25 Jan 2024

It was the Summer of '95

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 25 January 2024
James Donaldson

James Donaldson Photo: studio81 Ltd

Many New Zealanders remember Summer for the fun they had on the beach, or in the mountains, James Donaldson is one of those who remembers Summer for the music he made.

One Summer in particular, February 1995, when he was part of the intake for the first Adam Summer School.

Now, as director of the Nelson Centre for the Music Arts, he's helping the city host that school for the 30th time.

Tāhunanui Beach, Nelson.

More to Nelson in February than Tahananui Beach. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

Donaldson told RNZ Concert host, Bryan Crump, how he remembers being there 29 years ago as a "fresh young third year university student" studying cello under Alexander Ivashkin. He saw the posters for the school going up around Canterbury University and thought it looked like an exciting opportunity.

He wasn't wrong. For someone hungry for music it was the perfect environment.

"I really wanted to meet other people who were as passionate about music as I was, and chamber music in particular".

The Troubadours (2023) in rehearsal.

Better harmonies, less sunburn. Members of the ensemble The Troubadours making music at the 2023 Adam Summer School. Photo: The Troubadours

"Those days at the Adam Summer School were just packed. We would all get up really early in the morning, we would come in and try to get our fingers around all those really tough passages that we hadn't quite mastered the day before".

In 1995 the tutors were the New Zealand String Quartet and pianist Michael Houston.

In 2024, the String Quartet is once again sharing the knowledge, with pianist Stephen De Pledge.

It's part of what is always a busy summer of music for the sunny South Island city which also hosts the annual Adam Chamber Music Festival.

Which moved Crump to ask Donaldson why Nelson punches above its weight when it comes to hosting classical music events?

Donaldson puts it partly down to the city's supreme setting and climate and location slightly off the beaten track, which has always made it something of an "artsy place".

But he credits the influence of one man in particular, the German migrant Michael Balling, who arrived in Nelson at the end of the 19th century.

Balling must have had especially good people skills, having managed to be on friendly terms with both Brahms and Wagner.

In Nelson he made friends with Nelson businessman and benefactor Thomas Cawthron.

The two shared a passion for hiking and mountaineering and during their campfire and bush hut conversations, Balling convinced Cawthron that Nelson was the perfect place for a European style conservatorium and music hall.

The Nelson Centre for the Musical Arts auditorium, opened in 1901, was the result.

Facade, Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

The Nelson Centre for the Musical Arts: a little bit of Boston acoustics south of the equator. Photo: Oliver Weber

"It's built on that model of the Boston concert hall. The ceiling is like the upturned hull of a boat. The acoustics are extraordinary. It really is perfect for chamber music. And I think over the decades since, as musicians have come and played here, and gone away...word's got out".

The Adam Chamber Festival runs this year from February 1st to the 10th, followed by Summer School which runs from the 10th to the 18th.


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