It's a Wednesday afternoon and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra members are dressed casually for a rehearsal at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre.
The orchestra often rehearses in the venue, but today is special. Under the baton of music director Pietari Inkinen, it will include a run through with German cellist Daniel Muller-Schott, who is in New Zealand for the first time.
Even though the internationally acclaimed Muller-Schott is centre stage, the orchestra begins playing alone and it takes a few minutes for the half-dozen invited guests in the audience to notice him.
But when Muller-Schott, 36, rated as one of the best cellists in the world aged under 40, joins in to perform Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto all eyes are on him. This is his signature work. "The piece I play the most, but each time it's completely different because of the musicians and the conductor," he says afterwards.
"I'm always thinking of [it like] the first performance each time. In a way it's a bit of a paradox. You have to remember what you did, but in a way you have to forget what happened before."
It sounds and looks that way. Even though this is a rehearsal of one of Dvorak's defining works, Muller-Schott performs it with jaw-dropping energy and gusto. Combined with a spirited contribution from the NZSO, the impact is spine-tingling. For several minutes, it's as if he and his 286-year-old Matteo Goffriller cello are one organism.
Not every soloist allows the media into a rehearsal. Muller-Schott encourages it. Once the performance ends, he rests briefly backstage and laughs at the description of him seeming to merge with his instrument. But Muller-Schott gets the point. "Really, I feel the cello is somehow my instrument, my voice. It should be a part of you.
"I still remember when I heard it for the first time when I was five years old. The way how it was played and the first sounds I heard – I still remember that very strongly. It was just for me: the cello."
Ten years later and Muller-Schott proved just how much the cello had become part of him. Aged just 15, he won first prize at the prestigious Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians.
Muller-Schott says the prize was significant in itself, but it also forced him to focus and take playing cello "very seriously and to somehow strive towards the real professional idea of being a musician".
"I think without the competition I could have gone into all kinds of other directions because I was interested in many other things. But then after the prize I was asked to play more and thought this is what I should follow."
Muller-Schott had his first professional engagement at 16, so he has now been in the business for 20 years. He is conscious of the help and support he has had from other musicians. Early on he was championed by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who granted him a scholarship from her foundation. He also studied under noted cellists Walter Nothas, Heinrich Schiff, Steven Isserlis and Mstislaw Rostropovich.
"It [was] almost impossible without those people. I had so much guidance and so much support. Anne-Sophie Mutter in particular was always there to help me along the way, to suggest me to other teachers, for example, Mstislaw Rostropovich. He was an incredible influence. I am very grateful for that and having those people. Without them I don't think I would be here today."
Over the years Muller-Schott has performed with the world's leading orchestras; this year these include the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Next year he will perform a new cello concerto by composer and pianist Andre Previn with the New Jersey Symphony. It will also be a reminder of Muller-Schott's standing – Previn wrote the work specifically for him.
"I kept asking him for some years because we'd been playing chamber music and recording Elgar and Walton ... I asked him if he could possibly write something and he came up with a cello concerto."
For all his international engagements, Muller-Schott is still able to base himself in Germany with a home in Munich, although he can spend only a few days at home each month. There's also recording commitments. A devotee of Bach, he recorded six solo cello suites. His recordings of Beethoven with pianist Angela Hewitt garnered a five-star review in Britain's Daily Telegraph. This year he is marking Benjamin Britten's centennial with cello symphonies by Britten and Prokofiev.
And being a soloist this long doesn't surprise him. "You have to have some kind of ambition, to really go out and prove something. You have to have that talent, the nerve to sustain and really enjoy that kind of focus. I always did.
Daniel Muller-Schott performs with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Saturday, 7.30pm.
- The Dominion Post
Have you read Kiwi author Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries?Related story: What now for Eleanor Catton?