Akaroa Festival


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Huskies & Rehearsals

The parable of the huskies

 The first thing that happened to me on the way to Akaroa was that I almost didn’t get there. It was the huskies’ fault. That’s to say, it was my fault; but let’s talk about the huskies.

Christchurch airport, Friday January 6th, 930am. A huddle of cello and violin hard cases outside the Coffee Culture franchise on the ground floor, accompanied by a cluster of well caffeinated young persons: this would be the crowd for the Akaroa Music Festival shuttle bus. I am a full generation older and I don’t know anyone, and I haven’t been in Christchurch for ten years. The shuttle isn’t leaving until 11:15. I decide to go for a walk.

Christchurch International Airport is as rich in nearby scenic sights as any other large airport, but it’s exciting just being in a strange place, and I do manage to find the Antarctic Center. Outside on the grass, there are Siberian huskies. You can stroke them. They have a husky wrangler with them to help you do this safely. He explains that you must never look a husky in the eye. Also, if you stroke a husky under the chin, it will think you are saying, “I submit to your dominance, Alpha Husky, for I am weak. Please tell me what to do”. This is apparently not a thing you want to tell a husky.

Huskies are one of the closest breeds of dog to wolves. “Most dogs”, says the wrangler, “you establish dominance once, and you’re done. Huskies, you’re never done. They test you every day. If you don’t keep working at it, the husky is going to take charge of the relationship, which is really stressful for it”. Really stressful for you too, presumably; but this is not the wrangler’s primary focus. It occurs to me a few days later, while I’m watching a young musician use a brief break between hours of rehearsing and a music lesson to sneak in some practice, that huskies are somewhat like musical instruments. A violin will not bare its teeth at you if you show weakness, but if you start taking your relationship with it for granted, unfortunate growling noises do become possible.

This is all so interesting that when I find my way back to Coffee Culture, everyone has gone. I send off a slightly panicked text. Someone comes and finds me, thus staving off a blog about being homeless in Christchurch for ten days. I grab the last seat down the back of the shuttle, after putting my brother Steve’s viola, which he’s asked me to bring down for him, on the second-to-last seat. I am now surrounded by young musicians. “You know that viola’s upside down”, one of them says. I explain that this is news to me. “It’s okay”, says another young musician. “It’s a viola, no one cares”. I turn it up the other way. Possibly I am not making a very good first impression.



Glimpses of the labyrinth

Akaroa harbour is spectacular. Akaroa itself is lovely. I feel that particular fizzy buzz you feel when you’re in a brand new place and it happens to be very beautiful. Our bus is taking us to Akaroa Area School, which is going to be our base: empty classrooms for small group rehearsals and individual lessons, a huge gym for large group rehearsals and group classes. An ideal venue. We get lost attempting to reach it. Our driver asks a local for help. The local leaps aboard and starts giving directions, and we do a complicated five-sides-of-a-square thing which gets us to the school while teaching us a fundamental fact of Akaroa, which is that the streets parallel to the shore are more or less flat, and the streets perpendicular to the shore are more or less vertical. The hillsides here are not wasting any time. They’ve heard about this place called the sky and they want to go there.

Unloading ensues. We all try to sort out where we need to be and what we need to do. A long table in the gym is covered with piles of papers, some of them copies of the master schedule, which governs who rehearses where and when and for what, and some of them copies of the individual teaching schedules. There’s one for each teacher, and the students pore through them figuring out when and where each of their lessons is. This is my first moment of glimpsing the size and shape of this festival. I have been invited here to observe, ask questions, and write these blogs. I’ve known of the festival for most of the ten years of its existence, because my brother is on the faculty, but I’ve never had a clear sense of exactly what sort of a festival it is. Putting together the swarming-bees activity of the students round the table with the information in the master schedule — I grab a copy of this, and it becomes my bible for the next ten days — I’m able to conclude that there is a reason I’ve never figured this out from my brother’s chance remarks. The reason is that the festival structure is as simple and as easy to navigate as the Labyrinth of Crete. There will be 15 main concerts, featuring chamber performances by visiting professionals and some of the senior students, as well as two different orchestras mostly made up of students. There will be an additional series of lunchtime concerts featuring the students, who have been assigned to a range of chamber groups for their time here. At any given time, any of the faculty who aren’t rehearsing or performing will be teaching. Basically a large professional music academy and the performers for a substantial chamber music concert series have arrived in town simultaneously, and they all have to be allocated times and places to get a lot done very quickly. I’m glad I’m not in charge of the scheduling, or of living arrangements, or indeed of anything. There are many more students here than were with me on the bus; the younger ones have parents in tow.

