Hamish McKeich is one of the unsung heroes of New Zealand music. He's a tall, wild-haired man with a baton, whose expertise with Kiwi contemporary has seen him presiding over a host of first performances with ensembles like stroma and 175 East.
McKeich is also the man the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has called on for this year's annual Made in New Zealand concert. Next Saturday's event marks the fourth time McKeich has taken this assignment on, conducting three major works by Lyell Cresswell, Gillian Whitehead and Chris Cree Brown in an programme titled Wonderland.
Many Aucklanders will be particularly keen to hear Helen Medlyn reprise her authoritative performance of Whitehead's Alice, premiered by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2003.
McKeich started his career as a bassoonist, securing the principal's job with Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the age of 19. His initiation into the absorbing world of contemporary music came when some works by the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis were put in front of him.
"This was music that didn't follow any traditional forms," he says. "Yet these wonderful sounds gave the impression of having a really solid structure, even if you didn't exactly know what was going on in the piece."
These words are very much in line with McKeich's philosophy as a conductor, "working with the musicians, from the smallest sections to the general span of the work" until the audience is aware of what the composer is striving to do.
He has fond memories of his three previous Made in New Zealand concerts, particularly last year's when Stephen De Pledge was soloist in Lyell Cresswell's new Piano Concerto.
McKeich talks of "the incredible tension and release of Cresswell's writing, in which silence is juxtaposed so effectively with the stronger stuff".
This year, the same composer's Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet, featuring the New Zealand String Quartet, "is closer to the Baroque concerto grosso than the traditional 19th century concerto.
"It has such energy," McKeich enthuses. "It's so busy, with so many notes going through it, especially in the furioso sections."
Yet the word "serenity" also comes up in our conversation, "and a real sense of various motifs being pursued through the work". He is looking forward to a recording session next month, which means this piece will eventually appear on a second Naxos CD of Cresswell's music, alongside last year's Piano Concerto.
It has been a thrill for him working with Helen Medlyn in Alice, as she sings Fleur Adcock's evocation of a post-colonial past against Gillian Whitehead's shimmering soundscapes, but presenting Chris Cree Brown's Celestial Bodies has him vehemently standing up for the Christchurch composer as "one of our most under-appreciated".
"His works have an incredible sense of their own space and time," he explains. The 10-movement Celestial Bodies, premiered at the 2005 Christchurch Arts Festival, combines orchestra and electronic sound, which McKeich feels "has been created very much in terms of the piece as a whole. It's very subtle and often imitates the orchestral instruments."
As it happens, before McKeich takes to our town hall podium, he will have conducted an enterprising concert in which Christchurch Symphony Orchestra tackles the music of The Adults.
This trio of Shayne Carter, Jon Toogood and Julia Deans tempts one to use the term supergroup. McKeich agrees. He has added even more high-flying talent, having the songs scored by four different composers, including Aucklanders Claire Cowan and Stephen Small.
He likes "to mix up the arrangements a little," he admits. "There are 14 fairly disparate songs and each arranger will bring his or her own sound and colours to them."