Asni: harps and imagination - newsletter #15 - July 2008
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Hello, kia ora and welcome to the fifteenth Asni: harps & imagination newsletter!

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In this newsletter:
UPCOMING: CD LAUNCH AT HAPPY * UPCOMING: THEORY CLASSES * BAREFOOT CINEMA * SCHOOLMATES

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Well, it looks like I've managed (sort of) to get back into a monthly schedule with this newsletter, but it doesn't look like it is getting any shorter! And I am *still* leaving half the things out! In any case, this time it will be worth putting the upcoming events first:

UPCOMING: CD LAUNCH AT HAPPY

First of all, I can now proudly announce a date for my upcoming cd launch – we plan to have a proper release party on Tuesday 16 September at Happy Bar and Venue in Wellington, corner Vivian and Tory St – down the steps from street level. Doors open at 8 pm.

Happy is THE venue in Wellington for any kind of music that does not fit into a box – in fact they regularly schedule music that flatly refuses to fit any other sort of container either – and I am quite proud to finally get to perform there. I’ve had my sights set on a gig at Happy ever since I first discovered them! Now I can truly call myself a pop … wait, a rock…. no a punk…. or maybe a goth… or even an experimental….wait, didn’t we decide it was fantasy… o well, in short, a Happy star. :D

Tahu, Alistair Fraser’s group, have kindly offered to support me and warm up the crowd – so it should be a very special evening! Alistair is actually expecting what I take to be his first baby sometime in late September, so I selfishly hope that everything goes to schedule and nothing happens early, otherwise I will end up being a player short – but I trust the other two from Tahu would be able to fill the gap in case of such an emergency.

But, you may object, I’ve been listening to your cd for several months now, how can you call this a launch? Ah well, I suppose I should dub it the “slow release” party then. The main reason is that I haven’t been able to do much promotion for the cd yet, due to time constraints while finishing my multimedia course, and this gig gives me a focus for my press releases and publicity. I could do with a few more reviews! But apart from that, after all the hard work I and several others have put in, I think we really deserve a proper party.

UPCOMING: THEORY CLASSES!

After I have rashly declared my wonderful “Learn to Read and Write Music” classes dead in my last newsletter, I’ve just had a note from the school saying they have an unusually large number of registrations for the classes starting in August, but are still three people short for making the course happen.

So, this is your chance to do something useful with your life: Sign up! Tell other people! Shout it out in the streets! Best theory classes ever! Don’t let them die!

This isn’t going to be your average dry theory class. True, I will cover the basics of musical notation – rhythm, pitch and chords – and of music theory, but in a hands-on fashion. The bringing of instruments is definitely encouraged! The aim is to make my students feel more confident about using music notation, both reading and writing, and to understand the basic principles that hold music together.

I also plan to give an introduction into the history of notation and why we write things the way we write them. Ever been fascinated by the arcana of medieval music theory or the mysteries of renaissance counterpoint? This is the place to come - you’ll learn HEAPS and be able to look at music in a fresh new way.

The next classes start on Wednesday 13 August and run for 6 weeks every Wednesday night from 7.30 to 9.30 pm, at the Wellington High School Adult Community Education Centre (WHS ACE for short). The fee for the six sessions is $ 84, and it’s even cheaper if you’re a community service card holder or other concessionaire. The course can be booked through WHS ACE, email cec@whs.school.nz or phone (Wellington) 385 8919. Please book your place by 6 August – that’s Wednesday this week! So they know if they can go ahead with the classes.

check here for: news updates * new art & multimedia work * upcoming concerts * workshops and courses

BAREFOOT CINEMA

The Wellington stage of the New Zealand International Film Festival has just come and gone – as usual, two weeks so brim full of interesting and intriguing new movies from around the world that choosing simply becomes too hard. In previous years, when I was a volunteer for the festival administration and consequently got as many free tickets as I wanted, I used to try to see them all – and invariably came down with the winter flu a few days into watching four movies a day. Now I have become wiser – or it might be a certain tightness in my purse – and this year I left it mostly up to chance and timing to decide which of the 20 odd movies I had marked down as must-sees I was actually going to watch.