I go off to find the house I’m staying in. We’re dispersed all over Akaroa, though the students and faculty are mostly in rental houses close to the school. Being a hanger-on, I’m further off, which turns out to mean a brutal hill climb, rewarded by a sweeping view out through native bush towards the harbour. At 4am tomorrow morning I am going to discover that the dawn chorus here is louder and more complex than anywhere I’ve been in mainland New Zealand. Even by day, the bird life around the house is frankly astonishing. I’ve never seen so many kereru or bellbirds.



Cellos in the earthquake zone

I make it back to the gym just as the student orientation talk is getting under way. Edith Salzmann, the festival’s artistic director, is explaining basic protocol: who to see for this, who to see for that, where the concerts will be, where to go for food. “Very important to know: this is an active earthquake zone. Cellists, do not leave your cellos standing! The least little shake and your cello will topple and you won’t have a cello any more.” Also, the town could slide into the sea, but Edith is a cellist and her priorities are clear. “If things start to shake, find someone from Christchurch and see if they look worried”. Ten days later, on our way back to the airport, a fellow Aucklander tells me how disappointed she is that none of these warnings came to anything. She’s in her 20s and in her whole life to date, she’s never felt a single earthquake. I advise her not to complain about this where Cantabrians might hear her.

We’re getting there

I lose the rest of day one to set-up activities. (Groceries, finding bed linen, etc.) The next morning I get to the gym in time for the 8:30am sectional rehearsals for Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. The gym lights have an annoying buzz as they warm up. The rehearsal feels a bit that way too. Later in the week I overhear one of the faculty commenting to Donald Armstrong — associate concertmaster of the NZSO and the conductor for both the student orchestras — that the Serenade is a killer of a piece. “Romantic degree of difficulty, classical degree of exposure. Nowhere to hide. Glad I’m not playing in it”. Donald sighs and agrees. “We’re getting there”, he adds. What I mostly take from this rehearsal is that the students are at the bottom of a steep hill and there’s a lot of hard work between them and the top. (This is a metaphor that tends to occur to you when you’re in Akaroa and I am going to return to it.)

The schedule tells me that the first rehearsal for the Brahms B-flat major String Sextet is about to start. Location: “Elisabeth”. This means it’s in the classroom allocated to Elisabeth Kufferath, violinist and viola player. I go wandering round the school. The classrooms are nearly all outside-access free-standing structures at the edges of the playgrounds or the large playing field. Most of them have neatly printed signs on the door: Edith Salzmann, Cello. Alvin Wong, Cello. Ramón Jaffé, Cello. Donald Armstrong, Violin. Elisabeth Kufferath, Violin, is right at the far edge of the school, by the road our bus mistakenly drove up yesterday. (Many of the teachers and performers are staying just around the corner from here, in a set of neat little cottages just behind one of the old colonial-era villas that you see everywhere in Akaroa, beautifully restored and surrounded by well manicured gardens.) I go in and find most of the sextet members already setting up. The others arrive shortly. It’s a half-and-half group: three faculty members, three senior students. My brother is playing second violin. I ask him later about this mix of seasoned professionals and players in the earliest stages of their careers. He tells me it’s right at the core of what the festival aims to achieve. “We’re very careful who gets a shot at playing in the concert groups. If they screw it up, they don’t get a second chance! And they know that.”

So no pressure. Oh, and by the way kids, a journalist is going to be sitting behind you for your first rehearsal, taking notes. You’re fine with that? Of course you are. I do tell everyone that if I’m a distraction, they should say so and I’ll happily leave. I say this sincerely, but with a sneaking awareness that students trying to do the right thing in a first rehearsal with their teachers are unlikely to take me up on it. They don’t.

I can use words to say how people feel

I go to concerts as often as the average music enthusiast. I’ve been reviewing classical concerts in Auckland for the last five years, so probably a little more often than average, in fact. What I don’t do, what I’ve only done a couple of times since I gave up playing myself 25 years ago, is sit in on rehearsals; and my own rehearsals, back in the day, were strictly scratch-level amateur affairs. I am entirely unprepared for two aspects of this rehearsal, and most of the other rehearsals I sit in on over the next week and a bit. The first is immediately obvious: the playing starts out much closer to performance-ready than I expected. After a little introductory chatting and sorting out of fundamentals — “What A are we using?” “We tune to 447 in Germany, but I can do 442…” “Do we want the heat pump on?” “Yes please!” — they run the first movement. It gets better after the first repeat — more cohesive, more dynamically coherent — which is the main way I can tell that it was a little baggy at first. I don’t know this piece well, and it’s classic thick-textured Brahms: within half a minute all six players have phased in, and they all spend a lot of time sitting inside each other’s chords. There’s a lot for the ear to process. It’s gorgeous though.

