18 April 2012
With the 2012 NZCT Chamber Music Contest getting underway in June, we got in touch with former winner Byony Gibson-Cornish to chat about her memories of the contest and ask her for some words of wisdom for this year's participants.
At 19 years old Bryony has just finished her Bachelor of Music at the University of Canterbury, majoring in viola performance with second subject voice learning with Stephen Larsen and Dame Malvina Major respectively.
After completing her honours this year she is moving to New York to take on a Masters of Music in Performance Viola at The Juilliard School under Heidi Castleman and Misha Amory from the Brentano Quartet.
Here's what the lovely Bryony had to share with us (and this year's contest entrants)...
Tell us about your musical background
My parents are both musicians and I have grown up living and breathing music. I sang in choirs and acted in a few operas when I was younger, which actually inspired me to be an opera singer! I was persuaded to forge a career in viola though after experiencing real chamber music (my first serious experience was entering the Chamber Music Contest) and playing in orchestras such as the NZSO National Youth Orchestra and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. I was also lucky enough to be the NZSO’s inaugural Fellowship student in 2010, which gave me incredible insight into how an orchestra works. I look forward to pursuing a career in chamber music and orchestral playing, perhaps with a bit of recital/solo work on the side too!
The Chamber Music Contest made a big impact on my life as a musician. I was a member of the Pettman Junior Academy at the University of Canterbury during my high school years and was in the national final in 2007 with the Felix Octet and 2008/2009 with the Bedrich Quartet, winning in 2007 and 2008. Every year it was a big event for us and we spent many hours working together – it really made me love chamber music.
From your point of view what is chamber music?
I think that chamber music is an incredibly intimate form of music making. I still remember the judges from the 2008 contest talking about being able to accompany the other players, and also act as the soloist. The magic of chamber music is to be one voice when required and also to create many different textures as specified by the composers. In my opinion, the best form of chamber music is between friends where it is possible to have fun and be intuitive as musicians together.
The best thing about working with a small group of players is that there is no need for a conductor, so everyone has control over tempi, expression, dynamics and general character for the piece. This means there is more responsibility for each individual player to really think about what they are playing. I love the opportunity to be spontaneous in performance – when you are so close to the other players in your group, you might even find yourself playing a passage in a completely new way and it is amazing when everyone feels the music together.
What made you decide to enter the contest?
During the four years I was at Rangi Ruru Girls’ School, I entered in two chamber music groups each year and in my year 12 year I also entered in a composition demonstration group. The contest was a good performance goal for my groups and of course the prospect of performing in large venues in the finals, such as the James Hay Theatre and Auckland Town Hall was certainly something to work hard for.
How long had you been playing your instrument before you entered?
I started playing the violin when I was about 4, but I didn’t really take it seriously until I switched to viola when I was 12 – turning to the dark side was certainly the best choice I have ever made!
How did you decide what pieces to perform for the contest?
We were guided by suggestions from our tutor and we agreed with their suggestions!
How did you rehearse for the contest?
It depends which year we are talking about. In 2007 when I was part of the Octet, our tutors took a lot of the rehearsals, as it was such a big group. In 2008 my quartet rehearsed a lot by ourselves and we had weekly lessons with various tutors.
What other preparation did you do for the contest?
Of course there was shopping for matching outfits with some of my school groups and I must admit that not all of our rehearsals consisted of straight practicing! But I think that it was important to “bond” with each other by talking and hanging out too. My fellow chamber musicians became like family to me and we are still close now. Of course we also performed our pieces before the contest and in between the regional and national final, so we were used to new things happening in a performance situation.
How did you feel when you performed in the contest?
Gosh it seems like a long time ago now! I was definitely nervous every time I performed, but the important thing to remember is that having fun is what makes the performance enjoyable for the audience.
I’ll never forget playing my solo at the start of Smetana’s String Quartet “From My Life” in the national final of 2008 on the stage of the Auckland Town Hall. It was the biggest performance I had ever done and it was so rewarding to discover that the hours of work paid off. It was such an exhilarating feeling to perform in such a great venue for so many supporters of chamber music.
Other than performing your piece and actually competing - what did you take away from being part of the contest?
There are many things I learnt from being part of the contest – how to work with other people would be a really important skill I learnt. Also learning how to rehearse efficiently is certainly something we learnt by the end of it!
My quartet stayed together for a while and we learnt the rest of the works we performed in the contest to culminate in a recital in 2009. We also had the opportunity to play for Pinchas Zukerman, which was an unforgettable experience!
What future plans do you have for playing chamber music / performing?
I definitely plan to continue playing chamber music for the rest of my life. I really look forward to going to Juilliard and working with talented musicians from all over the world – perhaps I will start a quartet there which will stay together beyond our college years. I also love orchestral playing and hope to audition successfully for an orchestra job.
What advice do you have to people who are entering the contest this year?
The most important thing to do on stage is have fun, no matter what mistakes might happen! I think that showing your love for what you are playing is really important too, because ultimately you are trying to sell your performance of your chosen piece to the audience. So play it like it is the best piece of music ever written.
It’s also really hard being in a contest because there will always be a competitive element - at the end of the day the outcome of the competition depends on whose performance lines up with the judges’ opinions and priorities. So it is best not to think of that and play the best that you can – that is really all you can do! I still remember walking off the stage in 2008 – we all agreed that the performance of the Smetana we just did was the best we have ever played and who cares if we win or not. If you can adopt that attitude, then your performance will be the best it possibly can be.
I have watched all of the national finals since performing in them myself and I have generally found that the groups who stand out are the ones who aren’t just playing the notes – they have personality, they interact and most importantly, they have fun. Good luck to everyone who is entered into the contest this year – may your love of chamber music start here!
Visit our CONTEST SECTION for more information on the event.
Keep connected on the Chamber Music Contest facebook page for more great advice and soon to be released videos to help prepare you for the event this year!