The New Zealand String Quartet in Featherston

Sunday, 31 August 2014 (the last day of winter), the NZSQ came to Featherston. Ross & I hosted one of the Quartet’s intense and fabulous “Salon Series” performances in our old Army hall on  Fitzherbert Street.

The Salon Series has only just started.  The NZSQ website has the programme for the rest of the series at his link:  Tell all your friends and rellies, you’re unlikely to hear internationally-acclaimed music-making so up close.

The old Hall turns 100 year after next and we’re delighted that it’s being used for the purposes the builders intended – to bring people together and enjoy company, conversation and music.

The Quartet arrived before I was out of the shower (after shifting furniture, mowing lawns, cleaning, setting up a ‘green room’).  Don’t think I’ve ever hugged friends wearing a towel before.

photo 1-2

Rolf arrives and wonders if he’s in the right place

Helene, Gill, Doug and Rolf settled in to practise, enjoying the acoustic (hurrah!).  Cups of tea and coffee were consumed variously and some Tai Chi was done.  Rolf played parts of Bach’s Cello Suite No 6 and I had to stop making cuppas to go and listen and watch.  Unbelievably good – I feel the tears well up while writing this.

Our audience began to arrive about 15’00 before the concert and I began to feel slightly anxious – would there be too many or too few …

But no, just like every other event we’ve held here, exactly the right number of people turned up – all sofas and chairs (kindly lent by Ed & Juliet Cooke in Greytown) were taken (how does that happen???)

3pm on the nose we were off – after I introduce the event the Quartet appeared. (from our bedroom).  This was Programme 2 of the two  they’re playing in this series, and began with Gill playing the Prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No 1.  During the concert all four musicians played solo Bach, from memory, sitting or standing as the sun streamed in on their beautiful faces, birds singing in the background.

After the first Bach came Haydn’s Gypsy Quartet.  Rolf gave a hilarious introduction, proclaiming Haydn the father of the quartet, piano sonata, symphony etc etc.  The second movement is a treasure, Haydn writing out an improvisation for the first violin that sounds soooo modern.    The audience was so excited we applauded freely and enthusiastically (encouraged by the musicians).

Helene played beautiful Bach, like a minstrel, walking in from the kitchen, behind the audience, while playing, bending and moving with the music.  The audience was in raptures.

And then to Zhou Long’s Song of the Ch’in – a modern interpretation of a 2,000 year old instrument that is still loved and played  by the Chinese.  Tapping instruments, imitating squeaky oars, one audience-member told me after that he’d listened to this work with his eyes closed, and transported himself to an art film of Chinese agricultural workers.

Doug played virtuosically (real word?) in his Bach, to a response of stamping and shouting and then Wolf’s sunny Italian Serenade (perfect for a wintery day in Wairarapa – we were all transported).

After a short break Rolf opened the second half with spellbinding playing of a movement from  Bach’s 6th Suite, before we were treated to the Quartet’s first ever performance of Grieg’s String Quartet.  I’d never heard this work before.  It’s full of romanticism and Norwegian dance rhythms, in equal measure.  The Quartet gave it their all and did total justice to this man who certainly could write as beautifully and more again than his Peer Gynt.

photo 2-2

Shot through the kitchen doors, so apologies for reflections

After two hours of heavenly music we all retired to the kitchen, for cheese supplied by lovely Paul at C’est Cheese (a shop all Wairarapa and Wellington visitors travel to from afar) and darlings, and the best wine in the valley, provided by Christine and Vaughan at Pawlonia Wines (actually just outside Masterton).

The musicians talked with the audience and merriness abounded.  Some Featherstonians had never heard classical music played right there, before them, in their lives.  That’s what this is about.  Bless you Quartet, for bringing your astonishing playing out of the cities, to us locals.  We love you.

As the daylight dwindled, Peter (Helene and Rolf’s son) and I fed the sheep, Julius and Lucille.  They’d enjoyed it too, they said.

Helene, Gill, Doug and Rolf, please come and visit again soon.  K XXXX



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Cambodia Days 5 & 6 – Siem Reap

Arise at 6am with plans to use the open air public gym equipment on the banks of Tonle Sap only to see that they’re already in full use.  Good on you, Phnom Penhers!  Instead pack up suitcase and recording gear and head down to meet NZ Trio musicians, Gillian and Dan Poynton, who’s arrived back for breakfast.  We all catch up with news of fellow musicians and plans of the people present.  We all lean on Dan to visit Aotearoa!  Our minibus turns up and we load up for the airport, leaving Dan to his day.


Us leaning on Dan; rear Ashley, Front, KM, Gillian, Dan, Justine and Sarah.

Flying to Siem Reap takes under an hour from PNP.


Waiting for the plane at PNP airport

photo-14With Ashley

photo-15Sarah, Justine & Gillian

photo-16And the plane

The flight gives us an eye from the sky view of the country – red earth roads, hot, moist-air foliage, emerald green fields and rivers, rivers, rivers.  Building are beside, or nestled in, foliage.  Which was there first?  Gillian prepares us for the temperature increase we’ll feel and walking across the tarmac is all we need to feel the intensity of it.

