4 Dec 2023

Music professor hands over the baton

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 4 December 2023
Peter Adams

Peter Adams Photo: Pieter du Plessis

Some music you don't forget, especially if it was your responsibility to copy out all the parts by hand.

That was one of the early jobs Peter Adams landed at Otago University's music department: working as a research assistant to Professor John Drummond, writing out all the parts to Mozart's opera Zaide for a performance in 1988.

It obviously didn't put him off working there, he ended up becoming the music professor himself.

Adams was listening along to an aria from Zaide ahead of his interview with RNZ Concert's Bryan Crump, to mark his retirement from the post at the end of this month.

While he wasn't humming along, he could tell Crump exactly what the bassoons were doing in the second-to-last bar of the score. 

Adams must have done a good job, because John Drummond gave him a permanent gig at Otago University's music department in 1990.

Jack Speirs

Jack Speirs Photo: Supplied

However, the colleague who really inspired Adams was fellow lecturer Jack Speirs.

"I shaped my life, I think, based on Jack. He taught me as an undergraduate." (Yes, Otago is Adams' alma mater.)

"He was very charismatic with his big, hooked nose. He was an aesthete, he was slim and very elegant, very precise. He was a conductor, composer, viola player, teacher. If you pardon the pun – the Jack of all trades."

Adams decided he wanted to do the same – base himself at the University, and make as much music as possible with the locals.

Otago University

Otago University - not a bad place to study music. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

For Adams, that meant playing his clarinet a little, composing and most often conducting: choirs, orchestras and especially brass bands.

In 1990, he formed a working relationship with Dunedin's top brass ensemble, St Kilda Brass, helping it to win the national brass band championships a couple of years later.

Despite being a woodwind player himself, Adams loves the brass scene. 

"They are one of the best examples of good community music. They perform at extremely high standards ... and for me, I've loved it because as a conductor brass bands are way better than any of our professional orchestras at playing contemporary repertoire."

Adams says there's an expectation at brass competitions bands will be playing new material. If it's older than 10 years, eyebrows will be raised.

Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen Photo: Public Domain

Back at University, Adams' fondest memories are perhaps introducing composing students to new music – music by the likes of Olivier Messiaen.

Even now, works like his 1940s Quartet for the End of Time is a fresh experience for a lot of undergraduates.

Adams' own approach to writing music could be summed up by the word 'variety'. 

"I always tell my students that they only really have two choices at any one moment: either to continue to say what they are saying ... or time for contrast, time to say something new."

Anna Leese and Peter Adams

Peter Adams conducts while Anna Leese sings. Photo: RNZ / Tim Dodd

Adams' own compositional skills have grown over the years as his children got older and he got better at setting aside time to create.

His retirement from Otago University is going to give him time to write music and for walking the dog. Which is good, because that's when some of his best ideas occur to him.