Peter Bills: Effervescent Kiwi soloist grabs life by its violin strings

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Violinist Fiona Pears has her audiences exhibiting all manner of emotions with her exuberant performances. Photo / APN
Violinist Fiona Pears has her audiences exhibiting all manner of emotions with her exuberant performances. Photo / APN

There are violinists and violinists. Fiona Pears, violinist and composer, has a simple formula for life.

"I will give anything a go, especially if it makes either me or someone else feel better," says the Christchurch-based international soloist and recording artist.

Banish from your minds, dear readers, all preconceptions of orthodoxy in the world of the violin. Fiona Pears has largely rewritten the script. Her style and methodology is a world apart from images of stuffy classical musicians.

When the Canterbury earthquake struck and Pears' home on the west side of Lyttelton was damaged, who did she turn to for help? Herself.

"I was comparatively lucky. I have a cottage over 100 years old and it seemed to be a place that stood up well to the quake. There were bits and pieces of damage so I thought, I'm not sitting around waiting for someone to turn up in six months' time, I will do the work myself."

So the delicate fingers that dance like a butterfly along the strings of a violin set to with plastering and painting. Her father is a handyman so maybe the family's DIY genes are strong.

There was, too, a family tradition of music. Her mother taught the piano and she has childhood memories of her father always singing all kinds of songs and humming tunes from musicals.

She calls her sister, too, an incredibly talented musician.

The legacy proved infectious; she took to both the violin and piano with the eager aptitude that hallmarks her every work. Whether she is writing music or performing live in whatever genre takes her fancy, Fiona Pears brings a huge energy and vibrancy to her task.

Just talking to her you sense that lust for life, an unquenchable spirit that fills her very soul. She reminds me of the bubbles in a glass of champagne, omnipresent, never ceasing.

She began the violin when she was 5 and within a year gave her first public performance. She then developed a talent for playing the piano and today her musical talents thrill listeners and viewers around the world.

But it is the sheer exuberance of her personality that so enthuses. That and her willingness to embrace myriad styles of music. Classic, gypsy jazz, fast, slow, serious, fun numbers - she captivates audiences not just with the breadth of her knowledge and skills but her sheer joie de vivre at making music for the pleasure of those around her.

Does she have a favourite style? "Not a particular one. I went through a stage of loving gypsy music with such a passion. There was everything from Hungarian to Romanian to almost anything.

"But now I feel I want to enjoy a wide range of music while keeping going back to classical. It only used to be about 5 per cent of classical but now it's different. Any music has a place in me; it might be classical, jazz, folk, anything."

In reviews of Fiona Pears' concerts one word keeps cropping up. Fun. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone have so much fun whilst playing the violin," wrote one reviewer. She smiles at that.

"Music is never stuffy, not even classical. Certain people may make it seem stuffy but the actual music isn't. Of course, people have their preferences. For example, I adore Mozart's melodies.

"But whatever you are playing, I don't understand it when I see musicians looking as though they are not having a good time."

She wants to embrace everything surrounding those whose music she performs. She played a Brahms sonata at 12 and admits "I didn't get it then. But I do now. You have to learn about composers, find out who they were.

"Brahms was a moody old sod who probably had a stink life and that came out. He was a big guy with big hands which was why I couldn't play his concerto."

Her exuberance on stage leads some to suggest there is a natural artist bursting to break out. But she denies that. "I don't feel I am acting on stage. I feel like I have friends out there and the reason for that is, people don't come to a concert to hear a lot of perfect notes played perfectly or constructed in a perfect way, but because they want to have a good time.

"Someone once said, if you don't like the violin you might like this [referring to one of her concerts] and that is one of the greatest compliments. In my view, anyone going to a concert has to feel great about what they are hearing and if they don't, you haven't succeeded. But if they walk away with a big smile it is hugely satisfying."

Her most raucous venue? The Old Harbour Light, her favourite venue, close to home in Lyttelton. "I am thinking of one particular night in front of the locals," she laughed. "They were crazy and I loved every minute of it last time I was there."

Perhaps surprisingly, she put the Sydney Opera House audience in the same category, judging by her most recent appearance. She did an arrangement of Brahms' Hungarian Dance and was astonished. "They went absolutely nuts."

It was a similar experience at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. "They went insane. They were the noisiest bunch, screaming and clapping. The 'reserved English'? Shock, horror."

It's not unusual for audiences at Fiona Pears' concerts to scream, clap, shout, call out, cheer and demonstrate any other emotions known to human beings. That tells you much about the sheer vibrancy of her music, the sense of fun and overt pleasure.

"There needs to be music that is entertaining. The trouble is, if you want people to come to your concert who are not necessarily purists, they need entertainment.

"It is really important to be able to entertain in the true sense of the word.

"I think if you can incorporate that element of fun into the music you are covering all bases."

Pears scoffs at the theory that she alone is rewriting the image of world music. What of the Three Tenors, she points out, classical performers who brought the great arias and compositions of opera to so wide a global audience. The stuffiest aficionado may have sniffed in disdain at such populism but Fiona Pears was not one of them.

"It is a good thing as long as it does not take over, for a lot of beauty would be lost if that happened. Getting across to people that they may actually like it ... that is what music has to be about. But if we lost those amazing musicians who do it by the book, then something so beautiful would be lost."

She has defined limits. For example, she would never play the electric violin. "It just isn't real," she says. "The beauty is in a real wooden instrument."

Ah, a traditionalist at heart?

Perhaps. But the great triumph of Fiona Pears is that she has brought a variety of music into the lives of some who might otherwise never have known some pieces.

Their enjoyment has been hugely enhanced by the entertainment factor she has introduced.

- NZ Herald

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