Driving across town we’re struck by the number of large, ultra-modern hotels.  Businesses are responding to the global tourist’s interest in historical relics, of which there are many, just up the road.  Queenstown’s mentioned as a similar-styled destination with parallel regeneration .  As the only one of us who’s been before, Gillian says that a decade ago Siem Reap and Phnom Penh were both seriously low-rise, meaning the national and cultural monuments were conspicuously impressive.

Our rooms are at the  Soria Moria Boutique Hotel on Street 24, named after a Norwegian fairytale castle.    There’s a Scandinavian feel – a jacuzzi on the roof terrace, an outdoor swimming pool and pickled river fish on the lunch menu.  There’s a fusion feel – with statues of Buddhas at the end of every corridor.



Scenes at the Soria Moria boutique hotel

Our lovely, and seriously knowledgeable, guide, Sopal arrives with two tuktuks (her Dad’s one of the drivers) and we’re off at a gallop to the temples.  The  furthest from town is 20kms drive, through villages of houses on stilts, cows with tethered noses, roadside stalls and beautiful children with smartphones (or at least mobiles).  I spot a group of men gathered around a small, grainy TV screen.  It feels like Cambodians have leapfrogged several decades of invention, cherry picking their needs.  I hope that’s the case.


Sopal, Ashley and Justine in Sopal’s father’s tuktuk

The houses are stilted to increase ventilation, prevent flooding and discourage insects and snakes (of which we see precisely none).  We stop to shop for hats – one each, from sampans to panamas – and skirt Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the greystone temples, saving them for tomorrow, but marvelling at the intricacy of their architectural designs and carvings, even from a distance.

We tuktuk on, passing other tuktuking visitors, and arrive at the rose-stone Banteay Srei.  It must be 3.30pm and the afternoon sun alights on the stone, setting up a deep blush.  The entirety of the stone surfaces are finely carved with dancing women, smiling women, praying women, mythological creatures and a multitude of gods.  Banteay Srei means Citadel of Women or Citadel of Beauty.  Both work.

The repeated patterns in the stonework bring to mind Moorish art, but that, combined with the part-human part-animal figures and other symbolism makes this unique.


Banteay Srei

We soak up the meditative atmosphere of the ancient corridors and rooms and buy some postcards sporting rather blurry photographs to support the child-sellers, rather than to remind us of this captivating place.

Back on the road we’re off to Pre Rup to watch the sunset.  Others have had the same idea and groups of us climb the incredibly steep steps to the elevated terrace to look over the surrounding area.  Some people split away from their groups , others huddle to take photos.  It’s a party of strangers, enjoying the same experience.



Sarah, Justine and Ash on the terrace of Pre Rup for sunset

Out to dinner at Khmer cuisine restaurant, Chanrey Tree.  This is our last full evening together so we order plates and plates of food, stopping at the frog legs.  Ashley and I have a  Mai Tai (it just feels right).

Next morning, refreshed and chilled, we hook up with Sopal and our tuktuk drivers.

More temples to come.

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Cambodia – Day 4, concert day of O Cambodia


Here’s a rehearsal video (you might need QuickTime) …

Part One:


Part Two:


Still on my To do list: record quiet ambience at Meta House (easier said than done, because the room’s hardly ever empty); record Keo Sophy playing the roneat / xylophone; record Him Savy singing a lullaby for Gillian’s research; record an interview with Anton. 

Get going as soon as we arrive by drinking an iced coffee with the musicians.  Lovely, but not on the list.  So whisk Anton up to his office for the next forty minutes and ask him questions. 

Anton’s from Southern Germany and he’s been here for over a decade.  He shares interesting perspectives about life in Cambodia.


Anton Isselhardt

Back downstairs at rehearsal, I love hearing rehearsals.  Early on in the day the musicians do private practice, all in the same room.  They’re so focused, in their own bubbles, working on individual figures, over and over (at tempo, slowly, with different dynamics, with extended notes during the phrase and finally back at tempo and volume).

The projector’s arrived and Gillian’s numbered her scores so that she can precisely shift from slide to slide during the concert.  Amongst the slides there are images of barbed wire, broken glass in window frames, birds flying in a jagged flock and then the words, regulations from Tuol Sleng, the torture facility in Phnom Penh, and the story of a refugee who lives in Wellington now.

Here are the texts to Gillian Whitehead’s and Jack Body’s works:

 The beginning of Jack’s work is based on the Cambodian National Anthem, it reminds me of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, optimistic and open – more appropriate for today then forty years ago.

It’s fascinating witnessing how these works have come together – with precision and nuance.  The musicians’ musical memories are sooo impressive.

They run the whole programme, with Gillian on projector duty and me at the back of the venue, to comment on balance.  Good work!

Hotel for rest and scrub up before tonight’s 8pm start.

We’re clean, changed, and back at Meta House, just after 7pm.

