The Naxos Interview: Rolf Gjelsten talks with Laurence Vittes
March 25, 2017
When the New Zealand String Quartet begins its 10-day European tour in April, the ensemble will take with them their new Naxos recording of Brahms’ Quartet No. 3 Op. 67 and the Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 which features clarinettist James Campbell. It’s a continuation of their Brahms series for which they recently recorded the String Quintets in Toronto with Marie Lambros. In six cities in the Netherlands, Germany and Slovenia, the Quartet will play Mozart, Gareth Farr (his Quartet Te Tai-O-Rehua), Jack Body (Three Transcriptions) and Mendelssohn.
The Quartet was established in 1987 under the auspices of the Music Federation of New Zealand. Rolf Gjelsten, who joined the Quartet in 1994, began life in an accordion trio with his sisters playing Scandinavian music. They were placed first in the U.S. Northwest Accordion Championships playing classical repertoire. Gjelsten started cello late but by the age of 19 won 2nd prize in the Canadian National Festival Competition. In 1984, his graduate quartet at Northern Illinois University, working with the Vermeer Quartet, was named Best University Ensemble of the Year by Downbeat magazine.
I spoke to Gjelsten from Wellington.
LV: I don’t know what it would be, but is there something “New Zealand” in your playing?
Rolf Gjelsten: People are always asking us questions like that: to define the New Zealand national voice. They ask New Zealand composers what is New Zealand about their music. The truth is, it’s now such a changing world, and we as musicians are influenced by so many cultures, that it’s hard to identify any single factors. However, that said, our relative geographical isolation from the business—the racket of the music career—allows us to focus on what’s important musically, socially and culturally.
LV: What is it like being—literally—a nation’s first string quartet?
Rolf Gjelsten: We are in a unique situation. We were consciously created to import and promote the legacy of an important musical tradition; we had our own management in New Zealand, which was very unusual at the time; and we had a board of trustees who encouraged us to play repertoire that touring quartets wouldn’t be likely to play. So, we had the freedom of an arts residency, felt a sense of ownership over the program, and all the time were serving as cultural ambassadors for a country we had come to love. Plus, being isolated gave us the chance to focus and to work really closely with the composers we play: we know them well, they write for us specifically.
LV: You grew up in another beautiful city: Victoria, British Columbia. How do the two compare?
Rolf Gjelsten: I hadn’t thought of that before, but you’re right. Wellington is beautiful like Victoria; we’re also on an earthquake belt. I studied with the Victoria Trio at the music conservatory which was housed in a castle on a hill, a beautiful Disney fantasy castle, and we students practised in our rooms at night under the lights of chandeliers. It was a good time, and many students went on to professional careers.
LV: Why do you record in Toronto?
Rolf Gjelsten: We’ve been recording in Toronto since 2005 because Naxos has one of their main production teams—Bonnie Silver and Norbert Kraft—stationed there, the others being in London and Hong Kong. Bonnie and Norbert are unbelievably sensitive, experienced engineers who won’t stop for anything less than perfection—not just the minute aural details but the flow of emotion and the subtler aspects that can be lost in the recording process. They don’t let you get too wiped out about accuracy and they both push us to perform at our very best, so when we record for them we feel like we’re playing a concert for the most distinguished audience we could ever have.
LV: Why do your three colleagues play standing up?
Rolf Gjelsten: We were aware of the argument for standing up, except for the cellist of course, but never made the connection ourselves until the Brodsky Quartet, who stand up, came to New Zealand and I stood in for their cellist during a master class. It was one of the Borodin quartets being played by a student quartet whose rhythm wasn’t sound and sound wasn’t good, so the Brodskys had the two violinists and the violist stand up, and held their backs so they would be straight—and suddenly, their rhythm and sound were transformed. I shared the experience with my colleagues, we started doing it and discovered an amazing freedom of movement, more authentic engagement, increased energy and higher concentration levels—even during the five to six hours our recording sessions take.
LV: Are there no disadvantages?
Rolf Gjelsten: Funny thing is, people in New Zealand now think that all quartets stand up and are surprised when even the most famous quartets visit Wellington and play sitting down. After all, we are the New Zealand String Quartet.
New Zealand String Quartet Background & Discography