An Interview with the NZTrio

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
The NZTrio—comprising violinist Justine Cormack, cellist Ashley Brown and pianist Sarah Watkins—is soon to play the third concert in their Museum series (Auckland Museum, August 28). The Trio talk about their recent work and post-University life.

SAMUEL HOLLOWAY: How did the NZTrio come about?

JUSTINE CORMACK: We began in 2002, although Sarah and I have played together since high school, and Ashley and I had played together in another trio. It was a bit of an experiment and then we thought—let’s make a go of this. We spoke to the University of Auckland about having us in residence so that Sarah could come back from the US. For the first two and a half years of the Trio’s existence, Sarah was returning for periods of time so that we could work together. But we’ve been playing together nearly full time since Sarah was able to come back to New Zealand in 2004.

SH: You’ve recently regained your independence and parted ways with the University of Auckland. How has that changed the Trio?

SARAH WATKINS: We’ve had fantastically busy year already. We finished our residency at the end of June last year and we’ve set in place a board of trustees and a manager who is working for us practically full-time. These are a group of people who are helping to secure more funding to make us as full time as possible. In the past year we’ve had a two-week trip to China, played in Arts Festivals and at WOMAD, and had a big Chamber Music New Zealand tour…

ASHLEY BROWN: None of us are paid anything like a full time salary but the Trio is taking basically all of our attention. There’s been a real whirlwind of activity, which we hope will eventually have financial payoff at some point! The flipside to the joy we feel in regaining our independence is the bite in the wallet.

SH: At the University the Trio often took an ambassadorial role—will this continue?

AB: We had an explicit role in the University as cultural ambassadors for the University, but we’ve always considered ourselves as ambassadors for New Zealand music. In all of our concerts we play New Zealand music—we’re always thrusting it on every ear that we can. When we travel overseas this is often what people are most interested to hear from us: what’s new from Down Under.

SH: Are there other reasons you think it is important to have these pieces in your concerts?

SW: We really like playing it—it’s music that we really believe in.

JC: And putting it next to all the other music we play, it really stacks up.

SH: Your programming style is unique for New Zealand, with its deliberate conjunctions of old and new, local and international. How do you decide what to play?

AB: I think probably started off with us throwing together things we would like to hear in a programme. Since then we’ve had feedback that we’ve reacted to—people notice that juxtaposition between old and new and we’re keen to flirt with more of that.

SW: We’ve found that people are drawn to different things in a programme—you might find people who are only coming to hear the Brahms or the Beethoven are really taken with a new piece, and vice-versa. It’s opening people’s ears to the possibilities in all styles of music.

AB: We sometimes joke about the possibility of enticing people with a bit of Beethoven, and once they’re in locking the doors and giving them a bit of crazy, outlandish modern music and seeing what the reaction is.

SH: The lure of that sort in your upcoming concert is by Tchaikovsky—what is special about this piece?

SW: The Tchaikovsky Piano Trio is epic—in its entirety it’s a 50-minute work. It’s lyrical and virtuosic and we’re really enjoying playing it. It is one of those pieces we’ve been wanting to play for a long time but haven’t had the opportunity: with a piece that big, you’re limited in what you can put beside it.

AB: When we go to festivals and other promoters’ series we’ve wanted to give the audience a bit of variety and if you put in the Tchaikovsky there’s not many more minutes left. But now that we have this series at the Auckland Museum, we have the opportunity to build a programme that lasts over four concerts.

SH: There’s also a piece by New Zealand composer David Downes in your upcoming concert. How did this collaboration come about and what was the result?

AB: I knew David through playing in band with Mahinarangi Tocker that he played drums and piano in, and had heard some of his music and also seen some of his incredible video work. We all thought it would be amazing to do something with him that has a video element, and were lucky enough to get funding from Creative New Zealand. At the premiere down at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in March, I think David might have confronted a few people with his music and his images, and we hope we’ll do that again on Saturday. It’s quite a macabre piece.

SW: The whole concept revolves around a family dinner and the relationships and rituals surrounding that. It’s quite Punch and Judy, and pretty full on.

SH: What do you think your particular strengths are as an ensemble?

AB: Generally speaking, the strength of a piano trio is the huge variety of different sounds possible and the amount of sound that is possible—the levels of intimacy that we can reach and then the symphonic end of things. It feels like the whole range is at our disposal.

SW: Also, I think the fact that the trio has three distinct instruments, unlike, for example, the homogeneity of the string quartet. We each have a unique voice. I’d like to think, too, that we have an approachability as people, and that we are able to connect with and communicate with our audience. We talk through our concerts so that people get a sense of who we are and what we’re playing.

JC: We always have the audience in mind in terms of programming and how we introduce the music to people so that they do get as much from it as possible. I would say, too, that we are quite brave in terms of pushing at boundaries. We believe in the positive results that can come from leading people down interesting new paths…

SH: What’s next for the Trio?

SW: We do have some exciting travel plans for next year. We’re doing projects with Jack Body in Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand, and also traveling to London to perform. We’re building up to be close to full time, which is our goal as a group. We want to continue to grow what we’ve developed, particularly in the past year now that we’re on our own.

The NZTrio perform Schumann, Tchaikovsky and a recent work by David Downes at their third Museum concert of 2010 at 8pm, Saturday August 28, Auckland Museum.