I should describe the gallery.  Iy’s a long, narrowish space (maybe 5m x 15m) w a tiled floor, and glass doors and wall at the rear.  On the walls is an exhibition of photos – Arctic Bound: 1,000 miles across Canada by Canoe by Ben Woods (very different to this melting heat).

The audience start to gather outside, in the heat and at about 7.45 Anton opens the doors.  They flood into the air-conditioned room, changing the ambient sound of the room quite considerably.

photo-9 The audience arriving outside Meta House

 Within twenty minutes the gallery’s pretty full, the audience made up of ex-Europeans and Cambodians.  Anton introduces the concert’s concept. We applaud the musicians (sooo excited!).

Gillian’s placement of slides works well – giving the spoken texts and photos (taken by her and Jack Body on a previous visit).  The audience is very quiet, although we’d been warned that this might not be the case as Cambodian audiences can be restive, if not engaged.

Towards the end of Him Sophy’s work, The First Strike, he’s written for Him Savy to play both bamboo flute and  Western, metal flute.    He’s written the flute line at a similar pitch to the violin and cello lines.  Ash and Justine’s bows are immaculately matched in speed and pressure and the flute adds wind to the strings – blendilicious.

Him Sophy’s piece and Jack Body’s O Cambodia are loudly appreciated (sadly Jack’s not here to hear this).  There’s a short leg-stretching interval.  I meet up with Nina, a Danish expat who runs a guesthouse in Phnom Penh and, to great delight and relief, Dan Poynton (hurray x 3 and more).  All around are buzzy conversations about the concert – it’s generating a lot of energy.

Gillian’s work, the river flows on … fills the second half.  It tells the story of Sokha, who moved from a village ouside Siem Reap to Wellington via a refugee camp.

Him Savy dances at the end – Apsara  style, looking like the stone carvings we’re to see in the temples at Angkor.  The silhouettes of the dancers are angular – elbows, knees, toes, fingers.  The movements are fluid – minimal, nuanced, subtle.

The audience stands in appreciation at the end and many stay behind after, crowding around the musicians with smiles, questions, comments.

I go outside to capture observations from people as they leave.  Will include this audio in the programme.

Anton’s organised a delicious German  Abendessen – sausages, potatoes.  Dan P joins us to eat and then escorts our tuktuks back to the hotel, on his motorbike.  Big smiles and hugs all round.


Applause for Gillian Whitehead at the end of the concert.  from the left behind her, Justine, Ashley, Him Sophy & Him Savy


Blurry photo of Gillian Whitehead with our friend and wonderful musician, Dan Poynton, expat from New Zealand.

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Cambodia day 3 – Saturday

Hurrah!  There’s a whole page article in The Cambodia Daily about the O Cambodia project, written by Michelle Vachon.  It’s highly unusual for the paper to give space to the arts, so happiness abounds!

Gillian, Justine, Sarah and I get up early and meet at 7am to go walking.  Before the sun fires up the air is really the only time that any kind of strenuous, or even gentle, activity seems possible (it’s the hot season, although heading towards the wet one).  We set out along the Tonle Sap’s riverside, heading South (I think), towards The King’s Palace.  Ashley runs past at quite a speed in the opposite direction – ouch, he’s fit!  We pass Wat Ounalom monastery, dating from the 15th Century and the producer of much smoke later on in the afternoon (which we’re reassured is the cremation of somebody high up, so to speak).
 The King’s Palace
With the King’s Birthday just four days away preparations are going on outside the palace – armfuls of pink and white waterlilies or lotus flowers in tight bud are placed in small temples, incense scents the air.
Outside the Palace is a park, sporting two life-size elephant statues, running (as it were) along the grass and there’s a huuuuge monument to the present king, King Norodom Sihamoni’s Father, the former King Norodom Sinanouk. King Norodom Sihamoin’s beloved by many Cambodians.  The people I spoke to say that he’s quite shy and spends a lot of time at his residence in Siem Reap.  He studied classical dance and music and taught ballet in France.  All good credentials.  He’s probably lovely.
photo-5Running elephant statue
There are frangipani trees in flower (thinking of you Anniemead)
After breakfast we take tuktuks to Meta House, home of the German Cambodian Cultural Centre, venue for tomorrow night’s concert.  Mein host is the effervescent Anton Isselhardt and he and the Cambodian musicians are there to greet us.
I should have said before that the reunion of all the musicians was tremendously emotional (they worked together three years ago, putting on the  O Cambodia concert for the Auckland Festival).  They clearly love, and have deep respect for, each other.  Pictures below!

