This campaign should never have been necessary but the response has been truly inspiring. The letters and personal accounts published in the Save RNZ Concert group together make a powerful case. There are many fascinating angles to the debacle. Most shocking to me is the apparent ignorance of those behind the now abandoned proposals. Abandoned for now, but in the hands of such people, there is not yet any assurance that the programme won’t be gradually starved of resources. So we continue to write our letters and protest.
Here is my email to Grant Robertson, Associate Minister for Arts Culture and Heritage:
Kia ora Grant
It’s nearly nine months since we launched ‘Shirley Smith: An Examined Life’ and you spoke so well about freedoms, rights, the arts and other causes Shirley fought for. These are all relevant in the current furore sparked by proposed changes to RNZ Concert. Had Shirley been alive, she would have written strong letters of protest, drawing on classical and other historical references to illustrate how the arts have always played a key role in the social, cultural and economic life and the wellbeing of great civilisations.
I think you are probably doing your best to honour your promise in the Labour Party’s 2017 Manifesto, and that you personally understand the inestimable value of classical music and RNZ Concert. But I have been shocked and astonished to learn that this taonga, the heart of our cultural life, is in the hands of people who have no such understanding.
For what it’s worth, here’s my story:
As well as being a devoted RNZ’s Concert FM listener, I am a long-standing member of the Orpheus Choir of Wellington. I was in my 20s when I first heard Orpheus. I thought I’d love to join that choir but they all looked so old. When I did join in the early 1980s, our director Peter Godfrey aimed to have more than one-third of the choir aged under 30. It took a while but today the choir is a vibrant mix of all ages and ethnicities – and yes, some of us are now older. Age not an issue these days.
It is a hugely rewarding part of our lives, singing together, learning great works, performing in concerts with the NZSO, Orchestra Wellington and other professional musicians, led by brilliant conductors. The greatest thrill is the performance itself, when the audiences becomes part of the whole experience and we are all enriched. RNZ Concert plays an essential role, both in promoting our concerts and in recording them so that music-lovers who cannot attend concerts can hear them.
Much has been written about the connections between music, happiness and wellbeing, and how music participation is linked to achievement in other fields. We also know the powerful role music plays in our wider community, bringing people together. This community role was most apparent last year after the Christchurch massacre. There were many musical tributes around the country. I took part in one, a performance of Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace’. Thanks largely to RNZ’s Concert FM publicising the event, we sang to a full house at St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington, and together expressed our grief and solidarity with the Muslim community.
And we will sing together on the steps of Parliament on 24 February to celebrate RNZ Concert’s birthday! That should be a happy occasion but also a serious public protest against any diminishing the programme that lies so close to our hearts.
Please do all in your power to ensure RNZ Concert receives the resources it needs to continue to deliver as it should, not only on FM band but with a full staff of presenters, librarians, recording engineers, and that they receive all the support they need. The first step is surely appointing a guardian of RNZ Concert to the RNZ Board, someone who understands what is at stake.
I’m delighted that Circa Theatre is presenting a reading of Dean Parker’s play Shirley and Bill, based on Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, during the upcoming New Zealand Festival in Wellington. Dean Parker is a legend and with Jane Waddell directing, Carmel McGlone playing Shirley and Gavin Rutherford playing Bill, it promises to be a great occasion. Details: 29 February at 2 p.m. in Circa One. For more information and tickets, see Shirley and Bill.
Shirley Smith was launched by the Hon. Grant Robertson at Unity Books, Wellington, on Monday 10 June. It was an honour to have Grant launch the book. He gave a great speech, pointing up the significance of Shirley Smith and her relevance in our lives today. My thanks to others who spoke and all who made the launch such a success, especially VUP and Unity Books who hosted the event. No wonder your readers love you!
The month of May started for me in the Northern Hemisphere where it was all about spring, new life, a new grandson, family reunions and, as always, new research.
Back home in Lower Hutt, the magnolia cambellii has burst into flower unseasonably early. I don’t know what that means (other than climate change) but I’m taking it as a good sign.
The month has also rewarded me in other ways: the publication of Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, the wonderful Auckland Writers’ Festival, and some good early reviews.
Also, my entry on Shirley Smith for the on-line Dictionary of New Zealand Biography has just been published.
And, quite unrelated, the New Zealand Society of Authors’ podcast of my oral history interview with Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, recorded in 2004, had gone live. (Since then, NZSA have added my interviews with Ian Cross and Tony Simpson.)
My book launch for Shirley Smith is yet to come! to be launched by Hon Grant Robertson (he has to get his Wellbeing Budget out first) on 10 June, 6.00 to 7.30 at Unity Books, Wellington. All welcome!
