Expressing the colour of music

Mark Menzies has been described as a ‘‘riveting violinist’’. PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY
Mark Menzies has been described as a ‘‘riveting violinist’’. PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY
Musician Mark Menzies does not like being pigeon-holed as a specialist - hence 
his varied career. The violinist talks to RebeccaFox about loving all music.


Playing Beethoven or performing contemporary music - it is all part of feeding Mark Menzies’ musical health.

Menzies, a professor of music at the University of Canterbury, believes that a person’s career, just like the food we eat, should be for nourishing.

Over the years - he spent 17 years living in Los Angeles before moving back to New Zealand four years ago - he has strived for balance between the various aspects of his career - performing, composing and teaching - as he sees it as an essential part of how he deals with art making.

"In music, there is a tremendous toll physically and mentally, the concentration and professional expectation of the business, it is very easy to become tired, physically injured by holding the instrument the wrong way or playing too much - there are so many factors that go into remaining healthy in that way."

He finds being proactive, finding a routine and doing a variety of things - just like eating a varied diet - works for him.

His upcoming Beethoven 250th Anniversary concerts are an example of this.

"It is an investment of a month of time to prepare, but it is for a special occasion and it’s not the only thing I do."

The special occasion is, of course, the anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Menzies, cellist Tomas Hurnik and pianist Anna Maksymova thought it would be the ideal opportunity to perform Beethoven’s works on period instruments, including the University of Canterbury’s fortepiano (the earliest version of the modern piano), a copy of the one used in Beethoven’s time.


"It felt like time to use it in a more interesting way and to take it on tour."

Performing on period instruments means that while the music is familiar, the sound will be different, he says.

"The thing about these instruments is they are not as loud as the standard contemporary version. Their sound is more nuanced, more rich, more varied. The ability to express the colour of the music, the colour of the emotion that goes into it. These instruments have so much more varied palette that you can use."

While he has been playing period instruments for the past 15 years, he is known for his support and love of playing music by today’s composers.

"It’s a problem of how one is branded.

"I will point out that Beethoven, a great genius, while he spent a lot of quality time to write his music, he was very well known for his collaborations and before his deafness took over, a very famous performer.

"I got known for the contemporary stuff because not many people do it and I did and became famous for it, if you can say that. Then it became my profile, although it is not a representation of what I do."

However, his most recent performances have been contemporary music - a series of concerts in Wellington.

Menzies is also known for his compositions although it is something he has tried to avoid.

He first started playing music while attending Rudolf Steiner School, which encouraged creativity.

"Once I was taught how to read music, I realised I had perfect pitch, which is the ability to recall precisely a musical tone and recognise it. At that moment I also realised I heard music in my head and I started to write it down."

The fascination with composing waned as he did not want to throw himself wholesale into the field as it required.

"Despite my best efforts at only writing music for friends or birthdays, I still get asked to write and find myself unable to turn it down."

This is where his pursuit of balance comes in as composing and performing call for quite different energies, he says.

"The energy required for composing is the opposite of performing. Performing is instantaneous and spontaneous, but composing is long hours thinking about what music is to be turned into.

"I’ve found ways over the years to find the balance and now it is an essential part of the health of how I deal with art making."

Menzies’ professional performing career began with an appearance at the 1988 International Festival of the Arts in Wellington with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

He then headed to Great Britain and the United States, performing as a concert and recital violin soloist.

The Los Angeles Times describes Menzies as an "extraordinary musician" and a "riveting violinist".

When asked about concerts that stick in his mind - "career highlights" - he says playing 150 concerts a year for the past few decades makes that hard.

But some that stand out for him are those he performed while living in New York.

"Playing concerts at Carnegie [Hall], it is what musicians often dream of attaining, and I did so - that sticks in my mind."

But equally so do the concerts he recently played in Wellington after the country moved into Alert Level 1 for the second time.

"The degree of support and warmth with it made it feel it was not like a solo act. There was a tremendous sense of connection."


Back to Classic, Beethoven 250th  Anniversary
Waitaki Boys’ High School, Oamaru
Saturday,  October 24

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