Elisabeth doesn’t think so. The first thing that happens after they finish is an exhaustively long and thorough retune: she is exacting and very hard to satisfy, and the implication is clear. Then they run the movement again, and this time they stop frequently to pull things apart and agree on the shapes and the emphases they’re trying for. Alvin Wong, first cello: “Was that tempo okay, was I pushing too much?” Steve: “No, it’s good, it took me a little getting used to, but I like it”. This sort of exchange happens a lot between the three faculty members. The three students are much quieter. Possibly they’re overwhelmed, which would mean they’re feeling the same way I am. This is the second thing I wasn’t prepared for: Elisabeth, Steve, and Alvin can all play their own highly challenging parts, hear what the others are doing, and remember the precise bar where one person out of the six of them did some very specific thing they need to ask about. And once they’ve talked about it, they mostly don’t make any markings on their parts: they trust themselves to remember how they agreed to play it. This combination of concentration, trained ear and memory is remarkable to me. Within a few days I will realise that all the faculty members take it for granted.

Also worth mentioning: Elisabeth flew in from Germany at 5am this morning. She got an hour or two of sleep between Dubai and Sydney, she says. Everyone else in the room seems to take this for granted as well. You’re a touring musician; ergo, you tour, and you play music. No big deal. Apparently.

This is a year one and two reading classroom. On the door is a list of writing goals. “I can use words to say how people feel”. I can’t actually tell how these people feel. They’re very straightforward and restrained in what they say to each other; the feeling is all in the music, and the music is magnificent. Why haven’t I heard this piece played live before? Because string sextets are hard to pull together, and not simple to listen to, either; so much of the complexity is deep inside the layered harmonies. It’s music you want to spend time with. I decide to come to all the Brahms rehearsals I can.

Water Beetles & Concerts

This is what a bassoon looks like

If you’ve ever been inside Old St Paul’s, Wellington’s great wooden hymn to Gothic Revival architecture, St Peter’s in Akaroa will give you deja vu. It’s a fraction of the size, but it dates from the same period (1864 to Old St Paul’s 1865) and it has the same warm bare-wood-and-stained-glass interior. Most of the festival concerts are going to be in the Gaiety, the grand old concert hall which was closed after the 2011 earthquakes and has just, finally, reopened; but the Gaiety has been booked for an art exhibition for our first couple of days, so for the first two concerts, we’re in St Peter’s.

Well, I say “we”. The first concert I manage to miss. St Peter’s is a half-hour walk from where I’m staying, and by the time I solve the basic domestic questions in my Akaroa quarters (“where is the can opener?”) I realise I’d be arriving late, and it’s been a long day, and… basically I crash. This becomes embarrassing to recall the next day when I watch Elisabeth Kufferath do her jetlag-defying Brahms rehearsal. So the second concert is my first. The church is full. Students and faculty sit down the back and in the choir loft. I sit in the second row, surrounded by strangers. Are these people all locals? Actually, no: the chap in front of me is over from Sydney for a week, spending time with New Zealand in-laws, and the couple next to me have driven in from Christchurch for the day. They love listening to music, but hardly ever go to concerts. This is an exciting venture into strange waters for them. (When we get to Piazzolla’s Seasons, they ask me what the long asparagus-shaped instrument in the ensemble is, and are fascinated to learn that this is what a bassoon looks like.)

I’m pretty sure by the interval that my concert highlight is going to be Alvin Wong and Caroline Almonte playing the Beethoven D Major cello sonata. Beautifully responsive playing, and Alvin makes such a strong vibrant sound: and it’s Beethoven. (All five of the cello sonatas are being performed during the festival, and this, augmented by a majesterial mostly-Beethoven piano recital on the final day, becomes the richest through-line connecting my ten days here.) But in fact the Piazzolla is even more delightful: three of his zestful Four Seasons tango compositions, with summer left out, someone explains, to avoid taunting Akaroa with what it can’t have. (When I asked festival veterans what temperatures to pack for down here, I was told Akaroa longtimers get bored if they only have four seasons in one day. “Seven is the average”. So far this appears to be true, except that none of the seven is any version of summer.)


