Robert Ashworth has just delivered a calf. Admittedly, the cow did most of the work but Ashworth is nevertheless a hands-on farmer who loves the rough and tumble of life in the country.

You wonder what a bovine-related finger injury might do to Ashworth's other career as one of New Zealand's leading viola players. He does, after all, have a busy few weeks ahead, performing with his Jade String Quartet at Pah Homestead in late November and, before then, concerts with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Ashworth is the APO's principal viola but will take centre stage as the soloist in Anthony Ritchie's first viola concerto. It's an opportunity not often afforded to orchestral musicians and the switch from supporting player to star turn requires a corresponding mental shift.

"It's quite funny," says Ashworth. "I sit on stage up there with everyone else, week after week, only a couple of metres from the soloist, but the change from my seat to the soloist's position is such a transformation and a very different feeling. It's extremely intense."


The APO's music director, Giordano Bellincampi, will be on hand to add a layer of security should Ashworth require it. It's unlikely he will. As well as being a superb musician the violist has performed the concerto before, with the St Matthew's Chamber Orchestra, conducted by his partner, APO and Jade violinist Miranda Adams.

"It was a lot of fun and everybody enjoyed playing it, including me," remembers Ashworth. "And it went down well with the audience."

Anthony Ritchie would be pleased to hear that; the composer doesn't believe in alienating the public.

"I like my music to communicate to people," Ritchie says. "I don't think anyone would describe my music as avant-garde; it's fairly user friendly."

The Viola Concerto's cheery final movement, in particular, bears that out, mixing Gershwin-like jazz elements with bluegrass influenced by The Blue Ridge Mountain Singers, a group suggested to the composer by Dunedin folk musician John Dodd.

Ritchie is closely associated with Dunedin. He lives and teaches there and when he wrote the concerto, he was composer-in-residence with the Dunedin Sinfonia (now the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra). He wrote the work for Donald Maurice, an important figure among New Zealand violists, who was teaching at the University of Otago and is these days a music professor at Victoria University. Although Ritchie composed the piece for Maurice, he was also thinking of his future wife, an amateur viola player.

"I had her in mind," Ritchie admits. "I composed the theme in the slow movement first, and it was at the time my [now] wife and I first developed a relationship, so it's got a personal touch in it."

Ritchie is clear about the qualities — other than marriageability — he admires in his violists.


"I like a big, warm sound. The thing that attracts me to the viola is that is has a slightly veiled quality that the violin doesn't have. It's more subtle, harder to pin down and I find that very engaging. It can be coquettish and aggressive, too. It's got a lot of different characters and I tried to exploit those in the concerto."

In traditional concerto fashion, there's a long cadenza, where the viola strides out on its own for a couple of minutes. That experience, of commanding a large hall with no competing instruments, can overwhelm unwary musicians.

"Everything drops away and all of a sudden you can hear yourself in this huge space," says Ashworth. "It's glorious as a player and hard not to get distracted by it: 'No, don't listen to yourself, just play.' "

Ashworth, who has just been to India, even hears elements of music from the subcontinent.

"There are moments of that kind of improvisatory raga beauty that happens with underlying tabla," he says. "Ragas are tremendously rhythmic with wonderful vocal or instrumental melody floating over the top, and that's what a lot of the Ritchie piece is."

Ashworth is wont to draw musical comparisons where those with untrained ears wouldn't hear them. Unexpectedly, we're on the farm again, where the musician-farmer breeds Tennessee walking horses.

"Riding a horse is very similar to conducting an orchestra or playing chamber music," he claims. "There are so many parts to consider and to line up and the gait is so rhythmical, all in four. As a leader [in the orchestra] you prepare everybody to play with you and it's the same with riding. You prepare the horse to move in sync with you, so you get this wonderful harmony; it's very similar to music making."

What: Robert Ashworth with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Jade String Quartet
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday, November 1; Pah Homestead, Sunday, November 25.