I’m delighted and deeply honoured to be chosen as the inaugural speaker for the Friends of the Turnbull Library in their proposed three-year sponsorship of an event at the AWF. I will be highlighting some of the many primary sources I used from the treasures held in the Turnbull Library. This is a FREE event.
Sunday 19 May, 11.30 – 12.30 p.m. Waitākere Room, Aotea Centre.
The Jewish Community in Szombathely has opened a new exhibition with special emphasis on women. I’m delighted to learn that The Violinist was a useful source. The sharing and recovery of the past continues. See the leaflet: leporello-elekt_eng
Róbert Balogh, who has translated the curator’s narrative and forthcoming album from Hungarian to English, sent me photos that historian Krisztina Kelbert located in the Savaria Museum of Szombathely. (I went there in 2008 but came away empty-handed!)
I found it particularly moving to see the happy face of young Klári in 1940 and the striking picture of her mother Zsuzsa (1941) that captures her warmth and wisdom. I’m only sad that Clare (Klári in her former life, before she came to New Zealand) did not live to see this. She struggled hard to remember her mother’s face. The third is Klári’s aunt, Rózsi Brill (1938), who survived the Holocaust and came to New Zealand with Clare. An earlier photo of Klári and Mihály shows they would rather be outside playing – or in Klári’s case, playing the violin! But it’s wonderful to have all these.
On Tuesday 24 March The Violinist was ‘launched’ in Hungary with a public event held in Veszprém, hosted by the University of Pannonia and the Library of Veszprém County. This event was inspired by the article András Dési wrote in Népszabadság (see my previous post). András was invited to take part in the presentation. He sent me this account:
First, I have to say that I’m still under the emotional impact of the event.
It was very well organized, about 50-60 students of the University of Veszprém attended.
I can only appreciate the highest standards of the efforts of the organizers, Ms Eszter ADAM specialist at the Eötvös Károly County Library, Ms Boglárka FALUSSY, Director of the American Corner Veszprém and Ms Judit PALMANN, Director of the County Library. They really deserve all acknowledgement and honour.
The event began with music, two students played violin pieces of Béla Bartók.
After I read the message of Sarah, I introduced Sarah, and spoke about the book, and Boglarka read some excerpts of The Violinist.
Eszter found on the internet a video interview with Clare which was made on the occasion when she donated her two violins to music students in NZ.
It is an excellent video. Clare was saying that one violin was a “female one”, the other a “male one” and how much the latter one complicated her life. Some times she hated the male one, but mostly loved it.
The video was played and followed by a video message of Tibor Weinberger (Tibby Weston).
At the end of the event an old Jewish song was played from the internet, performed by a very famous Hungarian folk singer.
I think everybody attending the event was deeply moved.
Tibby’ Weston’s video, just over 5 minutes, is well worth watching. Tibby, now aged 95, was Clare’s first love and as far as I know, the only living person who knew her before the Holocaust. They found each other again decades later and he remained her dear friend to the end of her life. Tibby was hugely helpful to me in my research and I’m thrilled to have him on record here, from his home in Texas. He answers questions the organizing committee put to him, reading their questions in Hungarian, answering in English. (The questions are understood by his answers.) He illustrated his answers by reading extracts of Clare’s letters to him, again in English.
Tibby himself is quite something. It was originally suggested he should have a Skype interview, but he has a hearing problem which makes that difficult. Undeterred, he came up with this alternative idea, taught himself to make his ‘movie’, then posted it on You Tube! http://youtu.be/wcc2KwqB0Vo
During our email conversations with Klara Szentirmay, who helped organize the event from Wellington, Tibby suggested the music to end the event. He explained:
There is an old Hungarian Jewish song that people in the death camps were singing, that men in the labor camps facing death sang at night to find peace. Here is a version sang by Marta Sebesteny with a violin crying the melody. I am not sure this is being heard in Hungary today, but the song was written in the 15th century and it is the equivalent of Amazing Grace, the melody of the slaves. Listen to it and see how it makes you feel. It was part of the music I sent Clare. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siZtBxCCTDs
While Clare’s feelings about Hungary were complicated, she wished her story to be known there. And it’s appropriate that this first presentation was to a predominantly young audience. She was very involved in Holocaust education for the young, and since she donated her violins to what is now called the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University, she took a close interest in and supported the young musicians who earned the privilege of playing her beloved instruments. Here is the video that András refers to above: https://vimeo.com/53551302
I’d like to thank everyone mentioned above, and anyone else who helped make this event a successful and memorable occasion. For those working towards a Hungarian translation and publication of The Violinist, I hope the response is promising.