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Classical musicians

by Peter Walls

Many of New Zealand’s classical singers and musicians have pursued their careers overseas, mainly in Europe. However, some have managed to have successful careers while living in their home country.

Operatic beginnings

New Zealand has produced classical musicians – both instrumentalists and singers – whose achievements have been equivalent to the best of their peers anywhere. Some made their mark in New Zealand and others on the international stage. Performers such as Donald McIntyre and Kiri Te Kanawa are among the most recognised New Zealanders worldwide.

The importance of opera

Thanks to the numerous visits from mostly Australian-based opera companies from the early 1860s, opera was part of New Zealand’s cultural landscape from colonial times. This may help explain the extraordinary number of New Zealand opera singers who have achieved international recognition. Two of the earliest operatic stars were women.

Frances Alda

Frances Alda (1879–1952) was born in Christchurch, but from 1884, after the death of her mother, was brought up by grandparents in Melbourne, Australia. She made a successful debut at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1904 in the title role of Massenet’s Manon (having been coached by the composer himself). Two years later, she stepped in to replace an unwell Nellie Melba at Covent Garden in London. In 1908 she sang at both La Scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her New Zealand origins initially brought out snobbery in the New York critics: ‘the young singer who made her debut last evening comes from the land of the sheep, and she bleated like one of them’.1 But within a short time she had established herself as the leading soprano at the Met – and her reputation remained undiminished until her retirement in 1929. She returned to New Zealand for a recital tour in 1927.

An adoring audience

Rosina Buckman’s 1922 tour of New Zealand with her husband, tenor Maurice d’Oisley, was a resounding success. There was a crowd of over 3,000 at her first Auckland Town Hall appearance on 20 May. The audience cheered every song and demanded so many encores that the concert went on for an extra 30 minutes.

Rosina Buckman

Just two years younger than Alda, Rosina Buckman (1881–1948) grew up on a farm in Āpiti in the central North Island. Her professional career developed in Australia, where she sang alongside Nellie Melba and John McCormack. By 1914 she was singing at Covent Garden and soon came to be regarded as one of the greatest sopranos working in Britain. Buckman was welcomed back to New Zealand in a triumphant concert tour in 1922.

    • Quoted in Adrienne Simpson and Peter Downes, Southern voices: international opera singers of New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 1992, p. 16. Back

Leading baritones and basses

The next group of New Zealand singers to have an international impact were baritones and basses.

Denis Dowling

Baritone Denis Dowling (1910–96) was born in Ranfurly, Otago. His career path set the pattern for many who followed: first prize in a major Australasian competition (the 1934 Melbourne Sun Aria competition); study at one of the London academies (the Royal College of Music); roles with significant English companies and then international stardom. A brilliant singer, Dowling was also hugely admired for his acting ability. He retired in 1984 with a memorable final performance in Prokofiev’s War and peace at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Dowling was one of the original members of the English Opera Group, founded by Benjamin Britten in 1945. He became known for his performances of Junius in The rape of Lucretia and Sid in Albert Herring.

Bryan Drake

Another New Zealander, Bryan Drake (1925–2002), was also closely associated with the English Opera Group. Son of a Dunedin singing teacher, Drake made his professional operatic debut in the 1948 Otago Centenary production of Bizet’s Carmen. The following year he departed for England to further his career. English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was so impressed with his singing that he created a role especially for him in his 1951 opera The pilgrim’s progress. In the same year Drake sang in the premiere of Britten’s Billy Budd at London’s Covent Garden. He performed many of the major baritone roles from the operatic canon, both for Covent Garden and, from 1956 on, for the Welsh National Opera. From 1964 he became increasingly identified with Britten’s operas – and especially the three works collectively known as the Church Parables.

Īnia Te Wīata

Īnia Te Wīata’s rise from employment at the Horotiu freezing works near Ngāruawāhia to international fame is a remarkable story. Te Wīata (1915–71) made his debut at Covent Garden in 1951, singing alongside Bryan Drake in The pilgrim’s progress. Twenty years later he was to have sung the title role in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov on that same stage with a young Kiri Te Kanawa. On the first day of rehearsals, however, he became seriously ill and died a fortnight later. In the intervening years he had enjoyed a career of the utmost distinction. His various trips back to New Zealand included starring in the New Zealand Opera Company’s 1965 production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with an all-Māori cast.