Justine and Him Sophy

Justine and Him Sophy

photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5

Gillian, Justine, Him Sophy and Keo Dorivan reunite 
The Trio have a concert at the beautiful Amanjaya Pancam Hotel this eve (arranged by the fantastic manager, a French lady, Anne), so they rehearse Beethoven, Claire Cowan, Stuart Greenbaum and Dvorak.
Anton Isselhardt (concert organiser), Anne (manager of the Amanjaya Pancam Hotel) and Keo Dorivan (flute player) 
The Cambodian musicians follow me upstairs, to the empty cafe, for interviews.  They’re clearly a little nervous but I’ve had time with them in the last couple of days, commenting on their incredible musicianship, showing some Western-style ballet moves to one of their young daughters and hopefully assuring them that I’m a friendly, super-supportive human.
I let them know that they can answer my questions in Khmer (hoping that this will allow for more depth and detail) and ask strong Him Sophy, leader of the ensemble, who has the most understanding of  English, to step up first.  I feel that he’s very trusting, he gives long answers and refers frequently to the genocide.  The others listen intently.
Next, questions for darling Him Savy, the female singer, with whom I feel a strong bond.  She’s Him Sophy’s niece, very petite and beautiful, with one of the sweetest and emotional voices I’ve heard.  We giggle quite a lot to begin, but get down to serious communication before long.
Savy’s lovely husband, percussionist Keo Sophy is the new member of the ensemble.  He plays drums and especially the roneat (or boat-shaped xylophone, that seems to play in consecutive octaves).  He explains how he and Savy played in pop groups when they were younger (one of the only ways for professional musicians to make enough money to raise their young family).  
Finally, Keo Dorivan, who I sense is anxious, moves in front of the microphone.  We smile a lot and he explains how, after the demise of the Khmer Rouge, a flute was played on radio, every morning, as a symbol of reconciliation to all people,
Very relieved to have have done the interviews and emotional at what we’ve shared, I go downstairs to rehearsal of the O Cambodia project and proceed to weep (inconspicuously, I hope) for the next couple of hours.
The Cambodian musicians take us for an amazing lunch at one of their favourite restaurants and we head back to the hotel for the Trio to rest before tonight’s concert.
I’m tempted to rest too, but can’t resist heading out into the heat, to look around the neighbourhood.  This time I go for the back streets and find narrow-pathed fruit and vegetable markets, offering the banana flowers we’ve eaten and marvelled over.     

Bookstalls line the street and I pick up a couple of books (detail) for book-mad Megan and me.  They seem a little pricey, but I don’t begrudge the bookseller making a living.

Return to the hotel for a cold bath, followed by a cold shower and head down to air-conditioned restaurant area, to help set up for tonight’s concert.  Still hot.  Find good seats for Gillian and me.


Gillian keeps our seats

The place fills up with people of all generations, including Savy and Sophy from the Cambodian group, and their two daughters and one of Savy’s violin students, who listens, motionless to the whole programme.  Justine, Sarah and Ashley of NZ Trio arrive and introduce their programme – Beethoven Trio No 1 Opus 1 before the interval.  As its catalogue number suggests, it’s an early work, written when Beethoven was in his early twenties, full of confidence and enthusiasm, and speedy articulation for all three players.

Appreciative, excited sounds are heard around the audience.

photo-6 Amanjaya Pancam Hotel manager, Anne, talks with Justine,  Sarah & Ashley before they begin

The second half starts with Claire Cowan’s Subtle Dances (much admired by all, including Anton), Stuart Greenbaum’s mesmerizing 800 Million Heartbeats and the Allegro from Dvorak’s Trio in F minor.

Lots of applause and people rush up to talk to the musicians.  O Cambodia concert tomorrow evening though, so not too late to bed.

By the way, one night this week we went here for dinner:

Unsure of the link to the ill-fated ship, rather it was a shimmering glow of night lights and tasseled standard lamps, the chefs serving delicious food.  On a small stage sat a very young male musician, playing the roneat (xylophone) and two very young female dancers, with the exquisite, flexible hand moves of the Apsara dancers.  The photos on the restaurant’s website are better than mine.


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Cambodia – Day 2 w NZ Trio, Gillian Whitehead & Tray So

After breakfast a press conference takes place. I’ve never been to one before, let alone recorded one, so it’s an interesting proposition. I think about how journos seem to get up close but be out of camera shot and decide I’ll try the same.

The musicians sit at a long white table, with NZ flag bunting, name cards and give well-structured answers to the questions. I crawl around the floor, trying to keep my microphones steady and in front of the people who are speaking whilst remaining inconspicuous – probably not my forte, but a great experience.


We head across town to tro-player, Him Sophy’s Music School. It’s in one of the rebuilt areas, wealthy and spacious, populated by people from overseas, whose young families go to the school for lessons, especially on the piano.


We climb steep staircases up and up to a large music studio and turn on the air-con. Sophy uncovers his pride and joy, a Yamaha concert grand, shrouded in a pink-frilled cover and then one of silver-foil, to deflect the heat.


Justine and Ashley take a while to wait for the temperature to drop before taking out their violin and cello. As Justine explains, to relax the glue in instruments you add water, so damp, warm air can have catastrophic effects.

12 noon and the musicians start rehearsing Him Sophy’s work The First Strike.

The four Cambodian musicians sit on a beautiful raffia mat. They look as if they’re about to have a picnic. The NZ musicians are on the left, sitting on chairs. The different cultures are brought sharply into focus.


