NZTrio hits a nerve in China

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 27/07/2014
nz trio land
CHRIS SKELTON / Fairfax NZ

MUSICAL STORYTELLERS: NZ Trio's Sarah Watkins, Ashley Brown and Justine Cormack.

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After the concert, Ashley Brown spent the night in his hotel room fretting, nervously parting the curtains each time a car idled outside his window.

He expected to see men in dark coats silently tread inside to take him and his band mates away.

He knows it sounds silly now, but the NZTrio cellist wasn't sure the musicians would make it back from their China tour anytime soon.

"I couldn't sleep that night. The laws of what happens shifted. I had been so confident on our first five tours, now I wondered have we overstepped the mark?

"I looked out the hotel window and imagined cop cars."

Brown is speaking about the classical musical group's tour of Cambodia and China in May where they performed cross-cultural collaboration O Cambodia.

They had performed the emotive piece before.

The music's backed by dramatic imagery and language and voiced-over with the story of victims of dictator Pol Pot's regime and the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers in the 1970s.

Stories of labour camps, of children seeing their father beaten with sticks and being taken away, never to be seen again.

Many of those who hear it break into tears but the response from officials at a Beijing music festival was quite different.

During a rehearsal for the planned concert, the first of a series organised for the trip, an official caught a glimpse of the Chinese words on the screen and "freaked out".

Some Chinese audiences have made comparisons with the propaganda with which Pol Pot controlled the Cambodians to Chinese politics now, NZTrio violinist Justine Cormack said. "We suddenly thought, ‘oh my goodness, we're doing something sensitive'.

"It's a parallel story to the past 50 years in China, similar things happened. We've been to China six times now and this time we came away more aware of the country."

China would have supported the Khmer Rouge regime at the time, pianist Sarah Watkins said.

"We were talking about the violent acts that reflected badly on the Khmer Rouge."

It had never occurred to the group that the music, written by Kiwi composer Jack Body with input from Cambodian musicians, would hit such a nerve.

The piece was banned from the music festival but was restricted to university venues where it was accepted for educational and historic purposes.

Even then, the Chinese words had to be removed from the backing display.

Uniformed guards carrying rifles were posted at the doors.

"I actually thought we might be taken away as political prisoners, never to be seen again," Brown said.

"We don't know how lucky we are in New Zealand."

Chatting with audience members after a concert in Phnom Penh, the musicians of NZTrio realised they were telling a new story.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, overwork and execution under Pol Pot's communist rule, leaving the country today with a median age of 24.

Many of the children and grandchildren of the regime's victims know little of their country's traumatic story.

Even in New Zealand, music teacher and composer Dame Gillian Whitehead has Cambodian students who say the music is the first they have learned of their history.

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"The history's not being shared because Cambodian adults who remember don't want to talk about it," Brown said.

Half of those NZTrio performed to at the Goethe Institute in Phnom Penh were European expats. It was the easiest place to get into.

But despite their run-ins with protective officials, NZTrio are already planning to return.

Cultural performances are increasingly being accepted in Cambodia as part of a widespread effort to preserve the country's 1000-year-old arts scene which has been on the brink of extinction.

As soon as a slot opens up in their schedule, NZTrio will be back.

"We want to take it to the regions," Brown said.

"We feel a weight of responsibility to take that show back to what we hope will be many more audiences. It's important."

NZTrio don't see themselves as activists - they are simply making the most of an opportunity.

The chamber trio is well-recognised for its level of engagement in its music.

The Manawatu Standard recently reviewed them as having "great panache and style, acute ensemble awareness and a great empathy with their music, in a performance characterised by sheer energy and vitality".

The trio is looking forward to a New Zealand tour of the 2014 Loft Series which begins with Loft #1 Svelto at Auckland's Q Theatre tonight and running until November 2.

- Sunday Star Times

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