The right place at the right time

Oscar Natzke was ‘discovered’ while still a music student by Vladimir Rosing, an eminent Russian tenor and opera director. Rosing was walking along London’s Wigmore Street when he heard Natzke practising in a nearby building. Stunned by the quality of the singing, Rosing invited Natzke to audition at the Royal Opera House the next morning, and promptly offered him a leading role.

Oscar Natzke

The career trajectory of Oscar Natzke (1912–51) was similar to Te Wīata’s. Born near Te Awamutu, Natzke began full-time work as a blacksmith’s striker in Auckland at the age of 15. Just 11 years later he had become the youngest bass ever to sing a principal’s role at Covent Garden. A distinguished career was cut short in 1951 when he collapsed on stage in New York while singing in Wagner’s Die meistersinger von Nürnberg. He died two weeks later.

Stars of the 1960s

Another cluster of New Zealand singers were prominent in the great opera houses of the world during the 1960s.

A singer of stature

Opera singers are often large, but Noel Mangin was particularly so – he was 1.9 metres tall, had a chest measurement of 138 centimetres and weighed around 124 kilograms. When he first met the imposing Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, she is reputed to have said, ‘How marvellous. For once I meet someone who makes me feel small!’1

Noel Mangin

Wellingtonian Noel Mangin (1931–95) turned down an offer from the Paris Opera in 1963 in favour of a three-year contract with Sadler’s Wells in London. Following that, he sang in Prague, at La Scala in Milan, at Glyndebourne in England and at the New York City Opera before taking up the position of principal bass with the Hamburg State Opera in Germany, where he stayed for 10 years. From 1977 on, Mangin sang regularly with the Victoria State Opera in Australia, while maintaining a strong presence in Europe.

Heather Begg

As a 21-year-old mezzo-soprano, Nelson-born Heather Begg (1932–2009) auditioned to be part of the National Opera of Australia’s tour of New Zealand in 1954. She was offered three principal roles, including the demanding Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore. In 1957 she set off with a New Zealand government bursary for a period of study in London, and in 1959 made her debut at Covent Garden in Wagner’s Die walküre. Superb singing underpinned by brilliant comic acting soon brought her engagements with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, all in London. In 1964 she returned to New Zealand for three years and starred in the New Zealand Opera Company production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola. In 1969 Begg went back to London, becoming a principal at Covent Garden in 1971. In 1976 Richard Bonynge persuaded her to accept a principal’s position at the Australian Opera, where she was eventually to sing over 40 major roles.

Peter Baillie

After gaining considerable stage experience in Australia and New Zealand, tenor Peter Baillie was offered a contract by the Vienna Volksoper in 1966. He stayed with the company for 22 years, performing a vast number of roles, touring to other parts of Europe and Japan, and occasionally accepting guest engagements in London, Glyndebourne, Wexford and elsewhere.

    • Quoted in Adrienne Simpson and Peter Downes, Southern voices: international opera singers of New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 1992, p. 97. Back

Operatic superstars

Donald McIntyre

Donald McIntyre was headed for a career as a primary school teacher when, at the insistence of James Robertson (then principal conductor of New Zealand’s National Orchestra), he set off for study in London in 1958. Before he had completed two years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he had been asked to sing the role of Zaccaria in Verdi’s Nabucco for the Welsh National Opera. In the course of his career McIntyre sang an extraordinary range of principal roles in all the great opera houses of the world. It is as a Wagner interpreter, however, that he became especially famous. He sang at numerous Bayreuth Festivals in Germany (continuously between 1967 and 1981, and frequently thereafter), which exclusively feature Wagner’s operas.

The sport of singing

Excelling at rugby while a pupil at Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland from 1947 to 1952, Donald McIntyre later credited the sport with giving him the physical and mental strength to cope with the demands of a stellar operatic career.

McIntyre coached and mentored younger New Zealand singers – notably Simon O’Neill and Paul Whelan. The staging of Wagner’s Parsifal in the 2006 New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington came about because of McIntyre’s wish that his two protégés should be heard in major roles in their own country. A distinguished all-New Zealand cast was assembled, with O’Neill as Parsifal, Whelan as Amfortas, Martin Snell as Klingsor, Margaret Medlyn as Kundry, and McIntyre himself singing Gurnemanz. McIntyre sang as Hans Sachs in the remarkable 1990 New Zealand International Festival production of Die meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Kiri Te Kanawa

On 1 December 1971 the young Kiri Te Kanawa took the operatic world by storm when she made her debut as the Countess in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden. On stage with her that night were fellow New Zealanders Noel Mangin (in the role of Bartolo) and Heather Begg (as Marcellina).