The keys of Keo Sophy’s xylophone slope upwards at either end. They’re resting on a boat-shaped soundbox. Him Sophy’s tro looks and sounds like an erhu. Keo Dorivan plays a vertical flute-like recorder. Him Savy sings and declaims, reminiscent of sprechtgesang. Another of Dorivan’s flutes looks alarming like an animal’s horn or tusk (hopefully it’s made of wood … no, it’s a buffalo’s horn). Another transverse flute, made of bamboo, I think, is placed fully in his left cheek. It sounds like it might have an internal reed. Dorivan’s circular breathing means the lines are seamless. The violin and cello have quiet trills as Him Sophy tells the story of The First Strike, how, in 1976, when he was 13, he was forced to work in the fields and he saw a man beaten by a guard. Later, Sophy finds out from a young girl that the worker was her father, and that he hasn’t been seen since. The musicians bend their heads to listen and make eye-contact.

Keo Sophy plays two drums. One resonant, one dry. Him Sophy marks time, open-handed for resonance, closed for dry.


Ashley asks to go back to letter C. Sarah plays soft Messiaenian harmonies on the piano. The cello has a rising pentatonic line, framing Him Savy’s plangent vocal line. Progression from note to note in the circular-breathed flute means every microtone has equal value. The homophonic string parts remind me of plainchant. Him Savy understands the concept of merging her voice as just one of an ensemble. Him Sophy mimes crying.

Lunch at a nearby restaurant – fried potato rolls, beef & seafood with lemongrass, sour soup, iced and hot tea.

One by one, the Cambodian musicians enquire about Jack Body, and pass on their sadness that he’s not able to be here this time. Jack’s the missing member of the group.

Back at rehearsal time’s rolling on. Him Savy and Keo Sophy have another concert this evening so can’t stay past 4pm.

Rehearsal starts for Gillian Whitehead’s work, the river flows on … There are temple bells and the musicians make the sound of the wind with their lips. The musicians’ lines trigger each others’ entries. This is where communication becomes essential. Bits of English and bits of Khmer are bound together by gestures. Of course Gillian knows her score implicitly and directs with precision and grace (thank heavens she’s here).  It makes a huge difference, having composers at rehearsals.  There’s to-ing and fro-ing, questions raised and answered.  The musicians’ memories are phenomenal – instructions about entries, tempi, dynamics are flying around (some are notated, some just agreed to with a nod, none forgotten).

At letter M the musicians all mutter words, Savy iterates a phrase and then sings lines combining open mouth vowels and long closed mouth consonants. The strings play artificial harmonics. There’s a tam-tam (although there isn’t yet, so Sarah calls out ‘tam-tam’). The texture becomes more and more intricate until it implodes and a melodic, quite Western-sounding solo line rings out from the cello.

And that’s all for today. We take a tuktuk back to the hotel, enjoying the natural air-conditioning.

Him Sophy comes back to the hotel to debrief. They’re all mighty happy to have achieved so much on the first day, reminding themselves of the music they played in NZ three years ago.

We all head to my room to use the Macbook to reorder the Powerpoint presentation slides to be used during all the pieces on Sunday eve. Justine’s an absolute whizz, so she taps the keyboard with instruction from Gillian. A few hours later the job’s done and an email’s gone to Gao Ping, in Beijing, asking him to add the Chinese characters for their four China concerts in the next few weeks.


Sarah, Justine, Gillian and a photo-bomber in my room!

We leave for the dark of Sisowath Quay looking for food, which is abundant. It’s a strip of neon-lit, sophisticated restaurants, but we walk down a side street to find it’s a different scene within a few steps.

Back on the Quay we check into a busy restaurant and get shown to the empty upstairs, air-conditioned room, overlooking the main dining area. We share plates, laughter, stories and opinions. Time with this group is a blast.

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In Cambodia with the New Zealand Trio

Phnom Penh – arrival and Day 1
Through visas at the airport in a trice.  Efficient, minimal queuing, hurrah.  Feet on Cambodian soil, and in, and under (it’s quite dusty, due to maximum construction in the city – demolition, reconstruction, construction).  
Picked up at the airport and driven for an hour or so across town – oohing and aahing  at the stupendous skills of the scooter-riders, moving (as Justine and Sarah describe) like shoals of fish, together and around each other with a mind for each others’ personal space.  Which is a relief, given the absence of road markings or any other handy hints.
The roads are chocker already, and then we run into a march of CNRP (Cambodian National Rescue Party) supporters.  They fly the Cambodian flag high, from scooters and lorries, making their point, that the Opposition Party is alive and well.
CNRP supporters
CNRP supporters
Blasted from all sides with sights, sounds and smells – want to look in every direction at once, stop blinking and burn it into my brain.
CNRP supporters with traffic controller
 Traffic control
Arrive at the Amanjaya Pancam Hotel, on the side of Tonle Sap, a wide, soup-like, river, one of four that converge in the city.  The most well-known is probably the Mekong which, I’m told, changes its direction of flow during each year.  Could be freaky, if you didn’t know.
Wiring problems
Wiring issues!
At the hotel, Anton Isselhart is waiting for us.  He’s a charismatic German expat who runs concert series here and elsewhere in Asia, encouraging significant collaborations and developing audiences.  Discussion centres around the weekend’s concerts – one at the hotel, on Saturday, to celebrate a week-long New Zealand food and wine festival, the other, O Cambodia, at Mete House, on Sunday.  Anton describes to us the expectations of Cambodian audiences, that a) concerts aren’t too long and, b) concerts aren’t too long.  Some biting of lips is witnessed as negotiations and re-adding of durations takes place.  A happy agreement is reached and it’s time for beer.
Anton departs and we settle for dinner in the blissfully air-conditioned dining room, sharing plates of amok, lok lak, curry and pad Thai.  
Tomorrow’s going to start with a press conference and then major rehearsals for the Trio and Gillian, with me moving around (hopefully like those fishy shoals) collecting audio for Sound Lounge programmes on RNZ Concert.
Very excited, but not too much to sleep.    (like this chap)
Student napping on way home from uni!
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Link to the Forbidden City concert

