A wonderful maze of music

By William Dart

A devotion to diversity drives violinist Kristian Winther. Edgy compositions suit his musical tastes too.

Kristian Winther is grateful for the Michael Hill Violin Competition.
Kristian Winther is grateful for the Michael Hill Violin Competition.

Violinist Kristian Winther is becoming a regular soloist with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Next Thursday, he plays Bach in the orchestra's Bach to the Future concert; 10 years ago, almost to the day, he was on the same Town Hall stage with Shostakovich's First Concerto, a performance that earned him second place in the 2003 Michael Hill International Violin Competition.

"It seems like a lifetime ago," says the 29-year-old Australian, admitting it had been crucial to his career.

"I'd already had a limited success in Australia but the prize galvanised orchestral administrators who then had the confidence to hire me. It was a catalyst in what became a chain reaction. In fact, I wouldn't be playing in Auckland next week if it weren't for Michael Hill."

Winther was first drawn to the violin when his Australian parents, on the staff of the Hong Kong Performing Arts Academy, took him to a symphony concert.

"It was immediate. I saw a violin and wanted to play it."

Returning to Australia at the age of 7, he eventually had "an inspirational teacher who was French, which made me feel a very real connection to a little piece of Europe". As a student, he valued "those wonderful international artists who visited and gave us an idea of what was going on in Europe".

Now a member of the Australian String Quartet, based at the University of Adelaide, Winther admits he has tried most things musical, including composing, conducting and a brief stint as concertmaster of Berlin's Mahler Chamber Orchestra in 2011.

"It's important to do everything possible and give everything a go," is how he justifies such diversity, and it was his joining the Tinalley String Quartet that took him to Europe.

At first, in 2007, things did not look promising. "I didn't understand the concept of rehearsing all the time and having no money," he recalls. "But we played a lot of concerts and worked really hard."

Penury paid off. The four musicians won the Banff International String Quartet Competition that year and toured the US and Europe. Winther left the group at the end of 2008 and, focusing on his solo career, returned to New Zealand two years ago as soloist in Brett Dean's The Lost Art of Letter Writing with the APO. Coupled with Ross Harris' Fourth Symphony, this was one of the orchestra's most unflinchingly contemporary presentations to date.

Dean's work had been written for the German virtuoso, Frank Peter Zimmermann.

"It is so difficult that, when Zimmermann got the score, he didn't look at it for a couple of months," Winther laughs. "It's like a labyrinth. It's a wonderful maze to get lost in and your job as soloist is to get deeply involved with its sound world. It's a real monster of a piece and the first really successful international violin concerto by an Australian composer."

On Thursday, he goes back a few centuries to Bach, playing the composer's E major Concerto, in between the orchestra giving us Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony.

Bach may not present the almost superhuman demands of Brett Dean, but the E major Concerto comes with its own specific demands.

"With Bach, it's a matter of making sure that everything you're putting out there is absolutely crystalline, like a finely-crafted jewel," he says. "Yet your playing must be very alive, warm and, above all, human. This is music that needs to be pristine and perfect but never machine-like."

Recalling Winther's breathtaking account of Bach's Chaconne at the Michael Hill semifinals 10 years ago, he would seem to have all the right credentials.


Performance

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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