Water beetles

I actually meet St Peter’s for the first time earlier on day two. Having looked over the master schedule and noticed that a lot of rehearsals I’ll want to attend are going to be held here, even after the concerts shift over to the Gaiety, I decide I need a faster way of getting around. So I take a couple of hours off after the Brahms sextet rehearsal, borrow my brother’s car, and drive back to Little River, a tiny settlement on the far side of the hill where I’ve discovered bikes are available for hire. They’re also available in Akaroa, but far more expensively. There is because ever since 2011, the cruise ships that used to put in at quake-devastated Lyttelton Harbour have been coming here instead. Throughout the summer, two or three of these incongruous beasts hit Akaroa a week: one has arrived today, in fact.
The ships are on a different scale from everything else about the area, huge tourist-industrial edifices abruptly materialising in the harbour overnight. If you get down to the waterfront first thing in the morning, perhaps to buy a coffee because you didn’t think of coffee when you were doing your hasty groceries trawl the day before, you’ll see the first of the tender shuttles putting in, little orange-topped boats that for some reason make me think of water beetles, unloading their cargo of tourists and heading back for more. A ship might bring anywhere from 1000 to 3000 tourists. (Permanent population of Akaroa, as of the 2013 census: 624). Exactly how good or how bad these influxes have been for the town’s economy, culture, and environment is a

complex subject I hear debated several times while I’m here, but one thing becomes clear very quickly: there is no way the local bike hire place is going to cut me a cheap deal on ten day’s use of one of their bikes when they have this many potential customers flooding into town several times a week.

Hence, Little River, where the problem of getting quickly back and forth between festival venues is solved for me at a very reasonable price. So I am able to nip down to St Peter’s for the first time on the afternoon of the second day, riding a bright yellow bike and wearing the only Little River helmet in my size, which happens to be bright pink. By the end of the week, there will only be three music students left in all of Akaroa who have failed to admire this helmet. (At least, I assume the giggles are admiring ones.)

 This man is an artist

There are two major clumps of shops in Akaroa, separated by a sweeping stretch of beachfront road. St Peter’s is just inland from the larger and more useful one, the one that isn’t mostly restaurants and souvenir shops clustered round the waterfront area where the tender shuttles put in. Throughout the festival, every time I go in to St Peter’s to listen in on a rehearsal, I’m not the only audience: the church is open to the public both as a church and as a historic place, and tour parties and casual passers-by drop in, do a double-take at whichever group of professional musicians is sitting in the transept playing busily away, and take a pew to listen for a while. (After one first rehearsal a few days from now, I’m going to hear someone behind me whisper, “That was amazing!”, and I’m going to feel oddly heartened. I’ve adjusted to the idea that first rehearsals are rough drafts. “You never give people a hard time in the first rehearsal”, Slade Hocking, the festival’s trumpet soloist, says to me at one point. “You wait for the second one so they have a chance to get it right”. It’s good to be reminded that to ordinary ears, these rough drafts are polished performances.)


By the time I get back from Little River and make it to the church, I’ve missed the Piazolla rehearsal and the Beethoven C Major cello sonata rehearsal (the C Major is slated for performance the day after the D major), and I’m just in time for another Brahms rehearsal: Caroline Almonte and Elisabeth Kufferath are about to start work on the G Major violin sonata and the F Minor viola sonata. Caroline was also in the Piazolla rehearsal and the Beethoven rehearsal. It would be a mistake to say that Caroline is the hardest-working person I meet the whole time I’m in Akaroa, because the faculty members who are performing less than she is are doing a reciprocally greater amount of teaching. (If you’ve ever watched someone give six 45 minute one-on-one music lessons back to back, your capacity for sustained concentration is greater than mine, but probably still an order of magnitude down from the teacher’s.) Caroline is definitely the person here who’s doing the most work on stage. She’s in nearly every concert.


Two things worth noting from this first glimpse of her at work. First, the session reinforces my impression from the earlier Brahms rehearsal that high level professional musicians have uncanny powers of focus. This is a banal insight, granted. If you spend much of your life rehearsing complex music with a large and changing roster of equally capable and experienced players, then of course you’re going to become efficient at it in ways that will appear stunning to an amateur. Knowing this does not save the amateur from feeling stunned. Caroline and Elisabeth start with the violin sonata. This is a piece I’ve loved for thirty years; I know it very well, but I don’t know it the way they do. At the end of the first run-through it becomes apparent that they each have it fully in their heads in two versions: the abstract, Platonic score, perfect because unrealised, and the particular version they just played together. They home in on a few points of interpretive tension. (Elisabeth: “Can you explain this sostenuto?” Caroline: “Did I do too much?” “No no, I love what you want to do with it, but I think…” They discuss the precise markings on the page, variant editions, what they each want. The tonal mix is a curious blend of brisk, no-nonsense professional and careful, hyper-sensitive mutual respect: they have work to do, but also they have a working relationship to maintain. By the end of the festival I’ve realised that these two are quite good friends; that isn’t obvious in rehearsal, not because they seem unfriendly, but because their rehearsal personas are about getting the job done whether they like each other or not.)


