‘Reflections’ and connections

Coming back to Dunedin, the city where her parents lived in their younger days, is something New Zealand-born, United States-raised violinist Jessica Oddie always enjoys, she tells Rebecca Fox.

Violinist Jessica Oddie has found her artistic home.

Little did she know four years ago that a trip to her birth country for a short contract as assistant concertmaster with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra would be so life-changing.

She was only in New Zealand for six weeks when the Covid pandemic hit, but the time in the country, where she spent the first four years of her life before her family moved to Colorado in the United States, confirmed it was the place she wanted to stay.

"I fell in love with the orchestra — it’s my musical home."

So when the position of second violin, assistant principal at the NZSO came up in 2022, she "jumped at the chance" to be part of the organisation permanently.

As well as being artistically fulfilling, it means Oddie gets to further discover the country of her birth. Her Kiwi parents Graham and Alison Oddie spent time in Dunedin as students and returned in the late 1980s, when her father was a professor of philosophy at the University of Otago.

The family moved to Colorado in the mid-1990s, where her father now has a position at the University of Colorado Boulder, but often returned to New Zealand to visit family, especially a grandmother in Timaru and a "very dear" cousin in Queenstown.

"I’ve always loved New Zealand, its beauty and the intimacy of being here — you meet people who have connections wherever you go. That is something I never experienced in the US, of course, as I didn’t have any family there at all."

New Zealand is also where Oddie first experienced the beauty of the violin. When she was just 4 years old, her mother took her to an NZSO concert concert in Palmerston North, where they were living at the time.

"I absolutely knew I had to become a violinist.

"I loved the way the bows of the violin danced together. I have this vivid visual and aural memory of it."

Right then and there she began to "bug" her mother to learn to play. However, as they were about to move to the United States, her mother said she had to wait. Oddie did not forget, and began lessons as soon as they could in Colorado.

"I’ve gone full circle. To play with the orchestra that inspired the start of my whole journey is so special."

Violinist Jessica Oddie. Photo: supplied
Violinist Jessica Oddie. Photo: supplied
The joy of realising her dream of being a violinist has not waned for Oddie.

"I love every aspect of playing it. I love the repertoire we get to play. I think the violin is very lucky. I love the variety that we can play — as solo we can play, as chamber musicians we can play, and in an orchestra."

Oddie went to Julliard School, Yale University and the Yale School of Music before moving to Germany, where her string quartet worked intensively with Gerhard Schulz of the Alban Berg Quartet, and she studied teaching under a professor there.

Before returning to New Zealand, she lived in New York, working at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College, teaching violin, chamber music, and orchestral studies to undergraduate and master's students.

"University teaching is where my heart lies. I’ve been lucky to do masterclasses throughout New Zealand."

She recently spent a few days in Dunedin coaching the city’s up-and-coming young chamber musicians from Dunedin secondary schools, who are competing in the Chamber Music Contest in early June.

"They played their pieces for me and we talked about chamber music in general, music making, hopes and dreams, the whole thing.

"It was wonderful to hear them. They were so prepared and inspired by music. What could be better than working with students, hearing their hopes and dreams and do some small part to help them reach those?"

Teaching is something she has always enjoyed, as when working with musicians and talking about music, Oddie says, you are talking about life and experiences.

"You are connecting with someone on such a deep level, such a human level, about emotions, how to convey them and express ourselves. What the point of it all is, really.

"Music is a way for us to connect with each other and learn from each other and with teaching you are learning as much as you are imparting knowledge."

Throughout her career string quartets have been a favourite way to perform. She performed in them every year when at Julliard and Yale.

"String quartets are always something I’ve loved."

In Dunedin, at the NZSO’s "Reflections" concert, she will lead a string quartet alongside assistant concertmaster Yuka Eguchi, associate principal violist Alexander McFarlane and associate principal cellist Ken Ichinose.