The one movie I was not going to miss on any account was Barefoot Cinema, a documentary about the life and work of Alun Bollinger – cinematographer (or camera operator) of kiwi movie classics such as “Vigil”, “The Piano”, Heavenly Creatures”, and most recently, “River Queen” – and a founding father of the local film industry. I harbour this pipe dream of one day working a film camera myself - it may be a bit late in my life to achieve that, but the first time someone gave me a camera to play with, some ten years ago, I fell in love with it at first sight, and that fascination hasn’t dulled. I get high on great cinematography (the real reason I watch so many movies!) – and one can always dream. In any case, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss out on a biopic about one of the cinematographers whose work I most admire.

When I got to Te Papa just in time for the start of the movie, to my consternation there already was a lengthy waiting list for tickets – obviously I had forgotten to take into account that the screening was also going to be one big family party for the local film industry! But I got lucky – in fact I strongly suspect that I ended up with Peter Jackson’s spare ticket, for I sat rubbing shoulders (literally) with Geoff Murphy on one side, and two seats over there was Gaylene Preston on the other side, and Vincent Ward a little further down the row, while the subject of the movie was sitting right behind me – and I was feeling rather somewhat out of place among all those illustrious New Zealand film makers. All three directors had been interviewed for the documentary, and so had Peter Jackson, who evidently hadn’t been able to make it to the screening.

Apart from presenting a concise history of New Zealand cinema from the late 1970’s to the present day, the film also offered insights into the unique life choices of Alun Bollinger – Albol to his friends – and his wife Helen aka Helbol. Faced with the impossibility of earning a steady income – or much of any income – making films in New Zealand in the 1970’s and 80’s, the Bollinger family and the Murphys bought a piece of land (back in the days when you could do that with very little money) in Hawke’s Bay where they lived a self-sufficient lifestyle, growing their own food and making their own clothes and whatever else they needed, while being busy laying the foundations for what has since become a multi-million dollar film industry based in New Zealand.

Even now that success – or what most people would define as success – is there, Albol still considers his family life to be more important than winning Oscars. He turned down working on "Lord of the Rings" because he didn’t want to commit to being away from his home in Black's Point on the New Zealand West Coast for such a lengthy period of time – although Peter Jackson credits him with shooting the “single most important piece of film in his life”, the demo reel that the Jackson/Walsh team presented to New Line when the Lord of the Rings project was in limbo after being dropped by Miramax, and which prompted New Line's boss Bob Shaye to commit to making three movies out of Tolkien’s fantasy classic, rather than the two that had originally been envisaged.

The film also made me realize just how much of New Zealand cinema’s distinctive visual style is due to this man. I have been a fan of New Zealand films for quite a while before I ever even set foot in this country, and it feels very special indeed to be able to share this movie screening with some of the people whose films I have admired for such a long time. It seems like a good place to be if you want to learn about the art and craft of film making.

Speaking of which - this last weekend, I’ve been helping out on a documentary film project, which (without wanting give away too much) is good proof of the old saying that the most fascinating topics and stories can often be found right on your own doorstep. We – a small team of three – spent Friday night wandering up and down Courtenay Place and Cuba Street trailing our subject’s very special night life.

My official job was sound person, but seeing that most of the filming that evening took place in extremely noisy surroundings, we gave up on that. It transpired that the single most useful thing I could do at the time was to look after the gear bags, so the camera person had his hands free and could move around fast – so I spent a long rainy evening tramping up and down the noisy, crowded and increasingly drunk nightlife quarters of our beautiful little city lugging a large and heavy camera bag. We finished at 2 a.m. I haven’t had so much fun since I’ve tried to keep myself awake and in shape to record a tricky harp part at five in the morning in an incense-smelling church in Manhattan back when I was working with ARTEK…

Ok, so I am a masochist. I have really missed that sort of thing. Yesterday and today, I did get to do the sound and operate the boom mike. If you’ve ever operated a boom mike, you’ll know that lugging a heavy gear bag around is peanuts compared to the strain that that puts on your body frame. I’m happy. :-D

At the end of the shoot, the director - a film student from Auckland who is finishing her Masters - gave me a $25 voucher for Borders bookstore as a thank-you. I guess that makes it my first paid gig working on a film.

I'm *really* happy.

SCHOOLMATES

I’ve always had a suspicion that Wellington is really the navel of the universe, and now I have proof. The other day when I came out of a shop downtown, on the other side of the street there was this huge poster that caught my eye: a big reddish cello, and half hidden behind it a young-ish man in black and white. The caption read “Alban Gerhardt and the NZSO”. I’m sure you’ve seen those if you’ve been downtown Wellington lately.

