So Farr, so good for Gareth

CONCERTO CREATOR: "They're just such massive, dramatic works," says Farr about piano concertos.
CONCERTO CREATOR: "They're just such massive, dramatic works," says Farr about piano concertos.

Wellington's Gareth Farr is not only one of New Zealand's best-known contemporary composers, he now has a significant standing overseas.

The prestigious Edinburgh International Festival this year has commissioned Farr, 46, to compose a piece to be performed at the festival in August.

But ahead of that milestone, comes another: Farr's first piano concerto. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra will be performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and young Australian pianist Tony Lee in Wellington tonight.

A concerto – where one or more instruments is contrasted and blended with an orchestra – has a long tradition in classical music. But a piano concerto for Farr has been a long time coming. He first wanted to write one when he was 17.

"I always used to play the piano when I was little – and not very well," says Farr, best known for his percussion-driven works. "I liked making things up on the piano more than I did practising, which was a problem at the time for my piano teacher because I used to drive her up the wall. But it turns out that the best thing I could have been doing was making things up."

While Farr went on to become one of our best-known and prolific composers, he says his wish to one day compose a piano concerto never faded. "They're just such massive, dramatic works. I've always loved the drama of it and being madly in love with piano and orchestra. It's a good combination for me really because with piano I can get percussion in there, doing things. The piano is really a percussive instrument anyway, which is why it has always been a favourite of mine."

Farr wrote most of the work using an upright piano in his Aro Valley home, the same piano "I tinker on every once in a while".

While piano concertos are often known for being romantic and epic – "happy, happy, joy, joy", jokes Farr – his, which has three movements, has a darker edge.

"Although quite a few of my pieces tend to [be] rhythmic and up in mood, my favourite orchestral stuff to write is a little darker because it is more fun for me. And this is quite dark."

Farr says he was also inspired by what others had achieved. Among his heroes are Prokofiev and Ravel. "I'd known those pieces since I was about 20, I've known them back to front. So my piece nods its head to Prokofiev and Ravel and Shostakovich every once in a while. But I've done my very best to keep it from quoting."

He is also rapt that 21-year-old Lee will be at the piano. Farr says Lee was suggested by philanthropist Jack Richards who commissioned the concerto. "He is a really amazing strong pianist and [he] can play really good Prokofiev – I made sure of that when I met him. We got off to a really good start and he has the mind of a composer, which I found exciting. No matter what I do he's really going to make an effort to look into it and find out what's going on, rather than just learn the notes.

"There are a lot of fabulous pianists that I could have asked who would have done it once or twice and then got on with their own career. I like the idea that it's his now."

After the concerto performances Farr will knuckle down for his Edinburgh International Festival commission Relict Furies for mezzo soprano and double string orchestra.

It will be performed by the 14-member Scottish Ensemble and the Commonwealth Strings, an ensemble of string players selected from across the Commonwealth. It's one reason Farr's piece is for a double string orchestra and the concert will use the two ensembles to add a special nuance to the music.

"It's one of the biggies to get commissioned by them [and] is hugely uncommon. I'm going to have a lot of fun with that one."


Gareth Farr's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is performed by pianist Tony Lee and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre tonight at 6.30pm as part of the La Dolce Vita concert. It also includes three tone poems by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi.

The Dominion Post