Her progress to that point was a very New Zealand story: a childhood in Gisborne, a move to Auckland to study with singing teacher Sister Mary Leo, success in the Mobil Song Quest and the Melbourne Sun Aria competitions, and farewell concerts in New Zealand before study at the London Opera Centre under the caring eye of James Robertson.

Te Kanawa graced the stages of the most illustrious opera houses in the world for over four decades. She chose to sing the role of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der rosenkavalier in Cologne in 2009 to mark her retirement from opera – though she continued to give concerts subsequently.

Singers of the 1970s and 1980s

Christopher Doig

Like Donald McIntyre, Christopher Doig (1948–2011) had been headed towards a career as a school teacher. After winning the Mobil Song Quest in 1972 he studied at the Vienna Music Academy in Austria, and two years later was offered a position as principal tenor at the Vienna State Opera. Following a decade in Vienna singing major roles and appearing as a guest artist in other European opera houses, Doig returned to New Zealand to a series of a high-profile sporting and arts executive positions.

An informed choice

Christopher Doig was artistic director of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts in 1990, and was the driving force behind the audacious project of staging Wagner’s Die meistersinger von Nürnberg, starring Donald McIntyre. Doig himself had sung with McIntyre in the Australian Opera’s production of the work just two years previously.

Anson Austin

Christchurch tenor Anson Austin spent three years with the BBC Singers in London in the 1960s, and in 1970 went on to a distinguished career with Australian Opera (often singing opposite Joan Sutherland), interlaced with performances at Glyndebourne (1975), San Francisco (1981) and Toronto (1982).

Barry Mora

Other New Zealand singers have enjoyed success in Europe before returning to a more settled life in New Zealand.

After seven years as a principal baritone with the Frankfurt Opera from 1980, baritone Barry Mora embarked on a freelance career that included major roles at Covent Garden and the Welsh National Opera. From 1990 he based himself back in New Zealand, singing in numerous productions there and in Australia.

Rodney Macann

Bass-baritone Rodney Macann made his European debut in the title role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Berlin Festival of 1970, at the invitation of conductor Lorin Maazel. Macann remained in Europe until 1990, initially performing mainly as a soloist in oratorio (large-scale narrative works for orchestra and singers). From the mid-1980s on he tackled some large operatic roles, including works by Michael Tippett, Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr. Macann became a principal at the English National Opera and performed regularly at Covent Garden and Welsh National Opera. After his return to New Zealand, he sang in many local productions while, for a time, continuing to fulfil engagements in Europe.

Patricia Payne

Dunedin-born mezzo-soprano Patricia Payne had a brilliant career from the early 1970s, singing on many of the world’s great stages – Barcelona, Covent Garden, Bayreuth (including Patrice Chéreau’s Ring cycle alongside Donald McIntyre), San Francisco, Geneva, and La Scala in Milan. In April 1976 she was a huge success playing as the old nurse Filpyevna in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, in a Covent Garden production that included Kiri Te Kanawa as Tatyana and Heather Begg as Madam Larina. Wherever she sang Payne gained critical acclaim and the admiration of her colleagues, including conductors of the calibre of Pierre Boulez and Colin Davis.

The supporting cast

Two teachers were particularly important in training some of New Zealand’s finest singers. At Christchurch Boys’ High School the head of music, Clifton Cook, recognised and nurtured the talent of Richard Greager, Christopher Doig and Anson Austin. In Auckland, Sister Mary Leo of the Sisters of Mercy taught Heather Begg, Malvina Major and Kiri Te Kanawa.

Richard Greager

Tenor Richard Greager was taken into the company at Covent Garden within a short time of his arrival in London as a student in 1973. He spent several years with Scottish Opera and then, in 1977, went on to Hanover in Germany, where he worked his way through a multitude of roles. In the 1980s he sang with Australian Opera while still managing to keep up a busy schedule of opera performances and recordings in Europe. He settled back in New Zealand in the late 1990s and in 2014 was teaching at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington.

