Auckland, New Zealand

Dear Readers,

This is my first entry from New Zealand. Greetings from far away! My tour here is over, and I’m getting ready to return to the United States now – though I still have five more weeks till I go home.

I’d been to Australia before, in the middle of ’99, for a five-week tour of six different cities. Australia is pretty near to New Zealand, so I’d expected the topography, foliage, and the general character of the two countries’ population, to be kind of similar. It makes sense to assume that, doesn’t it? But no – I was wrong! These two countries couldn’t be more different. Where Australia is exuberant and almost brash, New Zealand is understated and more introspective. Where Australia is huge, New Zealand is tiny and divided into two main islands. Australia’s aboriginal people have been minimized throughout history, pushed out of the mainstream; New Zealand’s Maori culture is celebrated in almost every way possible: Maori is the official second language, their art is found everywhere, museums are dedicated to their culture, and the rugby team does the traditional war dance (the “haka”) before every match. Australia has very distinct species of animals and is renowned for its unending expanses of desert, bush, ocean reefs, and everything else; New Zealand has unusual plants and a touch of just about everything under the sun, yet in manageable doses and in tucked-away locations. What they both specialize in is coastline, though judging from what I saw, New Zealand tends more towards rocky, wild, pristine inlets and dramatic scenery, and Australia has more of the typical sandy beaches (albeit fantastic ones). I could be wrong; these are just my impressions. I saw a lot of beautiful, rugged, green hills, crystal-clear water, and breathtaking views; met many kind, thoughtful, eclectic, and outdoorsy people; walked barefoot through Wellington; and learned a lot about the country’s heritage. I visited museums; absorbed as much of the Maori culture as is possible for a foreigner to pick up during a three-week working trip; took the ferry from the North Island to the South Island; strolled on beaches (and found a bone resting on the black sand); stroked a starfish in a natural tidal pool; went horse-trekking on the South Island; bought art and handicrafts from wonderful galleries; took a flight in a tiny plane over untouched land; went to a dinner party at the home of an orchestra musician; rearranged hotel rooms; ate ethnic food at divey markets; spent a night at a B&B; read Whalerider and finished reading The Canterbury Tales (the old-English version of that book comes next).

That said, of course there was a comprehensive musical aspect to my trip: to tour the country with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO, with the Z pronounced as “zed”) and guest conductor Christian Gansch, performing Paganini’s Concerto #1 and Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto in the cities of Wellington – where the orchestra is based – Palmerston North, Napier (the art deco town), Auckland, and Hamilton.

It might seem to you that those two concertos would make for a very strenuous tour program. That’s an accurate observation – and the reason why I never played both on the same evening. This has been a three-week tour. The first week, we performed the Paganini (I played it in Hong Kong before arriving here, so it was fresh in my fingers). Barber filled the second week. Then, the third week, after each piece had been thoroughly and individually rehearsed and performed, Paganini and Barber appeared on alternate evenings. Going into the tour, I wasn’t sure how that would work out, but it wound up being a solid plan. We didn’t have to repeat any part of the program in any of the cities in which we played twice, yet the workload was manageable. Christian, the conductor, was ready to work on both concertos from the moment his plane hit the tarmac, and his enthusiasm and vigor were matched by his level of preparation. The orchestra pitched in wholeheartedly, rehearsals were productive, and by the middle of the tour, I realized that all of us were developing a joint interpretation of both works, a distinctive combination of musical personalities, which gave me a slightly altered outlook on each piece. If you asked me to, I wouldn’t be able to describe the difference in words – but it was noticeable to me.

As far as other musical pursuits go – ones related to my work – I had plenty to fill my time. There were a lot of projects to juggle simultaneously, all at different stages of development. What made the situation particularly disorienting was the fact that, in the middle of May, it was winter, yet my body had finally adapted to summer (it had been meltingly warm in Hong Kong). Jetlag was the finishing touch. After a few days of drugged sleep, I woke up and began to chip away at my to-do list. Once I got going, things took on their own momentum. The first order of business was to finish the editing of my next album, the Elgar Violin Concerto and Vaughan-Williams’s The Lark Ascending, which is scheduled for a September release on Deutsche Grammophon. Next, I had a bunch of chamber music to learn, for upcoming summer chamber festivals in Florida and Russia. I was also preparing next season’s recital program, which I’ll be rehearsing soon in Philadelphia.

The biggest undertaking of all, though, was the process of learning and interpreting half an hour’s worth of music which had never been performed or even rehearsed by another musician. I’m referring to the soundtrack to the movie The Village, the upcoming new release from the acclaimed director M. Knight Shyamalan. The soundtrack was written by the successful composer James Newton Howard, who, in between many other films, has provided the music for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, all of them directed by the same filmmaker. This is my first soundtrack; as it turns out, it’s the perfect project. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the working world of Hollywood. The music is beautiful; the story is both compelling and complex; and the movie boasts an all-star cast. I’m really excited to leave for Los Angeles in a few hours, to meet the composer and director, record this music, see the scenes my playing will illustrate, and be part of this film.

It’s time for me to wrap up this entry. I hope that, if any of you happen to have the time to get to New Zealand, you’ll consider a trip here. It’s a fascinating country; even though it’s small, once could easily spend several months exploring and leave wanting to see more.

Till L.A., I remain,

Yours from New Zealand,