New Zealand String Quartet

November 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Fletcher Opera Theater

The third appearance on our series by New Zealand’s premier chamber ensemble with its unique offerings of important works by its country’s composers.

New Zealand String Quartet

l-r:  Helene Pohl, violin; Rolf Gjelsten, cello; Gillian Ansell, viola; Douglas Beilman, violin

“Thrilling to hear… an uncommonly fine performance.” - The Washington Post

Pre-Concert Program by youth ensembles at 2:15 pm


  • Haydn: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 64 No 5, “The Lark”
  • Shostakovich: String Quartet No 7
  • Michael Norris: Exitus for string quartet
  • Beethoven: String Quartet No 14 in C# minor, Opus 131

From the RCMG Fall 2011 Newsletter

In Linking Musical Cultures, the New Zealand String Quartet Stands Apart


By Lawrence Bivins

It’s Friday in New Zealand and Gillian Ansell is enjoying something truly rare: a day off. With spring in the air – it is, after all, late October in Wellington – she is eager to tend to her garden once the day’s email is answered. A Friday off is unusual for the New Zealand String Quartet, for which Ms. Ansell is violist, “but we’ve had a huge last few months, a huge year really, and are taking a couple of days off since our last concert,” she says.

On top of its thick schedule of teaching and recording, the quartet has performed an extensive series of concerts and festival appearances in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain. In early November, Ms. Ansell and her colleagues depart for a brief tour of North America that culminates with a concert in Raleigh on November 13th.  “We usually come to the U.S. twice a year,” Ms. Ansell explains. “This year we didn’t come in summer, unusually, but had nine concerts in the U.K. and 10 in Canada, and that was plenty.”

Despite its active concert calendar, more than seven years have slipped by since the quartet last performed in Raleigh as part of an RCMG concert series. Many in the audience that October day in 2004 had their first-ever encounter with a “standing string quartet,” a format wherein three of the four players perform on their feet while the cellist plays seated on an eye-level platform. Ms. Ansell and her colleagues pioneered the notion in the mid-1990s, and it has since been replicated by other quartets. The innovation occurred by accident: while teaching a master class, the New Zealand Quartet struggled to spark some energy from several lethargic young players. Making the students stand to perform noticeably elevated their playing, a lesson the quartet quickly absorbed into its own ideology.

The approach requires surprisingly few adjusts during lengthy tours. “I don’t really find performing standing up more tiring,” Ms. Ansell says, “if standing correctly with loose knees [and] no arch in the back — except for the feet.” The group does sit through its rehearsals, which typically run five hours or so, she says. “In concerts, we often lie down or stretch in the interval.”

Also making its concerts unique is the quartet’s programs, which blend flawless interpretations of works by familiar European composers with cross-cultural sounds of living New Zealand composers with names largely unknown to U.S. audiences. The group’s 2004 Raleigh concert, for instance, included the memorable “Three Transcriptions for String Quartet” by Jack Body, the Wellington-based composer and ethnomusicologist. While many perceive New Zealand as a remote and isolated land, it is in reality a well-connected hub for Asian, African, South American and Western European influences. Such ethnic patchworks are woven into Mr. Body’s music, as well as compositions of Michael Norris, whose “Exitus” was commissioned in 2009 for the New Zealand String Quartet. The 21-minute work, which will be included on its Raleigh program this month, delves into four distinct notions of the afterlife as viewed through various cultural lenses. The quartet premiered “Exitus” in January 2009 at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in New Zealand, later that year performing it in Beijing as part of the World Music Days. Both “Exitus” and “Three Transcriptions” are included on the quartet’s 2010 CD Notes from a Journey, a disc featuring only the music of New Zealand composers.

Chamber works composed by fellow New Zealanders have resonated well among American concert-goers, Ms. Ansell says. “We only bring New Zealand works that we know will be interesting for the U.S. audiences, so the reactions are usually positive,” she says. “When we first started touring in the U.S., people were surprised by the level of New Zealand compositions,” Ms. Ansell recalls. “That has changed and we don’t get those comments now.”

Ms. Ansell, who co-founded the New Zealand String Quartet in 1987, joins violinists Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman and cellist Rolf Gjelsten. Mr. Beilman enjoys a close connection to Raleigh musical circles: his sister Elizabeth is associate principal cellist for the North Carolina Symphony and a member of Aurora Musicalis, a locally-based chamber ensemble. Along with Mr. Norris’ “Exitus,” the New Zealands’ November 13th program at Fletcher Opera Theater includes Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major (“The Lark”), Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 and Shostakovich’s Seventh String Quartet.