Patrick Power

Tenor Patrick Power began singing opera while a student at Otago University in the late 1960s. He came to attention nationally through singing in Georges Bizet’s Carmen with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in their 1975 Summer Proms. In 1976 Power gained a three-year contract with the Norwegian national opera company. From there he moved to positions with opera companies in Munich and Krefeld in Germany. In the 1980s, as a freelance artist, he sang at Drottningholm in Sweden, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden in England, Scottish Opera, l’Opéra de Lyon in France and the Wexford Festival in Ireland. In the early 1990s Power began singing more for Australian Opera (later Opera Australia) and for New Zealand companies. He came back to New Zealand and taught singing at several tertiary institutions.

Keith Lewis

The list of opera houses in which Methven-born lyric tenor Keith Lewis sang from 1977 included Glyndebourne and Covent Garden in England, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin (Deutsche Oper) in Germany, Paris (Bastille), San Francisco, Chicago – and many more.

Singers of the 2000s

Pacific Island singers

Building on a rich culture of church choirs, a number of New Zealanders with Pacific Island backgrounds have gained international renown.

Jonathan Lemalu

Otago University-educated Samoan New Zealander Jonathan Lemalu, a bass-baritone, was a sensation at the BBC Proms in 2004 and 2005 (on the latter occasion appearing with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). He took leading roles at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne in England, Munich, San Francisco, Chicago and at the Met in New York.

Benjamin Makisi

Tenor Benjamin Makisi, who is of Tongan and Samoan descent, sang frequently with Opera Australia and for NBR New Zealand Opera from the early 2000s.

Singing springboard

The Lexus Song Quest (previously the Mobil Song Quest) is a prestigious New Zealand singing competition that has launched the careers of many outstanding artists. Recent winners include Martin Snell, Jonathan Lemalu, Anna Leese, Aivale Cole and Amitai Pati.

Aivale Cole

After graduating with honours from the Australian Opera Studio in 2005, New Zealand-born and -educated Aivale Cole appeared in both concert and opera performances in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Amitai and Pene Pati

Born into a Samoan family that emigrated to Auckland, brothers Amitai and Pene Pati had outstanding tenor voices. In 2012 they both won major singing competitions and, with their cousin, baritone Moses Mackay, went on to form popular classical-contemporary trio SOL3 MIO (sometimes written as Sole Mio).

Other opera singers

Other New Zealand singers remain prominent in the world of opera.

Simon O’Neill

First among these is Ashburton-born Simon O’Neill, who was described by London’s Telegraph in 2009 as ‘the best heroic tenor to emerge over the last decade’.1 Sought after by top-ranked conductors, orchestras and opera houses, O’Neill achieved principal artist status at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Covent Garden and La Scala in Milan, and at both the Bayreuth (Germany) and Salzburg (Austria) festivals. Like Kiri Te Kanawa and his mentor Donald McIntyre, he gained extraordinary international acclaim – but despite this remained a proud New Zealander, keen to perform at home with local orchestras and opera companies.

Paul Whelan

Bass-baritone Paul Whelan sang internationally from the 1990s, performing numerous operatic roles in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as New Zealand.

Ana James

Lyric soprano Ana James was a member of the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at Covent Garden from 2005 to 2007, and developed a wide operatic and concert repertoire.

Anna Leese

After graduating from the Benjamin Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music in London in 2006, soprano Anna Leese sang in operas in Europe and New Zealand. In 2014 she was based in Tuscany in Italy.

Stephen Chambers

Following his debut at the BBC Proms in 2010, tenor Stephen Chambers received glowing reviews for his opera and concert appearances.

Martin Snell

The New Zealand flag flew regularly in the main street of Bayreuth from 2005 thanks to bass-baritone Martin Snell’s consistent casting in the annual Wagner Festival. Snell, based in Switzerland in 2014, returned frequently to sing in New Zealand between engagements with European companies.


Instrumentalists and conductors

Pianists and organists

Several New Zealand keyboard players have had distinguished international careers.

Richard Farrell

Pianist Richard Farrell (1926–58) grew up in Wellington, though he left for intensive studies in Sydney at an early age. His playing was admired by such international luminaries as Arthur Rubenstein, Eugene Ormandy and Aaron Copland. A burgeoning career in the USA and Britain was cut short by a fatal car accident.

Colin Horsley

Colin Horsley (1920–2012) grew up in Whanganui. During his career in the United Kingdom he played in virtually every BBC Proms season between 1948 and 1964, and was described in an obituary as ‘one of Britain’s leading pianists after the second world war’.1

Gillian Weir

Gillian Weir, brought up in Whanganui, won a scholarship to study the organ at the Royal College of Music in London in 1963. She became renowned as an interpreter of the works of French composer Olivier Messiaen and, after an international performing career of nearly 50 years, gave a farewell recital at Westminster Cathedral in December 2012.