The other thing worth noting from this rehearsal occurs when a large, diffident, somewhat bear-like man interupts them to ask how Caroline is getting on with the St Peter’s piano. Caroline turns to me. “This is Kevin”. Kevin turns out to be the festival’s piano tuner. “When you write about him you have to say that Kevin is an artist. I am not kidding around, this man is an absolute artist”. When Caroline tells you she isn’t kidding around, you believe her. “As pianists we are totally in the hands of the piano technicians, people think we’re good or bad when usually what they’re hearing is a good or bad instrument. This piano was dead last night, it was just dead wood. It sounded like a honkytonk piano. He has totally transformed it”.

Another dog metaphor

  Early the next morning I make my first attempt at riding up to the Banks Peninsular ridge line. It is an ignominious failure. I manage to pick a road that does not go to the ridge line, and also, I can’t ride up it. The road appears to have been engineered for goats. The ride is notable however for introducing me to Sissie the dog. I meet Sissie when she comes charging out of a roadside house down by the seaside Onuku Church and attempts to save my bike from me. She’s a small terrier and the task is a bit large for her, but she tackles it with gusto. “Don’t worry love”, her owner calls from an armchair on the porch, “just keep riding, Sissie won’t follow you”. I keep riding. Sissie follows me, bounding round and round the bike and yapping ecstatically. I am the best thing ever to happen in these parts, is Sissie’s view. Soon she settles down and merely races along beside me, and soon after that, as the hill road tilts towards the vertical, she trots along beside me, and then, as my speed falls off still further, she gets impatient and runs on ahead. When I give up and head back down again, she declines to return with me. She may be up there still. And this, it occurs to me during the 5.75 seconds it takes gravity to pull me back down to sea level, is a way in which small dogs resemble music students. They’re all over the place at first, too young and too green to really grasp where the teacher is taking them. Then they get the idea and start to head in the right direction. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, a student comes along who will outpace you and get all the way to the top. 

The hall is double-booked

Today we have the first of the Gaiety concerts, and also the second: one in the early afternoon, focussing on recent European music, and one in the evening, featuring a cello suite by Friedrich Kiel, a contemporary of Brahms, and also a selection of flamenco cello music. (Apparently we have a classically trained flamenco cellist on the faculty. Possibly the world’s only one. His name is Ramon Jaffe, and actually, a flamenco cello performance is not something to miss, if you ever get the chance.) I make it in for the morning Tchaikovsky rehearsal, the first with the full orchestra together, and arrive just as Wolfgang Kraemer does. Wolfgang is the festival’s director, meaning that at any given moment he has seventeen people texting him to ask where the music stands are and who has a car and the time to go pick a late arrival up from the airport and do we have a spare bedroom to put them in when they get here? He’s energetic but rather quiet, except for his ties, which are outrageously loud; it’s usual for him to look distracted. “You look distracted”, I tell him. “The hall is double-booked”, he says. The art exhibition which has been using the Gaiety for the last two days has been told they need to be out by 2pm. This is not going to work very well for our 1pm concert. We’ve already sold tickets.

This is when it’s good to be the journalist observer. I go off to the gym. The Tchaikovsky sounds much, much better with everyone together, but still fairly ragged. They have a week until their concert. When I come out,
Wolfgang has cancelled the concert, sent someone down to the Gaiety with a crate of wine for disappointed ticket-holders (they’ll also get a refund), and redistributed the repertoire among a couple of the other concerts.

People are walking up the school driveway carrying a dinghy. The school pool is opposite the gym, and small children in life jackets are clustering at its gate. There’s probably another metaphor here somewhere.



Hills & Students

Three Graces

“There’s always more”, Grace tells me. “That’s the cool thing about music, you’re never done. I think that’s why a lot of people do it as a career…”

When you say you’re off to have a chat with Grace, the response you get from people at Akaroa is, “Which one?” There are three Graces here, all students. (Jokes about the Three Graces of classical mythology proliferate. They’re funny the first few times you hear them.) I’m talking to this Grace, who turns out to be Grace Leehan, because I’ve noticed her playing second viola in the Brahms Sextex, and then noticed her again in the first of the Gaiety concerts, playing in Telemann’s Concerto in E Minor for recorder, flute, strings and continuo.

