It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

When NZTrio programmed a concert of music by women composers in honour of the Suffrage 125 celebrations, the influence of recently departed violinist Justine Cormack was still apparent and Sarah Watkins was pianist.

But Watkins' exit from the group ensures that neither will appear in the new-look NZTrio's upcoming Braid concerts, meaning a show celebrating the achievements of female creativity features no female musicians.

Cellist Ashley Brown ("NZMono," he jokes) acknowledges the irony but remains upbeat about NZTrio.


"It's a really exciting time," says Brown. "It's like having been in a long-term relationship and for a while I'm playing the field a little, footloose and fancy free, having a few dates with amazing players."

Brown's dalliance this time is with two of the country's finest, experienced pianist Stephen De Pledge and Michael Hill International Violin Competition finalist Benjamin Baker.

"Why not have a group of three men celebrating and enjoying and recognising the output of female musicians?", he reasons.

It's a fair point and of the many arts events honouring the anniversary, NZTrio's is certainly among those able to withstand any accusation of tokenism. The group has always played and commissioned music from women composers, a policy Brown says will continue no matter who eventually fills the vacant piano and violin seats.

Braid opens with an NZTrio commission, the first movement of Rachel Clement's States. Like most NZTrio concerts, Braid's programme takes athletic leaps across time and style, sandwiching Fanny Mendelssohn's 19th century d-minor trio between Clement and contemporary Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. Anyone would think the eclecticism is deliberate.

"Totally but we're hopeful that [the pieces] throw up something we won't necessarily know until we hear them alongside each other," says Brown. "I don't get a sense of a programme until it's in performance. You start to see things in vivid relief. There are similarities and differences you can only experience when you jam them right up against each other."

Thus the second half of the concert juxtaposes Clara Schumann with Sono, a beautiful, reflective piece by Victoria Kelly commissioned by Brown's previous chamber group, Turnovsky Trio. Brown and Kelly know each other well; they've been married 15 years.

"I've written a lot of music for him, because as far as I'm concerned, he's how the cello sounds," Kelly says.

According to Brown, he and Kelly regularly share ideas and comment on each other's work.

"She feels very free to tell me exactly what she thinks about what I'm doing," Brown says.

"Maybe some couples prefer to keep work and life in separate cubicles but we're happy to keep it all tumbling together. We seek feedback from each other. I think she'd say the same."

Kelly: "If Ash tries to give me feedback I yell at him. But he's always right, so once I've yelled at him I may have to go crawling back and say, 'sorry, you may have a point'."

Kelly, who has won numerous awards for her film, TV and classical work, no longer composes full time, picking and choosing who she works with.

She recently arranged and orchestrated Neil Finn's Out of Silence and played live with him to support the album ("I'll always work with him as long as he wants to work with me") and wrote a major commission for Voices NZ choir to be sung in Canada on Armistice Day.

Her main gig these days is as a senior manager at performing rights body APRA. It gives her a deep understanding of how women composers fare in this country. From the outside, women appear very well represented, especially among our senior ranks, where music by composers such as Jenny McLeod, Gillian Whitehead and Eve de Castro-Robinson are regularly performed.

"I think we are doing quite well, especially in the contemporary classical community," Kelly says cautiously. "But we are still in the minority. How many female music professors are there? How many working female composers are there compared to working male composers?

"We are particularly outnumbered by people in authority: media institutions, radio programming institutions, educational institutions. All these things have an effect. The reason we know about our female composers and songwriters is not because there's a great representation of them in numbers, it's because the ones out there are really f***ing good. What would happen if more women were empowered, how rich and full would the landscape be then?"

Which is why concerts like Braid are key, and why groups like NZTrio, which not only play existing works but add to the repertoire through commissions, are critical. After shedding two-thirds of its members, Brown must have been tempted to quietly retire NZTrio.

He says not: "It's too important to let it go."

What: NZTrio, Braid
Where & When: Loft at Q Theatre, Sunday, September 23 and Tuesday, September 25; City Gallery Wellington, September 26