The recordings I made in Beijing were compiled into 5 hours of audio that went to air in February 2014. You can listen to it at this link:


Click on 04 Feb to find sound files of 5 x 1hr episodes about the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra & NZSQ collaboration

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Concert Day

Tuesday – Concert Day dawns, there’s last minute music talk over breakfast. We’re wondering how rehearsals will run today. There’s a plan for two runs-through in the venue before the concert at 19:30.

I help Jack send some emails using wifi in reception (there’s none in our rooms). Bus to the conservatory at 12 noon to pick up the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra musicians and their instruments. Total musicians – 17. Even though we’re fit and able we’re not allowed to help carry the pile of percussion instruments. An army of students (at least 15) has been conscripted for that purpose. It’s freezing, as pointed up by the ice-covered rivers and lakes on our way to the Forbidden City.

Our coach

Off to the conservatory

For the second time this trip (one being my first ‘lost’ day) we pass the hutong (the narrow alleys and little houses of the old city. Their stonework is grey and dusty-looking but I guess that with a water-blaster they’d come up sparkling.

We arrive at the Forbidden City. The women of the ensemble have already had their hair and makeup done. They look very beautiful.

We stop in one of the outdoor precincts for an extended photoshoot.

the Orchestra & Quartet & composers

Selfie with Xiao Ma

Yang Jing, one of the most famous pipa players in China

Meanwhile on stage, setup’s from scratch. Mr Lin the sound engineer and the students set seats, music stands, percussion instruments, microphones, and speakers (for Jack’s piece).

Rehearsal starts at 3:00 and progresses … slowly.

Jack takes a nana nap w Wang Wei

I explore the auditorium – it’s huge, seating 1,200 in red and gold upholstery. The sound is remarkably even and clean for such a large, fabricked area. Floor is wood though, sound reflectors from the ceiling look like perspex. Effective.

Very hungry and the musicians look like skipping lunch. That wasn’t a good idea so head out into the crisp afternoon to find food. There are stray cats around and about, two curled up tightly together in the sun to keep warm. Stumble upon an authentic-looking teahouse in the centre of Jingshan Park. Two young women with no English (why should they?) entice me with the tea menu but I head for the page of snacks and buy practically all they have, which turn out to be a mix of green tea and bean paste teacakes. Now, to get them back to the hungry musicians.

Easier said than done. I can retrace my steps as well as the next person, only I hadn’t realised that Jingshan Park’s based on the design and sensibilities of a maze. One false move and … oops. I wander lonely as a cloud for an hour or so, sometimes stumbling upon park maps, assessing my position and heading for where I think the Forbidden City Concert Hall should be. It’s an elusive building, sometimes visible amongst the trees, but inaccessible behind stone walls. This would probably be fun in the summer, with friends, or for young lovers, but my patience is wearing thin. I feel like curling up with the stray cats, if only I could find them.

An Imperial cat

Eventually, the magical path to the hall appears and I rush in. Nobody’s missed me, relief, I think. The musicians and students dig into the tea cakes hungrily and smile as the sugar hits the spot.

The rehearsal has stopped and anxious, grumpy faces are visible. It turns out the click track for Jack’s piece (the musicians wear earphones to hear the beat) has too much of the recorded soundtrack present too. Helene steps up and organizes runs-through of Tabea Squire’s effective duets while the issue’s being resolved. Tabea’s paired up instruments from the Quartet with Chinese instruments in four duets, that introduce the possibilities, similarities and differences of each culture.

Xiao Ma (looks like a pop star – as I may have mentioned) has told Dylan that he’s going to perform the original vocal line of his piece as the rework’s “too simple”. Fingers crossed, legs crossed, everything crossed.

We head to the basement for dinner and then back upstairs for a very formal reception with the New Zealand Ambassador to China, Carl Worker and a Chinese Dignitary whose name escapes me, apologies CD. The format seems to be that they hold a private conversation (through interpreters) and we listen in. Jack Body’s name comes up often, as does Gao Weijie’s. We’re served jasmine tea.