The Gaiety is not what I expected. I’m not sure what I expected; possibly something in the name made me think of a snug set of tea rooms. After the cosiness of St Peter’s this echoing auditorium seems vast. It’s about the size of the concert chambers of the Auckland and Wellington town halls: not large as city performance venues go, but easily four times the size of St Peter’s, and the 20-foot ceiling makes it feel larger. The Telemann is the piece being rehearsed on Sunday afternoon when I go in to check the place out. The art exhibitors are only just gone, and the hall’s maintenance people are going back and forth setting out chairs and pulling the black-out curtains into place around the stage sides. They ignore the performers and the performers ignore them; the effect is curiously surreal. It feels as though I’m the only person in the room who sees everyone. (Full disclosure: this is a delusion journalists are prone to.)

We could just play it that way

I can, to tell the truth, generally take Telemann or leave him. But this piece is striking, especially the fiery final movement. It’s crisp and edgy, with a driving sense of momentum, and there’s a moment where the flute and recorder share a piercing held high note while the strings repeat a rising figure from beneath them that’s as charged with churning energy as anything in the Brandenburg concertoes. In rehearsal there’s a moment where the violins fail to resolve a cadence: the final G sharp has been left off their parts by the printer. “We could just play it that way!” someone suggests. The consensus is that this would be adventurous, but that Telemann must be allowed to resolve.

The schedule tells me that a Shostakovich quartet rehearsal is happening in Elisabeth’s room in this hour as well. I duck out of the Gaiety and jump on my bike and get over there in time for the third movement; but it’s far too hot and stuffy in the room, so I sit out on the steps and listen from there. Dense rich dissonance; if there was a G sharp missing from someone’s part here, figuring it out would be a trickier job than with Telemann. Students are congregating on the steps just down from me, outside another classroom. After a few minutes it’s become quite a crowd. One student zooms up on a scooter, with a music stand balanced across the handlebars and a violin on his back. My brother sticks his head out of the classroom. “If you’re here for the class, we’re actually doing it in the gym”, he says.

“Class?” I ask one of the students, as they begin wandering off towards the gym. There’s nothing on the schedule about a class. “We’re having a technique class”, she says. A great light dawns: I have been following faculty members around and looking at how the concerts here are put together, but I haven’t paid any attention to the teaching side of things, because my schedule doesn’t list any of the classes. I should have got hold of a teaching schedule on day one. I head over to the gym.

Bad news for the cellists

Caroline the pianist is there. (Unusually, she has no rehearsals this hour.) “I want to see how your brother works”, she says. The students are setting chairs up in a big semicircle. We take seats behind them. While we’re waiting, I ask her about her work as an accompanist. Being the clueless person who asks experts questions about their work is not necessarily a bad posture to adopt if you want to get interesting answers, but for the record, this particular piece of cluelessness isn’t tactical, it’s real. Caroline is a little way into her answer before I figure out that she is speaking from a place of, “I am being patient with you, but that was an excrutiatingly dumb thing to say”. “I don’t actually do accompanist work very much”, she says. “I play chamber music. Accompanying kind of suggests you’re at the command of the other person. Whereas most of the great sonatas are written as conversations between equals”.

 Steve arrives. “I have some bad news for the cellists”, he says, looking around. There are twenty-odd students here, four of them holding cellos. “This is a technique class for violinists and violists”. A few of the exercises they’ll be doing will generalise, he says, the cellists are welcome to stay if they want…

 “Here’s a question for you”, Steve says, after three of the cellists have taken themselves off. “It has a completely factual answer. What are the two hardest things in violin and viola playing?” Silence. No one wants to be wrong. “The answer is ridiculously simple”. Someone suggests left-hand harmonics. Not simple enough. Playing in tune? Still not simple enough. “It isn’t something that’s going to occur to you at first, but seriously, professionals ten, twenty years into their careers come to me with this, they’re usually pretty embarrassed about it actually, they say, I don’t understand how I can be having this problem, but…” He pauses. “Anyone?”

Caroline leans over and whispers to me, “I think it’s holding the violin and holding the bow”.

