By Carly Gibbs
Gregory Squire knows a few aspiring violinists might be deflated to hear he didn't find learning the instrument "that hard".
He laughs when I say that might create jealousy, agreeing "a lot" struggle.
"It's a big challenge starting off."
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) first violinist grew up in Paengaroa near Te Puke and had a high-flying international career before coming home 22 years ago.
He is performing in Tauranga tonight in Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, and tomorrow when the NZSO and Hawke's Bay youth choir Project Prima Volta, join forces to perform Broadway favourites.
The concerts are part of the NZSO's new Immerse 2021 festival, and tomorrow's performance will be special for Squire, who's worked alongside Prima Volta with the charitable trust he belongs to, Or-ches-trate!, which goes into low decile Hawke's Bay schools.
He has a passion for performing that 53 years on from learning the violin, hasn't gone away.
At 64, he is also a conductor, music teacher, and singer, saying that each stroke of the violin bow produces "the closest sound there is to the human voice".
When he's meant to be practising at home, it's not uncommon for an hour to slip by and for him to realise: "I haven't really practised, I've just played".
He owns eight violins, but uses only three with the NZSO.
His most loved is an Italian instrument from 1750, which used to be worth more than his house in Wellington, where he now lives.
"That's pretty much been my constant companion for 30-plus years now.
"Of course, I look after it, but I'm not precious about it because I feel like it's survived 250 years before I got it.
"For a lot of that time it was probably played in pubs, or a few kids would have smashed away on it, so it's certainly had a life."
It's widely accepted that older string instruments sound better.
"There are a lot of complex reasons for it. The main thing for me is it just makes me sound a lot better than I really am," he jokes modestly.
Others would say he needs no help.
During Covid-19 lockdown, he and wife Anita had socially distanced drinks with their neighbours in a large common area one dusky Saturday evening, and he was coaxed to perform.
As he stood on grass with his centuries-old violin stuck under his chin, the sound of him gliding and dipping into a romantic melody, enticed more and more neighbours out on to the street.
"There was one lady who had her little grandson there, a toddler, and he wandered over, [but] it started getting a bit too close.
"I thought 'this is probably too much of a party for the lockdown rules'. But still, it was just a really, nice thing to do."
When it comes to the violins he owns, Squire, a dad of adult twins, takes them into schools to incite passion and wisdom among children.
"I know it's a cliche, but music is a universal language, and it does cut down barriers whether it's racial or gender, and age, of course. When I'm with a bunch of kids it's like I'm back being a kid again.
"The first time [they hear the violin] they go: 'Woah, that's so loud' because they don't expect that.
"They see this little wooden thing, and they are usually surprised at the power of it, and that's a great thing to be able to share."
It was his own childhood when he first had the instinctive understanding of a piece of music. And the confidence to face a large audience.
He chuckles thinking back to performing on stage in Te Puke and how it nearly took his breath away.
His father Donald Squire was deputy principal of Paengaroa School for six years, and his mum Rosemary, a speech therapist.
He recalls living in the schoolhouse, attending a yearly Guy Fawkes bonfire, and playing cricket and rugby, and loving the sense of community and carefreeness Paengaroa offered.
"A really sort of perfect upbringing for being a kid in New Zealand. Even while we were living through it, I think we were aware how lucky we were."
Don Squire was involved in the local dramatic society and was passionate about making music accessible to children, which included organising local music festivals.
He and Squire also took singing lessons in Tauranga, and all five Squire children played instruments.
One day when Squire was 11, his Gran brought a violin she'd had in her Auckland attic, down to Paengaroa.
"There'd been a friend of dad's who played the violin, and he just played a few tunes and I thought it was pretty cool, and that would be fun, and that's how it started."
Soon after, the family shifted to Auckland, and he began lessons at age 12.
"I enjoyed it. I used to sing all the time and it felt like I was singing when I was playing the violin."
He also plays the viola and the piano.
Later, he obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, and led a varied life as a soloist, concertmaster and conductor performing all over the world.
"I've just been incredibly lucky to have a number of doors open for me wherever I've been," he says, explaining he joined the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - one of the top orchestras in the world.
"Some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century were regularly coming into work with us, and I kind of took it for granted at the time.
"Looking back, it was quite amazing to have Claudio Abbado or Menuhin one week and Rostropovich the next."
A full-time member of the NZSO since 1998, he's one of 30 violinists.
They make up a third of the NZSO and are broken into two sections - 16 in the firsts where Squire sits, and 14 in the second. Both sections have different roles.
"The first tends to get more of the melodic lines, and the seconds tend to get more of the sort of supporting lines, and interesting harmonies.
"There's a curious thing about the way our ears work. When it comes to the sound of string instruments, our ears can listen to it a lot longer before it starts to pall.
"Wind and brass instruments are used more sparingly for that reason and tend to be used more in a solo way.
"The basic sound of the orchestra comes from the string band."
Away from the NZSO, he is the principal guest conductor of the Hawke's Bay Orchestra, and has conducted and appeared as soloist with Wellington Sinfonia, Kapiti Concert Orchestra and Wellington Chamber Orchestra.
He was music director of Massey Conservatorium Chamber Orchestra, conducted concerts and opera at the New Zealand School of Music; served as music director of Wellington Youth Orchestra, and was the NZSO's first education officer.
He rarely gets nervous, saying that would only happen if he wasn't prepared.
"You have to stay match-fit. The same as any athlete," sharing that six to eight hours a day with his instrument tucked under his chin isn't uncommon.
Most preparation is done at home, then the NZSO spends around 2.5 days together before a concert - most are at night - leading them to live some "anti-social" hours.
He admits that if he did get something wrong, the audience would unlikely know, but to a professional critical ear, it would be obvious.
"Within the section, we all know if someone's put a blooper in. So, it's kind of like 'Oh yeah, I'll be buying the beer afterwards'."
Now a battle-seasoned veteran of the concert circuit, there isn't much that his nimble fingers haven't played, but he wants to play a couple more symphonies by Danish composer Carl Neilsen, of whom he's a fan.
Not much stumps him either, but the violin writing for some famous orchestral works is "extremely difficult".
"And of course, with contemporary music, a lot of composers are pushing the barriers, so when there is a new work that none of us have ever seen before, that adds a layer of complexity.
"Every time we go on stage, we're very much aware of what we're doing, and the standards have to be as high as possible," he says without an ounce of fret.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's the best life I could have possibly had."
# This year the NZSO has launched a new music festival Immerse 2021, where they stay in some cities for up to three days. Last night they performed Four Seasons in Tauranga. Tonight, they perform The Firebird.
Tomorrow, they present Broadway Matinee, a concert with Project Prima Volta - a weekly singing programme that uses opera as a tool to empower teenagers.
There are also free daytime "Open Doors" family events today, at X Space, Baycourt, from 10.30am to 5pm. Some events require registration. To find out more, go to: NZSO