Anton and the arts

MUSIC OF LIFE: Anton Oliver is on tour with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
MUSIC OF LIFE: Anton Oliver is on tour with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Former All Black Anton Oliver tells Tom Cardy why he's venturing into "virgin territory" by collaborating with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

This week, former All Black great Anton Oliver takes to the stage throughout the south to perform with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

It's a first for the 59-test veteran, so there's the obvious comparison with, say, possible pre-test nerves before running on to the field at Carisbrook and standing in front of an audience at the Civic Theatre in Invercargill to narrate Peter and the Wolf.

When Oliver's involvement was first announced, he quipped: "I'd rather run into the South African forward pack, to be honest."

"It's like studying for an exam as well," he says just before going into his first rehearsal last week. "If you go to sit an exam and you haven't done the study the nerves come up and you have got nothing to fall back on."

That's not to say that Oliver hasn't done his homework on Sergey Prokofiev's famous work, originally written to encourage children to sample the sounds of an orchestra.

But now is the big test. He's used to speaking in public, but to narrate the work is to also perform it, he says.

"This is virgin territory for me. I'm quite a literal person and I'm effectively having to pretend and be [several] characters. I'm happy getting up and speaking in front of hundreds of people about stuff that is non fiction and in my sphere of influence, or even my own story.

"But when you are doing it and you are pretending - it sounds silly - but it is quite different."

Peter and the Wolf has a long history of being narrated by a variety of people, including high-profile musicians and actors like David Bowie and Mia Farrow. Te Radar is also narrating it for the Royal New Zealand Ballet this month.

But while Oliver is known these days as an arts follower - he's been seriously devouring classical music for more than a decade - when the NZSO first asked him to narrate Peter and the Wolf he wasn't sure why.

"My initial feeling was ‘I don't want to do that'. It was the performing aspect, not the music aspect because I listen to classical music all the time.

"Then it was ‘Why me? I'm an ex All Black . I haven't played in four or five years. I'm not current. You can get current people to do it'."

After starting in Wellington the NZSO with Oliver will tomorrow take it to Dunedin - where Oliver went to Otago University, and then Gore, Te Anau, Balclutha and Invercargill, where the former All Black was born. Oliver says that was one reason why he was approached - his presence would appeal to the classical-shy in Otago and Southland.

"It's really for southern people and southern folk to get involved in classical music. I think there's a view down there that it's kind of elitist and kind of snobby and all sort of flowery and effeminate. These are anti-Southern traits for a man.

"To get someone like me with my background and track record from there is quite an interesting juxtaposition and quite challenging. Here's a guy who is 110 kilograms and used to captain the All Blacks and is a hunting, shooting, fishing person. He is quite happy to get up there and assist in the performance of Peter and the Wolf.

"What does it say about us as a society that we find that quite challenging?"

Oliver says his mother - who raised him and his two brothers on her own - "worked a lot and was never exposed to any of the arts really".

"As a consequence I never got exposed to it either until in my early 20s.

"You get curious and you realise that you have got all this latent interest of the arts. I think emotions are the music of life really and the arts have got a great way of tapping into emotions. Any great music has got anger, fear, anxiety and can change in tempo, cadence and volume. That's life really and to shut yourself to emotions is, to me, to shut yourself away from why we exist."

Last year Oliver was completing an Executive MBA at Cambridge University and continues to be based in London. There he has taken advantage of the access to the arts. It has included attending concerts at festivals and opera mecca Glyndebourne a few times, which is "super cool", he declares. "It's very easy in London to become a culture vulture."

It's that love for the arts that's one reason he accepted the NZSO's offer. He still largely remains an arts consumer - although he says it has honed his writing and thinking - and imagines he could take up singing and painting one day "when my body fails me".

The other reason is that the NZSO agreed to Oliver's suggestion that while touring he could also grab a couple of musicians and visit local schools to talk about classical music and his own story - to encourage students to embrace the arts. "It's not a PR [exercise]. What I want to do is advocate an involvement and a life in the arts because I think it's an incredibly powerful thing to be involved in."

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Tall Tales & Tangos, conducted by Tecwyn Evans, is at the St James Theatre, Gore, on Wednesday, 7pm; Fiordland Events Centre, Te Anau, Thursday, 7pm; Memorial Hall, Balclutha, Friday 7pm; and Civic Theatre, Invercargill, Saturday 6.30pm. Fairfax NZ

The Southland Times