When the Herald last spoke with cellist Ashley Brown, he seemed a man determined to enjoy himself. With his chamber group NZTrio having lost long-term members violinist Justine Cormack and Sarah Watkins (piano) in quick succession, Brown spoke of "playing the field a little," being "footloose and fancy free," and "having a few dates" with a variety of stand-in musicians.
It sounded fun but talking to Brown now you sense he's glad to have "fallen in love, got married and given birth to a more stable NZTrio" which now boasts permanent members in pianist Somi Kim and violinist Amalia Hall
They now begin the Tectonic Shift tour on July 11.
The three performed as a makeshift NZTrio last November and straight away Brown knew the group had something special.
"The tour was phenomenal," he says. "I was exhilarated but also challenged and I really loved that. Our rehearsals made me think on a whole different level and there was magic that made it clear this had to happen again."
In true 21st century dating fashion, Brown turned to the internet: "I knew this group was a possibility so I sent an email. We had a Skype call and it dawned without much fanfare that yes, we are all interested in this. Quietly under the table [NZTrio manager] Vanessa [Zigliani] and I gave a little high five."
Agreeing a new partnership was one thing, making it happen was another but eventually Brown managed to arrange things so that all three will play the group's main series concerts next year.
There was a lot of wrangling. Somi Kim is relocating from London, and Brown had to move some preliminary dates to ensure Hall could appear in all the concerts. Even then, it's a squeeze for the violinist, one of New Zealand's busiest musicians. When we speak, she is about to begin a run of 31 national and international work-related plane flights in two months. Given how much she has going on, what on earth did Brown have to promise to get Hall to join NZTrio?
"He said they'd buy me a Stradivarius," Hall jokes about one of the world's most expensive instruments (a Stradivarius once sold for $21 million).
"We had a great time musically, in rehearsals and on the road last year, and to play chamber music in more of a fulltime way is kind of a dream. It's so rewarding. It's push and pull, give and take; it's like weaving a blanket with different coloured thread that all becomes one thing."
Classical review: APO thrives in face of major challenge
Neil Finn saved me: Australian writer Andrew Stafford on having something to believe in
Legendary dramatist puts his family in the spotlight
What characteristics does Hall bring to the group?
"I focus on expression and sound," she says. "There's a lot of focus for young musicians, especially in competitions, to be very stable and perfect and secure. I'm definitely not 100 per cent secure but hopefully I express the emotional intent of the music. That's the way to speak to the audience's soul."
Hall may not consider her playing to be technically perfect but composer Michael Norris, who wrote a concerto for her, begs to differ.
"I brought some difficult sections of the concerto to her dressing room and she sight read them almost without blinking," Norris recalls. "Phrases way up the top of the fingerboard that would turn most violinists a pale shade of green, she revelled in. One of my favourite passages is right at the limits of human physicality and is supposed to sound on the border of falling apart, but she nailed it."
Norris has a special association with NZTrio: 15 years ago he was the first New Zealand composer to be commissioned by the group. The resulting work, Dirty Pixels , gets another airing on this tour.
There have been numerous local commissions since Dirty Pixels debuted, and Tectonic Shift features one of the latest, Dame Gillian Whitehead's Te waka o te rangi . The work was written to mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook's arrival in Aotearoa. Whether that event is cause for celebration, commiseration or simply commemoration depends on your viewpoint, and NZTrio's website talks about Whitehead's piece as a contemplation of worlds colliding.
"It's an opportunity for people to form their own opinions," says Brown. "Hopefully, discussions will ensue; this is an opportunity to rip the scab off a bit."
Typically for NZTrio, the Whitehead is placed next to contrasting works, with, for example, Arensky's Romantic first piano trio dancing cheek to cheek with Pale Yellow and Fiery Red by contemporary American composer Jennifer Higdon.
"I love the crazy juxtapositions," says Brown. "I've made a playlist [of the concert pieces] and the chops and changes you get from going into Michael Norris from Frank Bridge – it's preposterous. Where you have something jarring and the next moment you're sinking into a warm bath, that's how you feel music."
Where and When: On tour nationally from July 11, Auckland concerts at Q Loft July 14 and 16, see NZTrio.com