The Witchdoctor Q&A: Andrew Beer

Andrew Beer

He’s our best classical artist and concertmaster of the Auckland Philharmonia. RICHARD BETTS has a wide-ranging conversation with Andrew Beer.


Andrew Beer. Photo: Adrian Malloch

Since 2014, when he became concertmaster of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Andrew Beer has been a powerful advocate of New Zealand music. In 2020, with musical partner Sarah Watkins, he claimed Best Classical Artist at the New Zealand Music Awards for 11 Frames (Rattle Records), a recording of works for violin and piano by contemporary Kiwi composers. And he’s just had a violin concerto written for him by Dame Gillian Whitehead, among our most important musical figures.

Witchdoctor caught up with Beer to find out why a Canadian who studied at two of the world’s most feted conservatories (The New England Conservatory of Music and Juilliard) and played in one of North America’s great orchestras (the Montreal Symphony) has fallen in love with New Zealand music.


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Richard Betts – How did this commission from Gillian Whitehead come about?

Andrew Beer – When it came time to renew my contract [with the APO] in 2017, I insisted that as part of it I get a commission once every four years. [APO CEO] Barbara Glaser agreed to that and had a chat with [then director of artistic planning] Ronan [Tighe] and he was keen. We talked about which composers we’d like to consider and I think we both levitated to Gillian. I love her music; her musical language kind of just speaks to me right away, the connection to nature, to birdsong and beaches and the wind. I also hear connections to composers like Messiaen and Dutilleux, which I loved.

Richard – Those composers are very colourful and harmonically rich. Is that something you hear in Whitehead’s music?

Andrew – Yes, absolutely. I said Messiaen because of the octatonic harmonies, and that’s something in this concerto that you’ll hear a fair bit of. It’s a chordal system based on eight tones rather than seven. If you remember the original soundtrack to the movie Predator, that’s probably the most famous octatonic piece of music.

Gillian Whitehead

Richard – How collaborative has it been? Has Gillian written and supplied you with the music, or has there been a bit of back and forth?

Andrew – There’s been a lot of back and forth and I’ve been surprised by that. She told me that usually, she’ll just finish a draft of the whole piece and then send it through, but she’s never written a violin concerto before and I think she wanted to have my input. Right away she asked me over to her place in Ruakaka. We’d only exchanged a couple emails before but she wanted to get to know me as a person and also my playing style and preferences, so she asked me who my favourite composers are and all that. For example, I mentioned the Shostakovich first violin concerto, and that the cadenza is really special. So she’s actually written a cadenza that is 100 percent Gillian, but it’s clearly influenced by the cadenza in Shostakovich 1, which I love. Ever since then it’s just been every couple of weeks, she’ll send me a new excerpt and ask me what I think. And I’ll just reply, ‘It’s great. This bit might not work the best on the violin so you might consider dropping this an octave or get rid of that double stopping’. There were a few times when I asked her to lengthen a certain section of music. I was a bit nervous about that because she’s the composer and she’s the boss and she knows exactly what she wants, but I felt that a couple of the sections went by too quickly. She took that really well. She said, ‘I’ll give it a think’. A week later she came back with a longer section.

Richard – You’ve now received the complete concerto. Is it tough?

Andrew – Some parts are very tough. Other parts are not technically tough but musically very, very demanding. And with her music, even though it’s contemporary, there’s always a clear phrase structure. The phrasing is as important as it would be in Beethoven or Mozart.

Richard – What’s it like to have a piece written for you? This is a musical Savile Row suit.

Andrew – It’s really an honour. I’ve never had a concerto commissioned for me before. It’s just so exciting I can’t wait for the performance.

Richard – Since you arrived in New Zealand you’ve become a real champion of local music. Why is that?

Andrew – For one thing, and this is a bit of a selfish reason, I’ve always kind of been talented at playing contemporary music. [I have] the mindset as well as technique that you need to approach that. And then I regret that when I was in Canada I didn’t get to know the contemporary scene better. I knew a few of the composers but I just didn’t play very much of it; I was kind of stuck on the European and American canon works. When I first moved here, I played the audition [for the APO] with [pianist] Sarah Watkins, and I discovered how great she is. I said, ‘You know, I just played the same Bartok concerto with a top pianist in London and you’re way, way better. If I get the job I’d love to work with you.’ And right away, she said, ‘I’d love that too. And if we do that, it’s really important that we have a presence in New Zealand music.’ That really got me thinking, and when I got the job I started exploring New Zealand music, beginning with [father of NZ classical music Douglas] Lilburn, and just got really attached to it. I really do feel that for a country of five million there’s an incredible number of gifted composers here, and they deserve to be performed really well by top performers.

