Just a few years ago, Auckland pianist John-Paul Muir seemed to be carrying off all the major awards, from Kerikeri to Christchurch.
Muir is back in the country to enjoy what he describes as the climatic and emotional warmth of home, putting on a recital on Monday in the Lewis Eady Showroom before returning to Britain.
Two years of studying at London's Guildhall School of Music, under the celebrated Joan Havill, have turned his life around, above all for "the chance to experience the pace of life and rich cultural variety in a big centre".
Muir has enjoyed culture heroes in the flesh, such as pianists Murray Perahia and Mitsuko Uchida.
"Uchida simply wafted on stage and gave us, among other things, her famous pianissimo," he recalls. "I was trying for days to find the words to describe it."
Another highlight was hearing Keith Jarrett performing with his trio. Muir already has tickets for the American jazz pianist's upcoming solo concert, his first in five years.
Muir's own keyboard talents took him to Venice in 2011 to be one of the pianists playing Michael Parekowhai's ornately carved grand piano at the Venice Biennale. Aside from the chance to serve up some tasty jazz improv, he also filled the gallery with the sounds of Beethoven, Ravel, Scarlatti and Liszt.
"I played Liszt's Fountains at the Villa d'Este on the Parekowhai piano, which was connected to (the book) The Story of a New Zealand River and, all the time, I could see the Grand Canal from the keyboard. It sounds cheesy, but there was a special connection here, and it renewed my feeling of identity as a Kiwi."
Muir has pursued his own mix of the classics and jazz since school days at Rangitoto College.
At the Auckland University School of Music, he was taught by jazz pianist Kevin Field alongside Rae de Lisle and Stephen De Pledge. Little wonder he now describes the ideal career as "a couple of days teaching, a few regular jazz gigs and the chance to establish some good collaborative chamber music relationships".
Muir puts great store on spontaneity and says the audience is an indispensable factor.
"I'm very sensitive to audience vibe," says Muir. "I can feel it as soon as I enter the room. One of my most enjoyable concerts was for the Waikanae Music Society, just after my Kerikeri success. It was packed and I was really energised by the warmth and expectation I felt from the hall."
Discussing spontaneity, Muir compares jazz and the classics. "To start with, they both have the same goals. The ideal classical performance is one that's fresh, as if it has been created in the moment - after you've internalised all the details of the score. It's the same with jazz, but a bit easier, because there is less detailed information to take on board."
Above all, he remembers advice once given by his father. "Whatever you play, it's most important to engage your heart."
Muir's Monday recital reflects his studies with Havill. She convinced him that Schubert's Impromptu, Op 90 no 1, draws much from the composer's other music, from Lieder through to orchestral scores. Muir says the plaintive, klezmer-like quality of its main theme has "a faraway quality, as if it's in the distance. It's tragically beautiful".
Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales appeals with "harmonies that are just like modern jazz voicings" but Chopin's B minor Sonata is the biggest test. "It's a huge mountain to climb, and holding it together is one of the biggest challenges.
"That demonic race in the last movement that chases and chases and chases. There's rage there, and you could almost burst your boiler keeping it on the rails."
Who: Pianist John-Paul Muir
Where and when: Lewis Eady Showroom, 75 Great South Rd, Monday at 7.30pm