On the morning of their Raleigh concert, members of the quartet will conduct a master class at Saint Mary’s School. Beginning at 2:15 p.m., student ensembles participating in the class will perform in the lobby of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts prior to the 3:00 p.m. concert by the New Zealand String Quartet. For additional information, visit

[Mr. Bivins serves on RCMG’s Marketing Committee. Reach him at]

The New Zealand String Quartet is recognized with acclaim through its recordings and regular tours in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, where it has appeared at Tanglewood, Festival of the Sound, Ottawa Chamber Music, Orford and other major festivals. The quartet’s complete CD set of Mendelssohn Quartets are in release on the Naxos label, following on the heels of its highly regarded CD of Berg and Wolf quartets.

Sought-after for their imaginative and varied programming, the quartet is known for their revelatory performances of the standard classical quartet repertoire and their exciting realizations of newer works from contemporary composers, many from New Zealand. The quartet’s 2010 North American tour programs include the Schubert two cello quintet, with Naumburg Award Winning cellist Clancy Newman, and the clarinet quintets of Gilliland, Mozart and Brahms with renowned clarinetist James Campbell.

The Quartet has recently toured through Korea, Mexico, and returned to London’s Wigmore Hall as part of a tour of England and Europe. Recent U.S. tours have spanned the distance from Hawaii to New Hampshire, and featured engagements in Los Angeles, San Antonio, New York, Cleveland, Buffalo and Washington, DC, where the quartet has appeared at the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Academy of Sciences and the Library of Congress in successive seasons.

While at the Library of Congress in 2009 the quartet was joined by Richard Nunns in performance of New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead’s composition Hine-pu-te-hue. Written for the quartet and taonga puoro performed by Nunns, the work is named for the Maori Goddess of peace. Hine-pu-te-hue features several of the taonga puoro which are made of gourds — the poi awhiowhio, which opens the piece, is swung around the head, the large hue puru hau is blown across the open neck, while the koauau ponga ihu (a nose flute) closes the piece.

In addition to their unique status in the performance of original New Zealand compositions, this remarkable quartet has been hailed for their performances of the Beethoven Quartet cycle. They offered the Bartok cycle (which they have recorded) in the 2005-2006 season, as part of the observance of the fiftieth anniversary of Bartok’s death. Their repertoire is wide and varied, and features the standard classical literature and the works of our time, including compositions by New Zealand composers. The quartet has premiered more than 20 works by New Zealand composers and continue to explore and enhance that repertoire. The Quartet has been awarded three years sole performing rights to Zoltán Székely’s recently discovered 1937 string quartet. Székely, a composition student of Kodály, was Bartók’s long-time sonata partner and leader of the Hungarian String Quartet. Their recording of Székely’s quartet is available on the Atoll label, paired with the Dvorak Quartet in E flat, opus 51.

The group has been featured on North America’s popular public radio program St Paul Sunday, and has recorded for Deutsche Welle, CBC in Canada, and Australia’s ABC, as well as regularly appearing on Radio New Zealand’s Concert FM.

Their discography includes several fine recordings for BMG (including Bartok, Debussy and Ravel). The French disc, released in early 2000 was given high marks on “The New Zealand Quartet proves here that it knows a lot–a lot more in fact than most quartets about how to make these oft-played and oft-underestimated repertoire standards sound fresh and original. For one thing, these players manage to penetrate popular notions of impressionist “style” and just pay attention to the music. The result is some of the most intense and emotionally involving Debussy and Ravel on disc….I have to say that the New Zealanders’ performances are more alive and immediate and just as well–in some cases better–played. I’m convinced that this result has much to do with the NZSQ’s unique performing style: they play standing with the cellist seated on a special platform, giving a tremendous freedom and energy to the music’s natural movement.” (David Vernier,

As dedicated teachers, the New Zealand String Quartet is in residence at Victoria University of Wellington and have established the highly regarded Adam Summer Chamber Music School for the country’s most accomplished string and piano students. In North America, the quartet has been guest faculty at the Banff Centre, Quartet Fest West, and the Quartet Program at Bucknell University.