Andrew Beer. Photograph: Adrian Malloch

Richard – Can you identify a New Zealand style; is there something that you would say, ‘Oh, that’s from New Zealand’?

Andrew – With Lilburn, yes, then maybe Anthony Ritchie as well. You get those kind of pastoral… I think of the beautiful rolling green hills when I hear them, but besides that it’s very divergent, as it should be with contemporary music. But maybe you always hear the birdsong, the tui. You hear that in a lot of composers, but there are so many divergent paths.

Richard – Which composers haven’t you worked with that you would like to get to know?

Andrew – I’ve played the orchestral music of most of the really big ones now. And some composers I’ve played solo or chamber music, so I’ve probably played something of everybody. But I think of somebody like Salina Fisher who’s really an up-and-comer. I don’t think she’s written a violin concerto, so that would be somebody really cool to work with. [Are you listening, Salina? – matchmaking Ed].

Richard – Do you find it easy to keep up with the composition scene here? You said you never really tapped into it in Canada.

Andrew – Yeah, it’s fairly easy here. SOUNZ is an amazing resource; I get their newsletters, which mention some of the biggest performances they’ve recently done on video or audio. I’m also Facebook friends with most of the well-known New Zealand composers, and if they’ve got works being premiered I can see that online, so thanks to modern technologies it’s easy to keep up.

Richard – Is it difficult to exist in that contemporary space in New Zealand? Do you get to get enough people in the audience?

Andrew – There will always be people who show up, because there’s a composer community and people like Eve de Castro-Robinson really get the word out. She’s an advocate, which is great. So you’re going to get some but you never know how many.

Richard – How is it compared with other countries you’ve worked in like America and Canada? Is it just the weight of numbers that in New York or Montreal you’re going to get people to come out to see contemporary music?

Andrew – I think New Zealand does really well, comparatively, in terms of funding and social media presence and all that. And also there’s camaraderie between the composers, they seem to really band together a lot. In terms of audience here, there’s absolutely some, which is great, and I hope that always stays, but I do find New Zealand audiences can be a bit conservative. So when an orchestra programmes contemporary music or New Zealand music, there’s always that thing in the back of the organisation’s head, ‘Okay, if we do this we have to counterbalance it with something like The Lark Ascending’.

11 Frames – the award-winning album

Richard – What was the process of commissioning music for 11 Frames, your album with Sarah Watkins?

Andrew – That was really a collaborative endeavour. We spent a lot of time listening through a lot of stuff, starting with the most famous couple of New Zealanders but trying to get a balance, with older, more established composers and some young up-and-comers like Reuben Jelleyman and Josiah Carr. And of course we wanted a mix of male and female composers, and to represent all the geographic regions. All of that went into the vetting process. We were really happy how it turned out in the end, it had a nice musical flow.

Richard – In those situations, what do you listen for? What are the things in someone’s music that excite you enough to ask them to write a piece for you?

Andrew – It’s sometimes hard to define that. It’s like dating, either you’re moved, you feel something, or you don’t. But it also becomes about what’s manageable or not. If we’re going to record 11 pieces in three days, then we want it to be challenging but it can’t be insanely difficult like something like Elliott Carter. So it’s a combination of how attached we feel to the music and playability. That’s something composers should always keep in mind you know. They want to write what they want to write but it has to be playable.

Richard – As we speak [mid-August], we’ve just gone into a Covid lockdown and the concert, scheduled for 2 September, is unlikely to go ahead. How are you feeling about that?

Andrew – The performance clearly won’t happen on 2 September but I’m hoping it will be postponed, not cancelled. There’s no word on that yet. I’m still grateful for the opportunity and experience of seeing a concerto commissioned, developing through various iterations until reaching a full and balanced piece. And we can think of a musical work as a piece of eternity, which is not dependent on performance to exist. I’m getting philosophical in lockdown [laughs].

Richard Betts is an award-winning writer and editor. His musings on pop culture, the arts and technology have appeared in numerous publications including the New Zealand Herald, Tone, PC World and Top Gear magazine. Three of those no longer exist but he insists it’s not his fault.

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