There have been several eminent New Zealand conductors.

Making a stand

Returning to New Zealand after studies in Leipzig, Alfred Hill began his conducting career in 1892 with the Wellington Orchestral Society. After a promising start, controversy erupted when Hill refused to conduct the orchestra with a visiting pianist, Antoine de Kontski. Hill accused the 80-year-old virtuoso of charlatanism – de Kontski often played works with his hands under a folded blanket – and resigned his post.

Alfred Hill

Although best known as a composer, Alfred Hill (1870–1960) was prominent as a conductor in New Zealand and later Australia. He was responsible for forming and conducting New Zealand’s first fully professional orchestra, which played at the 1906–7 International Exhibition in Christchurch.

Warwick Braithwaite

Dunedin-born Warwick Braithwaite (1896–1971) conducted at Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden in London, and was music director of the Welsh National Opera from 1956 to 1960. Braithwaite was principal conductor of the New Zealand National Orchestra from 1954 to 1956.

John Matheson

John Matheson (1928–2009), of Ngāi Tahu descent, studied at Otago University and then at the Royal College of Music in London, before becoming a repetiteur (accompanist and vocal coach) at Sadler’s Wells. (Repetiteuring is a time-honoured route to a conducting career.) Matheson held conducting posts at both Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden and, from the 1970s on, was a frequent guest conductor at opera houses and festivals in Europe. He became music director of the Queensland Lyric Opera in 1988.

Ashley Lawrence

Ashley Lawrence (1934–1990), born in Hamilton, had a career that followed a similar trajectory to Matheson’s. Educated at Auckland University and the Royal College of Music, he joined the music staff at Covent Garden as a conductor for the Royal Ballet. He held the position of music director for the Royal Ballet from 1973 to 1987, and conducted other companies, including the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Stuttgart Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet.


New Zealand-based musicians

From the 1930s refugees from Europe enriched New Zealand’s cultural life.

Émigré musicians

Georg Tintner

Georg Tintner (1917–99) fled the Nazi regime in Austria in 1938. A former member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, he had studied conducting under Felix Weingartner and had been appointed as conductor at the Vienna Volksoper. He settled in New Zealand and took New Zealand citizenship. In the 1940s and 1950s he conducted in New Zealand and Australia, and, from the 1960s on, further afield (including engagements with the London Symphony Orchestra). From 1987 he lived in Canada, where he was principal conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia.

Memories of Lili Kraus

New Zealand audiences, yearning for live professional music after the lean years of the Second World War, were captivated by the charm and vitality of brilliant pianist Lili Kraus. Memories of her endure, as does her Steinway grand piano, which, richly carved and painted, became the centrepiece of sculptor Michael Parekowhai’s 2011 work ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’.

Lili Kraus

Hungarian-born pianist Lili Kraus (1903–86) was another musician whose flight from the horrors of the Second World War enriched New Zealand’s musical life. She was imprisoned by Japanese forces in Indonesia in 1942. After the war she made New Zealand her home for some years and became a citizen. Kraus resumed her international touring career in 1948.

Paul and Diny Schramm

Austrian-born Paul Schramm (1892–1953) and his Dutch wife Diny (1900–87), who moved to New Zealand in 1938, formed a successful piano duo that played both classical and light works in concert and on radio from 1939. Paul also played solo, giving a series of successful recitals for schools. Paul left for Australia in 1946, frustrated at his treatment in New Zealand as an ‘enemy alien’ during the Second World War. Diny remained in New Zealand and continued to work as a music teacher.

Marie Vandewart

Jewish cellist Marie Vandewart (later Blaschke) (1911–2006) also sought refuge in New Zealand from persecution, arriving in 1939. Vandewart made a considerable impact as a concert artist and taught at the University of Auckland’s School of Music for 15 years from 1961.

New Zealand-born artists

In the post-war years some New Zealand-born musicians were able to pursue successful careers both at home and abroad.

Donald Munro

Baritone Donald Munro (1913–2012) returned to New Zealand in 1951 after study in Europe and established the New Zealand Opera Company in 1954.

Malvina Major

Soprano Malvina Major sang Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia at the 1968 and 1969 Salzburg Festivals in Austria and attracted the interest of Covent Garden and Glyndebourne in England. However, she chose to live in her home country, where she built up a large and devoted audience.

