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NZTrio's new line-up is turning fun into a career

NZTrio’s new members Somi Kim, centre, and Amalia Hall with cellist Ashley Brown. Photo/Supplied
The “tectonic” theme that runs through NZTrio’s new concert series with its fresh line-up seems fitting. The programmes evoke such earth-shaking events as the first encounters between Māori and Europeans or the frictions of the Cold War, with recent US compositions set against works from Soviet Russia, including those of Schnittke and Shostakovich.

As well, the ensemble have had their own seismic upheavals. In 2017, after 15 years of playing together, NZTrio violinist Justine Cormack and pianist Sarah Watkins decided to make changes in their professional lives. Cormack left in 2017 and Watkins last year.

For cellist Ashley Brown, it was a watershed moment. Proud of the way the original three had built NZTrio’s reputation for dynamic performances, he was determined to continue. “I had a responsibility to carry it forward,” he says, “even though I was exhausted and had taken a bit of an emotional hit. New Zealand needs NZTrio.”

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Initially, Brown invited musicians to play with him. “It was scary, but also a wonderful freedom. I could choose repertoire and who to play with, and some amazing musicians joined me. The audience was excited and I was revelling in it.”

When the breakthrough came, Brown didn’t recognise it at first. For a tour late last year, NZTrio’s guests were New Zealand violinist Amalia Hall and pianist Somi Kim. Still in their twenties, the pair already had established careers. Hall was working as a soloist internationally while based in New Zealand as concertmaster for Orchestra Wellington and Kim, sought after in Europe as a chamber musician, accompanist and répétiteur, was living in London.

On that NZTrio tour, musical sparks flew. “We had a ball playing together,” Brown says. “Rehearsals were really intense, and each performance was a new discovery. They’re both phenomenal players and the electricity when we play together is really exciting.”

A few months later, Brown invited them to join NZTrio permanently. He admits he felt a great sense of relief when both agreed. “I’d been enjoying the ‘rolling guests’ model, but it’s really wonderful for these two incredible musicians to become the next generation of NZTrio.”

For Kim, accepting the role has meant a major change of direction. A holder of the UK’s Exceptional Talent visa, she had planned to stay longer. “It feels surreal that I’m coming back; if this job hadn’t come along, I wouldn’t have returned so soon. But a full-time position playing chamber music is something you don’t even dream about as a young professional musician. Amalia and I feel really lucky. The tour last year was so much fun and when they asked me to join, I thought, ‘Is it really possible to turn this fun into a career?’”

Kim is excited about “getting in deep” with the piano trio repertoire. Already, her contacts in Europe have proven useful – through her introductions, the ensemble will perform in the Netherlands next year alongside one of her own engagements. And after six years in London, she’ll spend her 30th birthday with family in New Zealand the day after her long flight home.

Part of the reputation of NZTrio is their commitment to adventurous repertoire, and performing the music of New Zealand composers has always been integral to their programming approach. Brown says it’s often the new works that audiences want to talk about after the concerts. “They’ll buy tickets for a recognisable composer’s name, but go home talking about the new piece, even if it made them uncomfortable.”

New commissions are part of both the upcoming Tectonic concerts as well as a short Matariki tour for Chamber Music New Zealand with Māori instruments specialist Horomona Horo. Gillian Karawe Whitehead’s Te waka o te rangi will have its world premiere in both programmes, and works by New Zealanders Michael Norris, Martin Lodge, Samuel Holloway and Ross Harris are also part of the Tectonic series.

Brown devised the “thought-provoking and exhilarating” Tectonic programmes himself. “This is such powerful music, with subject matter ranging from the early moments of our nation and the relationship with Mother England to massive clashes of egos and ideologies that threaten the whole globe.”

He’s looking forward to working on them with Kim and Hall, “especially knowing they’re not just visiting this time, but that we’re building the group and developing our future”.

NZTrio Toru Whā, Ka Rewa a Matariki, Wellington, Upper Hutt, New Plymouth, Palmerston North and Napier, June 29-July 21; Tectonic Shift, Christchurch, Nelson and Auckland, July 11-16; Tectonic Impact, Auckland and Blenheim, October 13 and 15; Tectonic Uprising, Auckland, December 15.

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.