It’s holding the violin and holding the bow. Steve itemises the ways in which shoulder and wrist and neck contort in order to do the things these young players can no longer remember finding deeply unnatural — but which, he promises them, their bodies are going to start objecting to forcefully in a decade or two, unless their technique is bedrock solid. He starts them in on breathing and movement exercises. After a while they get to try lifting their instruments and lowering them onto their collarbones. There’s a discussion of the history of the shoulder rest, the small shelf fiddle players strap on to their instrument’s underside: it was invented after the time of Paganini. The chin rest came earlier, but it wasn’t around for Mozart. The shoulder rest and the chin rest both increase your purchase on the instrument; when the left hand needs to leap from the base of a string to a position closer to the top, most modern players rely on chin and shoulder rest to help clamp violin or viola in place, so it isn’t shoved sideways by the movement. “Think about the things Mozart requires, the dexterity he asks for. Or think about Vivaldi, think about playing The Four Seasons without a chin rest. I don’t think I’d get far. So we’ve gained a lot from having these things, but we’ve lost things from our technique, too, and maybe we can recover them a bit if we work on it…”

A less finely differentiated world

All lessons and classes at the festival are open. I sit in on a number of individual classes over the course of the week; the interesting thing about them is that they tend to be very boring. Sometimes they’re the one-on-one version of this class: breaking a complex bit of technique down to its atoms, and repeating very basic movements again and again until the student can rely on using exactly the right arm position, or executing the complex series of anatomical shifts required to move the bow through exactly the right plane. Hold your feet just so, breathe a certain way, sway slightly and let your body’s inertia flow into the bow movement. Now start extending your arm… The difference between the right plane and the mathematically infinite number of wrong ones is usually not visible to the untrained eye unless the student is getting it very wrong indeed, which any student advanced enough to be at Akaroa is probably not going to do. I comment on this to my brother at one point. “You could hear the difference when she did it right, though”, he says. I’m forced to tell him his faith in my ear is misplaced. This is the difference between a music enthusiast and a professional: if our worlds are made of sense impressions, then musically I live in a much less finely differentiated world than most of the people I’m spending this week with.

This also becomes clear in lessons focusing on musical interpretation rather than bedrock technique. Towards the end of the week I stop in to hear Elisabeth Kufferath teaching Benedict Lim, a brilliant young violinist who was in her Shostakovich quartet. They’re working on the first movement of the Beethoven violin concerto. This is my favourite concerto, I know it inside out, and the interesting thing here is that Elisabeth and Benedict are working at a level of granular detail that’s almost as dull for me as watching someone fine tune their open string bowing for 45 minutes. I don’t understand the larger conception of the piece which informs the note-by-note decisions they’re making, and I’d need to spend a lot of time listening to them work to change that. These lessons are not for tourists.

In the first Gaiety concert on Sunday night — which is well attended; I was expecting the numbers that packed out St Peter’s to look thin here, but in fact the hall is more than two thirds full — the Telemann goes down very well. This is when I notice Grace, who’s the innermost of the three violinists, mostly obscured from view by the other two. Her viola playing in the Brahms sextet had struck me as very responsive, very alert to what the other players were doing; and here she is again. Possibly she’d be a good person to ask about the student experience here.

Metaphor problems

The next day is the only festival day with no concert. I take the afternoon to get some writing done, after spending the morning making another attempt to ride up to the peninsula ridge line. This time I’ve found a road that actually does go there, but the tarseal ends about two thirds of the way up, and my cheap hire bike didn’t come with a pump, which gives me an excuse not to go onto the more-likely-to-cause-a-puncture gravel section. I need the excuse badly. Who designed these roads? There’s no way Akaroa doesn’t get frosts in the winter. Reduce the friction coefficient of this road by three percent, and I swear you’d slide right down it at terminal velocity. The problem with using hill climbing as a metaphor for students slowly ascending to musical excellence, which obviously I’m going to want to do, is that the metaphor comes out wrong if I can’t actually climb Akaroa’s damn hills. I ride back down very carefully, pondering what would happen if my brakes failed. (What would happen is I’d die).

Tuesday morning: I catch up with Grace in a break between her rehearsals. We chat for a bit. Violin is her primary instrument, but she finds she really enjoys playing viola in chamber music. “There’s just something about it I find intriguing. Violins are very soloistic, they tend to drive chamber music, especially in eighteenth or nineteenth century stuff, but violas are like the glue. I love being in the middle, you become more aware of everything that’s going on”.