The Very Formal Function

Gao Ping and his father Gao Weijie

Back to the auditorium – it’s buzzing with people, mostly young, mostly Chinese. On one side of me are two young guys wearing baseball caps, on the other a young couple.

The Orchestra start with Gao Ping’s piece for Chinese instruments and piano. Gao Ping’s the soloist. He uses the keyboard and inside the piano and then he breaks into voice. The music’s full of colour and air.

Tabea’s Duets are next – an excellent way to introduce the two cultures working together. They’re intricate lines that wind around the space.

Dylan’s work’s next and so Xiao Ma walks on with Liu Shun. This is quiet music, designed to draw in focused listeners with beautiful sounds The woman on my right leans forward slowly and rests her elbow on her knees, chin in her hand she listens exactly as I hoped people would. The hall gets quieter and quieter. Dylan’s achieved the effect he sought.

‘Beat’ is the name of Jack’s work. He’s based the score on field recordings he made in China decades ago. They’re of workers, chanting and singing as they go about their daily tasks. All the musicians commit to shouted sections, especially the shouts of the cement-smasher. The man in front of me jumps out of his skin, smiling in recognition. He turns to his companion and sways and shouts in time to the recording.

Somebody in the audience has a red light pointer and seems to think it’s funny to shine it around the crowd. It’s not funny. It keeps landing on my notebook. Slowly I realise it’s one of the many doormen/guards checking that we’re not taking photos or knitting. We’re not. The audience is very well-behaved and enthusiastic.

The Forbidden City Concert Hall empty

And complete with audience

Michael Norris’s work (to have accompanying film by David Downes, but not today) surges and recedes in texture, dynamic and activity. The musicians tap together pebbles (I wonder if they’re from New Zealand, they sound like it, and if so, how he got them through customs). They sound like dripping water. How come? Don’t know.

Xiao Ma comes back on stage to sing Gao Weijie’s traditional songs. They reference archetypal film soundtracks very effectively. XM’s voice captures the legato lines and reels them out to draw us in.

All around the auditorium are large bunches of flowers and at the end of every piece people crowd to the edge of the stage to hand them to musicians. Helene has a stunning bunch of white (lilies?) under her chair. Also, there’s a craze here for miniature teddybears arranged as a posy of flowers.

When Gao Weijie gets to the stage for his round of applause the roof lifts with cheers, shouts, stamping. He has a strong following and they’re here in force tonight. Xiao Ma gets teddybears. He looks pleased.

Zou Hang’s spiritual-sounding work, with Tibetan bowl, woolly bass drum and humming chorus finishes the night. It must be a popular folksong as Liu Shun turns around on the podium and invites the audience to join in. They do, beautifully. I do, improvisationally. Shouts and cheers for ZH too and tens of bunches of flowers, in fact I can hardly see him for flowers. More applause, half the audience seem to head for the stage. The end of the concert morphs immediately into a social event, with animated conversations under the stage lights. I race backstage and record musicians’ impressions as they come offstage.

Back to Jack’s room for a debrief with the Quartet, Dylan, Guan Xin, Gao Ping, Wang Wei, Shao Li (Charley) and members of the Ministry. Bed at 1.30pm. Pooped.

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Last day in the studio

Another bright, crisp, smog-free morning. So many great conversations go on between Jack, Dylan and the members of the Quartet that I arrive early for breakfast (unheard-of) and set up the recording gear. The young women on the door of the restaurant are interested and helpful but don’t understand why I request a large table for just me. I ask to speak to their manager. “Our Leader?”. I suppose so. She arrives and shakes her head – “no CD, no photo”. I agree and carry on setting up. She gives up and walks away.

All is not well at the China Conservatory. Dylan is concerned with the perceived lack of preparation Xiao Ma has done on his vocal line. There are inaccuracies in pitch and rhythm and an uncertainty that comes through all to clearly in the sound he’s producing. Dylan and Jack talk the problems through and come up with some possible solutions. I record the discussion , trying not to chip in.

Down at the studio Dylan, Xiao Ma and I head for the control room, me to record the ‘sorting out’ session and to offer moral support, if needed. Dylan has reworked the vocal line, simplifying it and changing the text to pure vocalisations. I can see that Xiao Ma’s not impressed, but he goes along with Dylan’s wishes, Dylan is very diplomatic.

One of the challenges the New Zealanders have found with the Chinese is the casual starting times of rehearsals. If they turn up on cue, say at 10:00, the organised rehearsal can, and often does, start a couple of hours later, or more.

Today the Chinese musicians arrive, gradually, in no rush. They go to the smoko room (which seems to be anywhere and everywhere). The women wear (fake?) furs, possibly status symbols.

Just as we think the ensemble’s beginning to gel and perhaps rehearse, the lights dim dramatically and a rousing chorus of Chinese “Happy Birthday” with candles, cakes, card and a silk scarf present interrupt the interrupted rehearsal in honour of Helene. It’s a lovely distraction (as if we needed one).