Oddie in rehearsal with the Italian violin, crafted by Giovanni Francesco Pressenda in 1834, that...
Oddie in rehearsal with the Italian violin, crafted by Giovanni Francesco Pressenda in 1834, that she will use on tour. Photo: Phoebe Tuxford/NZSO
Oddie will be playing a very special violin, an 1834 Italian violin by Giovanni Francesco Pressenda, one of the finest violin makers of the time.

"It’s a very, very beautiful violin that I love. It’s really, really special. It’s something people should hear, it’s that special. It’s got a very unique voice, a very singing voice. I get to play it until the end of the tour, which is very exciting."

The orchestra is hoping to retain the violin in New Zealand.

"We’re hoping it might be added to the special collection of instruments the NZSO has."

The age of the instrument highlights just how music transcends generations.

"I’m always struck time and time again, how our emotions are the same throughout space and time. It’s why it’s so easy to connect with a piece from hundreds of years ago."

The Dunedin programme features work from 1600 to 2011 and it is all "incredible", she says.

"It is music I would play again and again for the rest of my life, it’s that wonderful. I love the arc of the programme we are doing."

They start with Franz Schubert’s Quartettsatz, in C minor, one of the composer’s best works for a string quartet. It has two themes; the first is incredibly anxiety-filled with worry and anticipation, and the second is an incredibly vulnerable and fragile melody which has a great yearning.

"The contrast is so stark — it’s beautiful."

They will also play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9, part of a series of larger and grander string quartets from the composer.

"Hope and joy have won out over fear."

They are two pieces that Oddie has always wanted to play juxtaposed. Beethoven’s piece contrasted with his fear of his impending deafness and a yearning to overcome it, expressed in a document found after his death.

"There’s a great deal of darkness in the document — he was in a dark place — yet four years after that he is writing a quartet so filled with joy. It’s the most joyful Beethoven I know."

Jessica Oddie rehearses with colleagues from the NZSO ahead of the Reflections concert. From left...
Jessica Oddie rehearses with colleagues from the NZSO ahead of the Reflections concert. From left are assistant concertmaster Yuka Eguchi, associate principal violist Alexander McFarlane, associate principal cellist Ken Ichinose and Oddie (assistant principal violinist). Photo: Phoebe Tuxford/NZSO
The other two pieces they will play are John Dowland’s early Baroque work Flow, My Tears, again with a melancholy theme, and contemporary American composer Caroline Shaw’s Entr’act.

"It leads on from the sound world of John Dowland. We go from 1600 to 2011 seamlessly — it’s beautiful. We love them all."

Oddie has now settled into life in Wellington — "living by the sea is inspiring" — and at the NZSO.

"I love that we’re the orchestra for all New Zealanders and we get to travel and meet so many New Zealanders. It feels wonderful to be here and connecting with my roots and to see New Zealand after being away for so long," Oddie says.

Her fiancee, fellow violinist Australian Peter Clark, has also joined her in Wellington and will take on the role of second violin in the New Zealand String Quartet.

"It’s exciting for both of us as he’s staying in the country. We’ve been narrowly missing each other in many countries for some time."

The pair met nearly 10 years ago when about to get on a train in the London Underground, both wearing their violins on their backs and heading for the same music festival.

"It turned out we were stand partners at the same festival — it was meant to be, I think."

They also discovered they were both playing violins made in the same year and that had a one-piece back, which is quite unusual.

"A few weeks later he was coming to New York to visit me."

She has found a real passion in New Zealand for creating new classical music and thinking innovatively.

"There is a enormous commitment to finding what makes us unique here in New Zealand, taking inspiration from nature and environment."

But what she really loves is how she gets to make connections with musicians around the country due to its smaller size, something she has not experienced before.


NZSO Reflections: Schubert & Beethoven, Glenroy, Dunedin, June 12, 7.30pm; Jubilation, Civic Theatre, Invercargill, June 11, 7.30pm; and Dunedin Town Hall, June 13, 7.30pm.