The NZ Trio has a formidable track record for a mere seven years of existence: two uncompromisingly impressive CDs, concert tours the length and breadth of the country, as well as performing as far afield as Brazil and China. When I catch up with pianist Sarah Watkins on the eve of the trio's third visit to China, her excitement is palpable.

The trio's concerts in Sichuan and Shanghai will place Chinese contemporary music alongside scores by New Zealanders Jack Body, Eve de Castro-Robinson, John Psathas and Wayan Yudane. Watkins trusts that Chinese audiences will appreciate the individuality that is a hallmark of our composers.

"In the case of Wayan Yudane, his Indonesian background filters through, while John Psathas brings in his obvious Greek heritage. New Zealand composers always write with their own voice," she affirms. "We are very lucky in that respect."

When our young composers go overseas, older and bigger countries are not always as liberal and open-minded.

"One of our young composers had gone over to the States and was encouraged by his tutor to write in the tutor's style," says Watkins. "Our composition teachers, on the other hand, tend to encourage a unique, personal voice in their students."

Yudane's Entering the Stream is the New Zealand piece on the trio's Auckland programme next Sunday (May 10), an intensely spiritual work that evokes the natural world around us. Watkins is particularly taken with a second movement "just like wind chimes, with a filigree line that weaves up in the piano against little gestures in the strings".

The Auckland concert has a title - Vontasia - a free-wheeling neologism to catch the spirit of concert that travels from Europe to Asia and back again, starting off with Haydn, venturing east to include works by Chen Yi and Mike Yuen and then returning west for Dvorak's F minor Trio.

After working through Haydn's 45 Piano Trios, Watkins reveals that she and her colleagues have "picked a couple of beauties". Sunday's E minor work is one of the best "from the drama of its first movement to the fast-fingered romp of its Finale".

The youngest composer in Sunday's line-up is Mike Yuen and his Shades is music with a message to be heeded. "Mike feels that we are living in a time when everything is so busy, a time of harsh edges and bright lights," says Watkins. "Why can't we go back to appreciating a more simple life?"

Reflecting on the trio's overseas experiences, it has been the audiences that Watkins most remembers.

"When we played one of Bright Sheng's Folksong pieces at Sichuan the audience all started singing along because it was such a familiar tune for them," she laughs. "And afterwards they were able to tell us its story."

Changes lie ahead for the NZ Trio. After all these years working under the aegis of the National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries, the group's contract ends in two months.

"We'll be branching out on our own. There's some great support behind us including Helen Clark who has agreed to be our patron which is a wonderful alignment."

Performance
What: Vontasia, with the NZ Trio
Where and when: University Music Theatre, Sunday May 10, 3pm