- Cellist Heleen du Plessis from New Zealand

- Cellist Heleen du Plessis from New Zealand

South African Cellist Heleen du Plessis, currently living in New Zealand, will perform with the Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra on 22 April. She spoke to us from New Zealand.

You have been appointed as Lecturer in Cello at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Do you live in New Zealand permanently?

I have a full time permanent position on a 5-year confirmation path with opportunities to get promoted in an academic institution with a good reputation. I see it as a job opportunity and experience that will expand my family’s life perspective and our options for the future. We are open to where this opportunity might lead to and when. For the moment we are still settling in and will probably stay here for a while. After moving around the world so many times: South Africa, Switzerland, USA, back to South Africa and now in New Zealand, I do not regard or perceive anything as permanent.

Is there a difference in attitude toward classical music in New Zealand?

I have been here for only 3 months, and my experience so far, is very positive. The University of Otago is committed to develop the Music Department and is channeling money for this purpose. Grants and funds are made available to lecturers to do research, which in the case of the Executant lecturers mean, performing nationally and especially internationally. I don’t think that the money and funding issue is particularly easier than in other countries - it seems to be the same struggle. It is definitely not unique to South Africa. I have heard the same concerns and conversations about the lack of funding for the Arts everywhere I worked or studied.

My fellow Executant lecturers, Professor Terence Dennis (piano) and Tessa Petersen (violin) and I have formed a permanent resident piano trio called “TriOtago”. The main purpose of the trio is to promote the music department nationally as well as internationally, combining concert performances with workshops and master classes. It has always been my view that in order to recruit students, such a group is essential to a University.

You have taught in the USA, SA and now New Zealand. Did find South African students as dedicated?

In some reputable music institutions in the USA, the standard of the students is very high and their dedication unbelievable. It is a very stimulating environment and students are exposed to brilliant co-students as well as teachers and performers who inspire students to work even harder. In general I would say musicians are used to making a bigger effort in the USA because there are so many excellent musicians around.

I have always had the privilege to work with very devoted students in South Africa, with a lot of potential, but it depends on individual students and a great deal on the teacher to set standards and expectations. The main difference lies in the numbers of students. At music institutions in the USA and Europe, there could easily be more than one cello class with around 15 students who competed to get in. What the teacher cannot provide is the surrounding stimulation of these Institutions. Nevertheless, many South African students compare well to students from Europe and the USA and are often very successful when they study overseas.

You performed the famous Elgar Cello concerto with the Prince William Symphony Orchestra in Virginia, USA. This must be quite a daunting experience – especially as the concerto is so closely associated with Jacqueline Du Pre. How did this influence your interpretation?

I wouldn’t mind being able to play it like her – I prefer her recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto to most other recordings, but it is impossible to recreate her interpretation of the Elgar. It is so personal…she exposed feelings of human nature familiar to us all, in such a passionate way. Because her recording of the Elgar is so well known, it is difficult to match people’s preconceived ideas. My interpretation or inspiration is rather more connected with the story of my instrument, which I will tell later….

Do you listen to a lot of recordings by other cellists when preparing a specific concerto, or do you feel that this influences your interpretation too much?

I do listen to a lot of recordings! I think it is a way of learning from other musicians. One doesn’t have to copy them, but may be inspired by ideas - even hear what you don’t want to sound like!  A performance makes more sense if the performer conveys something of themselves …a unique story, sound or voice, without trying to be different just for the sake of it.

Which concerto would you still like to perform?

The Barber Cello Concerto and the Brahms Double Concerto. I am going to play a concerto for violin and cello by a New Zealand Composer, Anthony Ritchi in May with the Hawks Bay Symphony Orchestra in NZ.

You started playing the cello at 7. Was this always your instrument of choice?

Yes! But my father, Van Zyl Hough, who was at the time a violin teacher at Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch and conductor of the Mary Krige orchestra, thought it would be “convenient” if I started to play the violin. I was 6 years old. I told him that I would rather like to play the cello…I always followed the cellos around when attending the orchestra rehearsals…so we made a deal. If after one year of taking violin lessons with him, I still wanted to play the cello, he would let me. So one year later, even though I adored having lessons with him, I told him, the agreement has run out! I want to play the cello! He thought that making me carry my instrument would put me off from the idea, but no amount of weight and driving far to lessons could keep me from it!

Tell us about your instrument – there is a story connected to this.