Margaret Medlyn

From the 1990s soprano Margaret Medlyn managed to fulfil engagements with such companies as Covent Garden, the English National Opera and the Vienna State Opera from her home base in New Zealand.

Michael Houstoun

Few instrumentalists have been able to sustain a concert-giving career without having to live overseas. From 1981 pianist Michael Houstoun, a prize winner in three major international competitions, based his career in New Zealand, where he consistently drew full houses and critical acclaim (notably for his two complete Beethoven sonata cycles, performed in 2002 and 2013).

Music teaching and ensemble playing

Music teachers

The universities, which introduced advanced performance teaching in the 1960s, have provided a stable home base for a number of distinguished pianists who have held teaching positions.

Janetta McStay

Janetta McStay (1917–2012), born in Invercargill, was sought after in Australia and New Zealand as an accompanist and solo artist, performing concerti with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras. She taught at the University of Auckland from 1963 until retirement.

Maurice Till

Maurice Till (1927–2011) was regarded as one of the leading New Zealand pianists and accompanists of his generation. He taught at both Canterbury and Otago universities.

Margaret Nielsen

Margaret Nielsen, who championed the piano works of Douglas Lilburn from the 1950s, was on the staff at Victoria University of Wellington for many years.

Terence Dennis

Terence Dennis, who taught piano at the University of Otago from 1981, was active on the concert stage, primarily as an accompanist.

Diedre Irons

Diedre Irons emigrated to New Zealand from Canada in 1977 and was immediately recognised as an outstanding piano soloist and accompanist. Irons held teaching positions at the University of Canterbury and the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington.

Stephen de Pledge

Pianist Stephen de Pledge returned from Europe in 2010 to teach piano at the University of Auckland and became sought after as a concerto soloist by New Zealand’s professional orchestras.

Orchestral musicians

Orchestras have provided a similarly secure base for a number of distinguished instrumentalists.

Vincent Aspey

Vincent Aspey (1909–87), was a miner’s son who grew up in Huntly. He rose from playing in cinema orchestras to become the founding leader (concertmaster) of the New Zealand National Orchestra, and was much admired as a violin soloist.

Alex Lindsay

Another accomplished violinist was Aspey’s stand partner and then successor Alex Lindsay (1919–74). Lindsay also formed the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra in 1948, and was leader of an early chamber music ensemble called the New Zealand String Quartet in the 1950s.

Alan Loveday

Alan Loveday from Palmerston North held the position of concertmaster and co-concertmaster with various orchestras in the United Kingdom, including the Royal Philharmonic and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. He frequently appeared as a concerto violin soloist, performing at the BBC Proms from the mid-1940s until the early 1970s. He was also a pioneer in period instrument performance.

Wilma Smith

Wilma Smith, who was born in Fiji but grew up in Auckland, came back from study in the United States in 1987 to become the first violinist of the newly formed New Zealand String Quartet. She left the quartet in 1993 to take the position of concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO), and 10 years later took up the equivalent position with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Smith maintained a strong profile as soloist and chamber musician in Australasia.

A helping hand

One of the important roles of the New Zealand String Quartet is to teach and mentor up-and-coming performers. As well as being artists in residence at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, the players tutor young musicians at the annual Adam Summer School in Nelson.


The New Zealand String Quartet (whose members in 2014 were Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; and Rolf Gjelsten, cello) was established in 1987 by the Music Federation of New Zealand (later Chamber Music New Zealand). Its purpose was to encourage and promote the work of New Zealand composers and to undertake extended projects (such as Bartók or Beethoven quartet cycles) that would be difficult for touring groups.

From 2002 the NZTrio (in 2014 comprising Justine Cormack, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; and Sarah Watkins, piano) assumed a similar role in relation to piano trio repertoire.

There have also been chamber ensembles dedicated to the exploration of new music. Music Players 70, founded by pianist Barry Margan, was prominent in the New Zealand music scene in the 1970s. The percussion ensemble Strike, established in 1993, was the brainchild of composer Gareth Farr, himself an excellent percussionist. Wellington-based Stroma, an ensemble of around 20 NZSO musicians, was formed by conductor Hamish McKeich in the late 1990s, while 175 East, established in 1996, traversed similar ground for Auckland audiences.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Peter Walls, 'Classical musicians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Walls, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014