At 27, Julian Bliss knows what it's like to be a wunderkind. The British clarinetist won his first major concerto competition at 12, with a debut CD released by EMI two years later.
In 2002, at just 13, he committed himself to a professional career in music after playing at the Queen's Golden Jubilee, "an experience like no other and the biggest concert in my life," he remembers.
His current nationwide tour with NZTrio looks like being one of the high points in Chamber Music New Zealand's 2016 season. The four musicians have already been on the road for a fortnight, signing off tomorrow in Auckland Town Hall with music by Debussy, Milhaud, Messiaen and Ross Harris.
Bliss, who visited us briefly last year to play Copland with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, admits to getting a buzz from his current Kiwi collaborators, even down to their dressing "a little bit differently".
"The trio certainly likes its colours," he says with a smile. "It's new to me but I'm embracing it while I'm here. Musically, things clicked from the first rehearsal, but "that's the beauty of working with great musicians who have the innate ability to sense what your intentions are."
High-profile local composer Ross Harris is the odd man out in tomorrow's playlist, sharing the bill with three Frenchmen.
"Most of the clarinet repertoire was written by French composers," Bliss says. "It's so nice that the programme has this theme underlying it, although the audience will soon realize that, even if Debussy, Milhaud and Messiaen were all French, they composed in very different ways."
A Debussy Rhapsodie, played with pianist Sarah Watkins, is an old favourite and, he says, incredibly challenging, both in technique and musicianship.
"It was written as a test piece for the Conservatoire with the sole intention of showing off everything possible about the instrument - and every student had to play it," Bliss says. "There's something about Debussy; perhaps it's his harmony and those clever dissonances or the little hints of jazz here but, at the last count it's just a beautiful piece."
You'll hear more hints of jazz in the finale of a Trio by Darius Milhaud that brings violinist Justine Cormack on stage, but not in the major work of the evening, one of the indisputable masterpieces of 20th century chamber music.
Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is a work like no other, Bliss points out.
"I learnt the big clarinet solo before I discovered the rest of the score. It's one of the rites of passage for all serious clarinetists."
He worries that Messiaen, having written this piece in a concentration camp, may suggest it could be dark and harrowing, but says that's far from what happened.
"An unflinchingly beautiful work came out of it," he stresses. "There are lovely lyrical sections and amazing chords which seem to emerge, magically, from nowhere."
There May Be Light, the new Ross Harris work, was written to complement the Messiaen and, when Bliss met the New Zealand composer in London last year, he found him down to earth and easy to talk to.
"Ross is an eclectic composer who uses a wide range of different sounds," Bliss tells me. "This new piece is minimalist and very atmospheric; you have to tune your ears in a different way with all the quarter-tones and multiphonics, which involve the clarinet playing two notes at once."
He is struck by how these "unstable sonorities" are so suited to such a delicate, fragile piece. It's titled There May Be Light and, as the composer has said, it's up to audience to decide whether there is or isn't."
What: Julian Bliss with NZTrio
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Sunday at 5pm