Icon Award ‘a wonderful acknowledgement’

Dame Gillian Whitehead (77) outside her home at Harwood on  Otago Peninsula before travelling to...
Dame Gillian Whitehead (77) outside her home at Harwood on Otago Peninsula before travelling to Wellington to receive a New Zealand Arts Foundation Icon Award this week. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
"It all seems a bit unreal,’’ Dame Gillian Whitehead tells Kay Sinclair after becoming one of five New Zealand artists to join the living circle of 20 New Zealand Arts Foundation Icons.

Dame Gillian Whitehead’s elevation to the living circle of 20 New Zealand Arts Foundation Icons  is a fitting tribute to an artist who has practised and developed her craft for more than 50 years.

She  is regarded as one of Australasia’s most influential composers of our time.

While admitting this week’s honour  felt "unreal’’, she said it was also "very affirming, a wonderful acknowledgement your work matters’’. She is one of five outstanding artists who received the Arts Foundation of New Zealand’s highest honour, the Icon Award — Whakamana Hiranga — at  Government House on Wednesday. The four other  new recipients are visual artist Billy Apple ONZM, carver and sculptor Fred Graham ONZM, poet and writer Bill Manhire CNZM, and poet and writer Albert Wendt ONZ CNZM.

Dame Gillian had already been appointed one of the Arts Foundation’s five inaugural laureates in 2000. A year earlier, she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit  in the  New Year Honours List and in 2009 she became a dame. The prolific composer’s  works  include operas, orchestral and choral pieces, vocal and instrumental chamber compositions, solo works, pieces involving taonga puoro and compositions including improvisation.

So where did it start?  She was never pushed to become a musician but "there was always music around’’, Dame Gillian said from her Otago Peninsula home.  Her violinist father performed in small chamber groups while overseas on military service and, at home, he was involved in a variety of musical productions and imported and sold music scores. Her mother, a pianist and teacher, would play the piano for her when she was in bed as a child.

"And there were always musicians, visiting, playing and talking.’’

She learned the violin and the piano and when she left school in Whangarei, she went to Auckland University. She began doing an  arts degree "with some music’’, possibly thinking abut teaching, but then switched to a  music degree and focused on composition.

Her first lecturer was Peter Godfrey and it was the Icon he was awarded as one of the 10 inaugural Arts Foundations Icons that  she was "honoured’’ to accept at last Wednesday’s ceremony.

"He was a wonderful lecturer, and very supportive of me, even though ‘new’ music was not his thing. I was into it from the start. ’’

After four years in Auckland, she finished her BMus at Victoria University  before moving to Sydney for her master’s as the course was not  available here. While she was studying in Sydney, British composer Peter Maxwell Davies was teaching in Adelaide and she joined his class for a term. Once she had gained her  master’s, she travelled to the  United Kingdom to study and compose and be mentored by Max Davies, supporting herself with a variety of jobs, including music copying, "and the odd commission’’. She and Mr Davies would meet every couple of months to discuss her analysis of a range of music by other composers.

When she later received a two-year grant from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, she was able to  spend 18 months living in Portugal and Italy.

"I was finding England rather cold and I also felt I needed to work stuff out for myself, to see where I was going after so much people and musical input.’’ 

She was back in New Zealand in 1978 for the first performance at the Auckland International Festival of Tristan and Iseult, the opera she had completed in 1976.

On her return to the UK, she received a two-year composer’s residency for Northern Arts, based at Newcastle University. A year later, New Zealand writer Fleur Adcock took up a Northern Arts writing fellowship and there began a creative partnership which has spanned many years and works.

The first Whitehead-Adcock collaboration was Hotspur, a composition for soprano and a small instrumental ensemble and which also featured atmospheric banners by New Zealand artist Gretchen Albrecht.

Another was Alice, a monodrama for mezzo-soprano and full orchestra composed during an Auckland Philharmonia residency in 2002. It won the 2003 SOUNZ Contemporary award.

Iris Dreaming, a composition centred on New Zealand writer and poet Iris Wilkinson (who wrote as Robin Hyde) was performed at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston in 2016 and lyric coloratura Joanne Roughton-Arnold, who sang the role of Iris, was hoping to perform a revised Hotspur, also  at the Arcola.

"Works are composed to be performed, whether by a singer, a group of singers, a chamber group or an orchestra, so you’re very much involved with other people,’’ Dame Gillian said in response to a question about whether composing was a lonely existence.

An example, close to home, was Outrageous Fortune, the opera she composed for Otago’s 150th anniversary in 1998. It featured not only operatic singers, and a small orchestral ensemble, but also Maori chanting and taonga puoro so there were many and varied connections to be made. Dame Gillian  returned to New Zealand in the early 1990s after more than 10 years as head of composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in late 1991 and, after chemotherapy and radiation treatment in Sydney, she arrived in Dunedin to take up the University of Otago’s Mozart Fellowship in 1992. The move to Dunedin was "weird but good’’. Her sister, brother-in-law and nephew were by then living on a small farm near Portobello and she bought a cottage at Harwood. That has been her home base for more than 20 years, although she now divides her time between Harwood and Ruakaka, near Whangarei.

She describes the peninsula as "a healing place’’. And a bit like the sea birds which congregate on the tidal flats in front of her home, Dame Gillian has, over the years, drifted in and out of Harwood. Residencies have taken her to several centres around New Zealand, resulting in a variety of compositions.

On a visit to Prague in 2011, she was introduced to  pianist Patricia Goodson. That  led to a concert featuring several Whitehead works at the Polish embassy in Prague the following year. Then, a commission from Prague’s Stamitz Quartet resulted in a concert in Berlin in 2016, featuring the new piece and several of the works from the  Prague concert.

A CD of the concert released by Rattle Records, Shadows Crossing Water featured on the list of classical hits after its launch in Auckland in March.

Most recently, Dame Gillian has been working on Turanga-nui, the last in a series of NZSO commissions to acknowledge the future "landfall’’ celebrations. It will have its world premiere in September.

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