while the company’s approach would probably not stand up today (owner Clif Reed, whose knowledge of te reo Māori was sparse, wrote all three of my books) by the standards of the time they were pretty consultative. I’d love someone with the requisite expertise to put these books to the test.

Quiz: Kapa Haka