Remembering things in your body

She’s having lessons with Donald Armstrong and Elisabeth while she’s here, as well as playing in the orchestra, the Brahms, the Telemann, and a student quartet, which is working up some Schubert for a lunch time concert at the end of the week. The student quartet is important — “We have to learn to rehearse on our own”. This extends from mutual critique and finding interpretations that work for everyone all the way down to basic logistics. Students are assigned to chamber groups based on experience, and left to find their own rehearsal times and spaces. (“There’s usually an empty classroom somewhere”). This is nothing new for Grace or the other senior students, most of whom are doing tertiary performance courses; later in the week I talk with some younger students, who say being trusted to work out their own rehearsal procedures is new and they really like it. “Adulthood practice”, says one of the teachers briskly when I mention this. “Younger teenagers can handle a lot more independence than they’re sometimes given”.

It’s good to have lessons from multiple teachers, says Grace. “There are so many different styles and approaches. It’s also good to get different opinions on how you might do a phrase, say. That can be confusing, but you’re the one who’s playing it and in the end you have to learn to decide. And music is endless, you never run out of possible ways to play it, there’s always more. That’s the cool thing about music, you’re never done. I think that’s why a lot of people do it as a career…” I ask her about the lack of note taking I’ve been observing in rehearsals — the way players just assume they’ll recall all the decisions they make in a two hour rehearsal. Yeah, she says, she used to write everything down. “But when you’ve been doing it a bit you kind of start remembering things in your body. You get to trust yourself”.

Abandoning the present tense

The difficulty with attempting to convey what it’s like being at Akaroa is that it’s too many things at once. At some point in the afternoons I would usually abandon the present tense flow of it all and go sit on the waterfront for twenty minutes, and read or drink coffee or send texts to friends. There were generally floods of cruise ship escapees around, talking in half a dozen languages, and the act of sitting down would trigger an immediate assault from the seagull hordes, whose attitude to seated humans was that if they weren’t dropping bits of food anywhere obvious, they could perhaps be made to do so if the right bird screamed at them very loudly. So these brief sits were only nominally peaceful ones, but they still felt like essential pauses, and the reason they felt essential is that the festival was a non-stop multi-ring three tent circus. There was always more going on than I could track. After the first four days I started to spend more and more time in the Gaiety, listening to rehearsals. The concerts continued to draw reasonable crowds, and the range as well as the quality of music they offered was remarkable; several stood out, notably the piano matinee concert on the final day. This featured Jun Bouterey-Ishido, a young alumnus of the very earliest Akaroa Music Festivals who has been studying and performing overseas for years. It also featured more than one moment when the people sitting close to me looked at each other and just sort of gaped. I think the word “matinee” in the concert title had lulled us into thinking we were about to hear a light little recital. All early Beethoven, wasn’t it? Should be a fun quick concert before the longer evening one, which was going to bring the week to a rousing close…

Yeah, so we should have looked at the programme more closely. The concert was a major statement: the young artist returns home and shows what he’s learned. It was actually quite overwhelming. To begin with, the Eroica Variations, op 35, are not, as I had fondly supposed, a sweet little show piece where Beethoven plays around with some of the ideas from the third symphony’s final movement. The symphonic version is the simplified one. Opus 35 is a sufficiently massive edifice that when it thundered to a close, I suggested to my brother that Jun should blow off the second half of the programme and play the variations again, because I needed to get my head around them. “Blow off opus 111?” said Steve. “You don’t do that”. “Wait”, I said, “opus 111? I thought it was opus 32?” “No, it’s number 32. You know. The last sonata.” “Oh”, I said.

So basically Jun blew the roof off the Gaiety.

There were a lot of other highlights. The sextet concert. Caroline and Martin Rummel rehearsing the Beethoven C Major cello sonata. (The performance was splendid; but the rehearsal was my first taste of the piece, and also the best first rehearsal I heard all week, with both performers not so much hitting the ground running as leaving the ground behind and going directly into orbit.) Caroline and Slade Hocking performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, transcribed for trumpet and piano. (I went to their rehearsals too. They were very entertaining, partly because Caroline had assumed that knowing the solo part from the orchestral version would leave her more or less on top of the transcription, and hadn’t practiced much. “Oh my god“, she said after one page turn, seeing what was about to come her way.)

But I think the best concert of the week was former festival student Jun’s.

One last attempt at the hill metaphor

Of course I tried the hill again. You may picture me inching my way up yet a third road, not quite such a steep one this time, a fractional decline in gradient for which I am most pitiably grateful. But there does seem to be an awful lot of road. From time to time I stop peddling and look down at Akaroa. It’s beautiful. There’s a cruise ship in the harbour, because of course there is. The view from the top will be even better. If I get there. Maybe I’ll get there. Maybe there’s a problem with this metaphor though. Does the climb end, when the hill you’re climbing is music? You can get to the peak of professional success, but you never actually run out of hill. As Grace says, there’s always more to music.