Half an hour later we’re back on track, preparing for the rehearsal of Zou Hang’s work, Ten Changes & Five Variables.

Jack’s known Zou Hang since he was a student.

ZH’s work uses extended techniques – blowing, tapping wood, singing – to reflect elements of Chinese culture. Some of the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra put down their instruments to play wooden clappers. The NZSQ and erhu chase after each other in an avalanche of notes and slides.

Lunchtime – Shen Cheng takes us all for lunch at the campus lecturers’ restaurant.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat … only not the one whose head ends up on my plate today.

Two rooms are set aside for us and elegant food arrives, plate after plate. Animated conversation centres around language (tongue-twisters in both), the subtle nuances of Chinese diction, and food.

The lunch table

After lunch Jack, Dylan and I walk up the road to a couple of overflowing music shops. I find some Chinese piano pieces for friends back home. Dylan looks for music for his beloved qin. No joy though.

The music store

Back at the studio time is ticking.

There are rehearsals and recordings today, rehearsals tomorrow and then a concert at the Forbidden City Concert Hall tomorrow at 19:30. Time is simultaneously running fast and slow (due, I think, to the repeated minute of recording – Groundhog Day style – which is essential for recording).

Jack and I head out to the shops again and find what we think is the parchment book of qin music that Dylan was trying to locate. We buy it for him as a present, to remind him of his time here and to stimulate more composition in the future.

More interviews, this time with Gao Ping translating. One with his father, Gao Weijie, also with the director of the FCCO, Liu Shun and with the percussionist and flute player. That makes the full complement – very relieved!

Dinner with Gao Ping and his lovely partner Wang Wei, Jack and Dylan. We meet another composer friend of GP’s who gives me a CD of his music to consider for Sound Lounge.

This is our last day in the studio. Sad.

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Breakfast, poring over the cover photos on a CD recommended to Jack Body by Xiao Ma (the pop star look alike). Xiao tells us that Li Yugang also has a voice that sweeps through his extensive range with no perceivable break. Li Yugang has called his latest CD The New Drunken Beauty. Hmmm. And, he is both he and her.

Down at the studio it’s time to rehearse/record Gao Weijie’s work. Gao Weijie is Gao Ping’s father! Gao Ping was the Piano Prof at Canterbury University during most of the last decade. Gao Weijie is a famous and hugely respected composer and pedagogue. He looks learned and simultaneously like somebody who lived through the 1960s (after all, the two aren’t mutually exclusive). He smiles shyly and apologises over and over for having written what he describes as a “traditional-sounding work”. A) Who am I to comment and B) when I interview him later about his path through music it’s clear that he’s been there, done that, with many genres and methodologies. Xiao Ma (who sings the folksongs in Gao Weijie’s work) and I reassure him over and over.

Xiao Ma’s actually pleased that the work references traditional styles as the long, arching pentatonic lines suit his voice to a T. To me the concert being rehearsed (and simultaneously the CD being recorded) sounds like a beguiling blend of ultra-modern, genre-crossing and tradition-extending pieces.

I head off to find a quiet space to record more interviews. Not easy. This is an echo-ey, stone-floored building that amplifies the slightest whisper or giggle. Jack and I find a lobby and I set up the Sound Device recorder.

There are 13 members of the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra (including director, Liu Shun) and I’m determined to interview each and every one of them.

Guan Xin turns out to be invaluable as an interpreter and we quickly develop a bond and a modus operandi. Each musician brings in their instrument and whilst talking they demonstrate generously.

At one point, mid-interview, a Chinese man bursts through one of the connecting doors and proclaims officiously, “this room is not a room” and so the interview space is named. “It’s your turn to be interviewed in the not-a-room” the musicians tell each other.

Although I can’t understand much of what’s being said, Zhang Zunlian recalls his story of how he and his brother worked on a building site to raise the money to buy ZZ’s first instrument. There are going to be many moving stories to hear when translations are done back in New Zealand.

One of the musicians, Wei Wei isn’t actually due in today but she comes in especially to be interviewed. She plays the beautiful ruan (moon, referencing the round shape of the body of the instrument and its sound holes) She says that her dearest wish is to start up a ruan ensemble (maybe like a ukelele orchestra?).

Shen Cheng and Zhao Chengwei playing huqin and sanxian

Yang Jing, pipa player

Zhao Chengwei playing sanxian

One issue with our not-a-room is that one of the connecting doors leads to a fire escape and on the next floor up they’re staging a version of China’s Got Talent. I believe I can pick the winners from hearing their warm-ups.

Six interviews later, and reeling slightly, I’m moved by each musician’s love and respect for their instrument. Each one commented that they’d love for composers to come forward who would be interested in composing for them – this is a major opportunity for composers, if you’re reading this, act fast!

Rehearsal over, Helene, Rolf and I walk briskly back to the hotel in the chill night air. Blog and bed. K X

PS: See also a blog summary of my visit at

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