At the time I started to take cello lessons we were still living in Stellenbosch. My father took me to lessons in Cape Town with Julian Hart, who was newly appointed cello lecturer at the University of Cape Town. He was a young British cellist and I fell in love with him and cello at the same time! I loved my lessons even though I could not speak a word of English and neither could he speak or understand Afrikaans. But we had a clear musical understanding and a special connection. I loved watching and hearing him play and dreamed of one day being able to do that…I especially recollect hearing him play the Elgar…

I was about 10 when one day my father came to pick me up from school for my regular Thursday afternoon lessons in Cape Town. I remember it like yesterday. Instead he told me that Julian had died very suddenly. Needless to say, I was devastated and promised to never ever play cello again. Then, at his funeral, Julian’s parents from Britain approached my father and told him that after reading a dairy that Julian kept, they decided to give his cello to me…

Since then I have always played on his cello! It was much too big for me then and I refused to take lessons from anyone else for a long time. This contributed to bad technical habits, which took more than one dedicated teacher to sort out much later!

It is a French cello from the early 1900’s and for me not possible to put a value to it…I guess it is part of my life and the connection with the love for the instrument and special teachers like him always remain to inspire me!

Do you perform in New Zealand as soloist, or do your focus there solely on teaching?

My job title as Executant Lecturer means that part of my job is to perform - as soloist and with the trio. The University of Otago expects a certain amount of “research projects” each year, which in the Performing Arts Division means playing concerts at significant venues internationally as well as in NZ, where there is external evaluation or publicity involved. I am also required to produce a CD soon, which the University will sponsor if they agree on the idea.

Other performances in NZ for the year include an inauguration recital in May with Terence Dennis in the Marama Hall, the double concerto by Anthony Ritchi in Hawks Bay with Tessa Petersen, a concert and master classes with the TriOtago in Auckland in June and a recital at the Otago Festival of the Arts in October in the St. Paul Cathedral, Dunedin. Two concerts with the Musaion trio in South Africa will take place in July at the Linder Auditorium Johannesburg and Unisa Conference Hall, Pretoria.

My responsibilities require me to teach the cello students and I have a very good class to start with. They receive individual lessons but also studio classes where we work in a group. The idea is to recruit more students from NZ but also Asia, Australia and other countries. There are scholarships available for graduate as well as post graduate studies. The Music Department recently added a Masters and Doctoral degree in Performing Arts. I plan on using the technical support the University offers and the connections with teachers in the USA, Europe and Asia to create interaction and enhance the learning experience of students here.

Service to the community is an important role of each employer of the University. I have been involved with a summer chamber music festival and will play in the Southern Sinfonia Orchestra. Dunedin also has a cello choir consisting of around 15 or more cellists I have been invited to form part of to perform charity concerts throughout the year!

You have studied under many renowned teachers. What is the most important thing you learnt from them?

My encounters with all my teachers had a defined influence on my life. They have given so much of themselves and changed more than just my cello technique. It is perhaps this generosity, dedicating their time, effort, interest, concern and their love for music, cello and teaching that left a lasting impression on me.

Amongst the “renowned” teachers I remember my earliest teachers like Betty Pack, Marian Lewin, who remains to be an inspiration as cellist but also warm, loving person, Gehard van de Geest Konsanze- Marie Ahlers and Glenda Piek in SA.

Before I went to study at the Conservatory of Geneva under Professor Daniel Grosgurin in Switzerland, from 1990 to 1993, I was on the verge of quitting playing the cello. I wanted to do more chamber music and solo work, but in order to do that I had to almost start all over again. He taught me the basic principles of cello technique. During this time Daniel (who also studied with Pierre Fournier) introduced me to not only the methods of Janos Starker but also arranged that our class have master classes with him yearly. I also attended several master classes with Mtislav Rostropovich and remember how humble and down to earth he was! This experience greatly influenced my teaching and for the next 10 years back in SA, I loved seeing how this knowledge made my students progress and flourish!

When we went to the USA in 2004 I saw again an opportunity to improve and hoped that I would be able to study with a teacher that might be a good soloist, inspiring teacher and charismatic person! I found that and even more when meeting Professor Amit Peled who at that stage was a newly appointed professor at the Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, where I finished a post graduate performance degree. He changed the direction of my career and influenced my life in a significant way. I think the most important aspect of his teaching, apart from the practicality of his method, was that he showed and expressed an absolute believe in me, like in all his students.

So to summarize…the most important aspect I learned from my mentors is that the love and dedication of one person can change the course of another. And this is why I love teaching…the transformation it brings about not only in terms of cello playing and music, but the connection that result from it like a chain of lasting influence…one example of that is the fact that recently one of my students was excepted at the Peabody Institute to study with Amit Peled.

The interaction between teacher and student is one that both get inspired by and both benefit from the result of it…what the teacher hand over from what he learned get passed on to another generation and circles out in endless waves.

For full concert details, please consult our events calendar.

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