Why did that strike me as slightly surreal? Well, the last time I’ve seen Alban was at high school, more than 20 years ago, in what was then still West Berlin in the mid-1980’s. He was just a grade or two younger than me, and I have clear recollections of him being the undisputed star of our annual school Christmas concerts. The only serious competition, at the time, came from his younger siblings - three sisters and a little brother, all of them very musical. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, seeing that their father was a long-standing member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and their mother, an opera singer.

I can't say that I knew Alban all that well when we were in school - he was not, after all, in my year - but I do remember the dedication he had to his performance, even then: on one memorable occasion it was his turn to go on stage, but he was nowhere to be seen. A flurry of hectic search activity revealed that he had been practising backstage and gotten so wrapt up that he clean forgot to go on stage! This doesn’t seem to have changed much: When I contacted him he was happy enough to meet up for a beer and we spent a fun evening catching up with each other, but he firmly declined my offers of a sightseeing tour on the grounds that he had to work on a new piece for a concert in a few week’s time, and didn’t want to have to do it while at home with his family – time that is evidently precious, given his full-on touring schedule.

I have to admit that I had been entirely unaware of Alban’s rising musical star until I saw his posters plastered all over Wellington. I then brought myself up to speed with his career through his website, www.albangerhardt.com. He has been circling the globe as a prolific and highly respected solo cellist for quite a few years now, playing with many of the leading orchestras in four continents, and I am surprised that I never knew of it. There even seem to have been a couple of near-misses in our respective schedules, back when I was still touring internationally myself, though on a much more modest scale.

This is, more than anything, an indication of how far away I have come from the youthful classical music addict that I was back in my school days in Berlin, when I’d attend opera performances and orchestra concerts several times a week, if I could manage. A shared experience – when I met Alban we started to reminisce about the seat numbering scheme at the Berlin Philharmonia, which after all these years I can still remember in considerable detail. He, being the son of one of the Philharmonics, more or less grew up in that hall. It had never occurred to me at the time that being able to soak in world class musical performances on a weekly basis was a very special privilege – until I started to live in other places.

All this was brought back to me forcibly when I went to see Alban and the NZSO perform last Friday, and then again on Saturday night. I was expecting it to be good – after all, I had already heard him perform more than twenty years ago – but I was quite blown away by the quality of forthright, unfussy musical intelligence that came through in his interpretations of Haydn’s beautifully lyrical D Major Cello concerto and Prokofiev’s outrageously crazy Sinfonia Concertante (written in collaboration with Mstislav Rostropovich). That, and a mastery of the very considerable technical demands of this repertory so complete that it seemed like he was just having a friendly musical conversation with the orchestra and the audience, rather than performing the wild gymnastics that are all too often associated with “virtuoso solo performance” - particularly when people play Prokofiev. The rest of the audience at the Michael Fowler centre appeared to be equally impressed, and on both evenings he rewarded the sustained applause with a performance of a piece for cello solo – Bach on the first night, Rostropovich on the other.

The NZSO under British conductress Julia Jones rose beautifully to the occasion. At times, particularly in the slow movement of the Haydn concerto and the scherzo of the Sinfonia Concertante, it achieved a unity with the soloist which is usually reserved for chamber music performances – or rock bands! Julia Jones’ interpretation of Schumann’s fourth symphony, which rounded off the programme on Friday, was full of energy and made an almost over-familiar piece appear in a new and dramatic light.

Meeting Alban here in Wellington after so many years felt strangely like meeting a long-lost cousin. I guess growing up in the same city, sharing the same teachers and a lot of similar experiences does that to you - and it is this base of shared experience that one misses most when one decides to go off and live in a foreign country. He seemed pleased, too - it may be different for different people, but I remember from my limited experience of being an international touring artist, that it can be a real drain on the psyche to be continually zipping from one place to the next, hardly ever seeing more than the airport, hotel and concert hall. I know that I would have been happy to see a - however vaguely - familiar face when spending a week of awful weather in a town at the edge of the universe where I'd never been before. Not that the NZSO doesn't look well after their guests, but still!

In any case, it was heart warming to be able to witness not only what an outstanding musician my former schoolmate has become, but even more so, what a genuine, down to earth and outright nice person he seems to have remained. Taken together with his utter dedication to mastering his instrument until technical limitations seem to become irrelevant and he can let the cello sing or speak or rave just as the music requires, this is what shines off the stage when he performs.

Oh, and if you're interested: Alban writes quite a frank and interesting blog on his website, www.albangerhardt.com.

Arohanui, from Asni

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