The New Zealand String Quartet are embarking on their first ever UK tour this month. First violinist with the ensemble, Helene Pohl, talks about instruments made of whalebone, being an ambassador for the music of New Zealand and the excitement of playing in Haberdashers’ Hall.
You’re playing a very varied programme during this tour, with a number of pieces by composers from New Zealand. Why have you decided to include this repertoire?
Well, first of all, who else is going to do it? It’s wonderful music and a privilege for us to be the ambassadors for our composers. We’re playing a piece by Richard Nunns, who plays Maori instruments. Richard’s a real treasure in New Zealand because he’s made it his life’s work to rediscover the voices of these instruments, which were very much discouraged by the missionaries. He went round and talked to the oldest people he could find and asked them what it was like when their grandparents played these instruments. The ones he’s playing with us in London are all made of whalebone and each of them has a very limited range. It’s wonderful to hear a very small motif played on one of these beautiful, other-worldly sounding instruments. It feels like you’re hearing the building blocks of music. An instrument may only have a minor third of range, but if it’s a sigh that comes from the heart that’s as effective as anything our instruments can do.
What other repertoire will you be performing?
It’s always a combination of what we’re dying to do and what other people are dying to hear. After this tour we’re sharing a Beethoven cycle with two other quartets at a festival in Ontario, so therefore there’s quite a lot of Beethoven on our menu for the tour. Whereas, in the London concerts we’re enjoying the chance to showcase the New Zealand music alongside some of the great 20th-century standards: Smetana and Shostakovich, for example.
Do you, as an ensemble, have a favourite composer?
We love the opportunity, like actors do, to step into the skin of Shostakovich and be that tormented soul and sing for all the pain we’ve ever felt. And then we adore jumping into Smetana’s skin and the passion of his life and that feeling of a life passed with all its richness. Then we play Bartók with the incredible use of chromatic tension and the wonderful colouristic use of folk music. It’s a great privilege to be a chameleon like that – I don’t want you to take any of those pieces away from me, I love them all!
Which venue are you most looking forward to performing in?
We haven’t played in any of these venues before, it’s all new to us. But we’re especially looking forward to the historic venues – I’ve never played in a place called ‘Haberdashers’ Hall’ before – that’s fantastic. Coming from a country where my violin – from 1730 – is older than any building in the whole country, the chance to be in all these historic places is very special.
Interview by Elizabeth Davis
The New Zealand String Quartet will be appearing at the City of London Festival on 13 July at Haberdashers’ Hall, London at 7.30pm and then at venues around the country including Lichfield, Derbyshire and Cambridge.