Who is the most performed New Zealand composer?
Douglas Lilburn gets a regular run-out; John Psathas and Gareth Farr have strong international followings. If you want to place a bet, though, try putting your money on David Hamilton.
A prominent figure in Auckland music circles for close to 40 years, Hamilton is particularly known for his choral works and he notes that about one-third of the 200-plus choirs participating in the annual Big Sing schools' competition perform one of his pieces.
"It probably says more about how many other New Zealand composers are writing for choirs than that I'm particularly prolific," he jokes.
But Hamilton is prolific, incredibly so. SOUNZ, the centre for New Zealand music, has 615 of his works in its catalogue.
"And I keep running across works we do not have," says SOUNZ's Jonathan Engle.
Most of those works were written for choirs, which by Hamilton's own admission has left him pigeonholed as a choral composer. Does he think his instrumental music is overlooked?
"I probably do to some extent," he says. "Not to the point that it desperately worries me."
Hamilton's none the less delighted that Auckland Chamber Orchestra (ACO) is dedicating a full concert to his works for various instrumental ensembles, as part of its essential Composer Portrait series showcasing New Zealand music.
Hamilton and ACO music director Peter Scholes go back a long way. They were contemporaries at Auckland University in the 1970s and Scholes performed some of Hamilton's early chamber pieces. It's perhaps for this reason that when Scholes presented Hamilton with a suggested programme, it was full of old works.
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"I emailed back and said it'd be nice to have something a little more recent," Hamilton says. "I sent him an alternative, there was a little back and forth, and we came up with a suitable range."
One early work survived the toing and froing, Nix Olympica, written in the mid-1980s. Hamilton was initially reluctant to include something that, to him, is so old.
"I wasn't sure how I'd feel about it being included in the concert," he says. "It comes from a period when I was exploring minimalism and the influence is all too obvious. But it's a significant work in terms of where my style was going at that time and Peter had played in the premiere, so I thought that was a nice point of contact."
The concert's most recent composition, The Ghosts of Wreck Bay, brings us up-to-date, having enjoyed its first performance in May. Hamilton has even managed to smuggle in a couple of pieces that feature soprano Helen Acheson. None of the works is receiving its debut at the concert. In New Zealand, that's something of a triumph.
"I was at composer John Rimmer's 80th birthday concert recently and someone made the comment that the most important performance is the second one. That's very true, because you often get a first performance and then it's shelved. That's frustrating."
Hamilton's luckier than most in that regard. Many of his pieces have received multiple airings, which he credits in part to his willingness to compose for specific purposes or people. It's an approach that has kept him fully employed as a composer and part-time teacher since 2001, when he left his position of head of music at Epsom Girls Grammar.
"I'm very rarely sitting around with nobody wanting something from me and I'm more than happy to write for anything from primary schools to professional orchestras," he says. "That perhaps sets me apart from a lot of composers who'd turn their noses up at writing for a school group but I enjoy that aspect of the work."
Writing for kids was, after all, good enough for Britten and Vivaldi and Hamilton rejects the notion that composing for amateurs results in simplistic music. His Concertino for Oboe and Strings was written for an Epsom Girls Grammar student but is sophisticated enough that Auckland Philharmonia principal oboist Bede Hanley will play it at the ACO concert.
"At the top end of school groups, I can write some challenging and interesting music but for me that's not necessarily the point of composition," he says. "It's about fulfilling a need. It's nice to occasionally do something that's a little more out there but I guess I'm one of those composers who'd prefer to be performed now rather than in 100 years, or discovered after I'm dead."
What: Auckland Chamber Orchestra, Composer Portrait: David Hamilton
Where & When: Raye Freedman Arts Centre, 5pm, Sunday, June 23.