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An Unexpectedly Vivid Life

Janetta McStay in Conversation with David Guerin
A New Zealand concert pianist making her professional life in New Zealand playing with some of the world's greatest artists, a professor at Auckland University exacting precision, articulation, rhythm and colour from a great bunch of pupils, a pair of ears of the highest discernment, an inveterate traveller devoted to Europe. Janetta McStay has had a unique position in New Zealand music, and is now a loved and influential person in the music community in Auckland and the whole country. Just a little of the trepidation of the pupil visiting the teacher still remains as I arrive at the house of this cultivated and energetic woman, though laughter aplenty quickly dispels any old nerves. It is just a few days after her 84th birthday. Her Parnell cottage with its views past the bare winter trees to the triangles of the yachts in front of North Head and Rangitoto is a place known to so many friends and to countless guests at post- concert occasions. Everything in it is attentively appreciated, as much as are the concerts, galleries and favourite eateries of Auckland, and the precisely-recalled memories both of her husband Frank Newhook and of the career we are to talk about for this article. We started with her early days in the South:

JANETTA McSTAY: I was brought up in Invercargill, and I still have vivid memories of biking into what always seemed to be a headwind to and from Southland Girls High School. My parents were extremely musical, particularly my father, though quite untutored, and they were very anxious that their children should have access to what they had missed. When I began to learn the piano at the age of five, I had a marvellous teacher, an inspiration. I think it is so important that your first teacher should be someone who captures your imagination. When she moved away to be married I felt quite betrayed, but along came May O'Byrne (May Jones as she later became), also an incredibly good teacher. These two have remained for me the illustration that you don't have to go to the other side of the world to find a great teacher.

Alex Lindsay and I were both members of a little orchestra there, and I can still see Alex leading the group, often in his Southland Boys High School uniform. I played from the 'Piano-Conductor', and often had to supply a trombone here or a tuba there. If Alex were still alive, I'm sure he would vouch for the fact that we lived in a wonderfully supportive community. Older and very talented musicians gave me many opportunities to play chamber music in their homes. And one of the highlights of my life then was to take part in country concerts. It was a valuable training and there was an air of mystery about travelling to an unknown district along dark country roads with hapless rabbits caught in the car's headlights. There were generally a couple of singers, perhaps a violinist, even a recitation, and I played a solo or two, often on an indescribably bad piano. I can remember sawdust coming out, or having someone beside me picking up the keys and that sort of thing. But the audiences were so welcoming and the culmination of the evenings for me were the gargantuan suppers prepared by the farmers' wives. At that time I just did an exam every year, as young people do, and I expected to finish up by teaching music in Invercargill. But after my final exam the examiner told my teacher that he would like to recommend me for an Associated Board Scholarship to London.

DAVID GUERIN: How old were you then?

J.M.: Seventeen. My father had died when I was fourteen but my mother was amazing at taking things in her stride. A great-uncle had recently bequeathed her his worldly wealth of 250, and she gave that money to me.

D.G.: Did you have any other support?

J.M.: The Editor of the Southland Times, Mr J.J.W. Pollard, was a great encouragement to me, and through his paper he opened a subscription fund. With the proceeds from that and a heart-warming benefit concert, I set off to England, by sea of course. That was in 1935 and I remember that the fare via the Suez Canal was 36. I had always longed to travel, and I can still remember so vividly all those exciting ports of call. It was like a dream come true.

Janetta McStay, Auckland, late 1950s
(Photograph: Clifton Firth)

D.G.: Did you like your teachers? What was it like after your special relationships with May Jones and your first teacher?

J.M.: Well, my Invercargill teachers were special. I think it is very important when you go away, to research as thoroughly as possible to whom you go, and if you feel you've made a mistake, to have the courage to do something about it. My teacher at the Royal Academy of Music was a splendid man, he was very good to me, and I felt a loyalty to him, but I don't think he was the best teacher for me.

With hindsight, I realise that one has to try and overcome any feelings of inadequacy. For the first year or two I would go into the Academy thinking 'what am I doing here?'. It was only from my third year when I began to win prizes, and in my fourth year when things got even better, that I began to feel more confident.

D.G.: Did there come a 'choice-point' at any time for you, facing up to a career choice?

J.M.: Only the thought that I might have to give it all up. The scholarship provided only the tuition, and we overseas students were a pretty impoverished lot. But there was a great camaraderie amongst us and sometimes we could bail one another out. I used to play for the London County Council 'keep fit' evening classes, but payments were always in arrears, so I was often behind with my rent. One of the pivotal influences at the Academy was playing for some of the pupils of the most eminent violin teacher there at that time. His name was Rowsby Woof and his temperament was as fiery as his name, but I acquired from him many valuable tips about ensemble playing.

David Guerin and Janetta McStay, Cologne, c. 1982

D.G.: Did you have contact with any great musicians teaching at the Academy?

J.M.: I remember most vividly Rachmaninoff's visit to play his Second Concerto with the student orchestra. The revelation of his sound remains with me still. Sir Henry Wood used to conduct the Academy orchestra, and he was such a kindly encouraging influence.

D.G.: Did you play a concerto with him?

J.M.: A movement of the Grieg, and probably very badly! Oh! And the Bach D Minor and a couple of obscure works I prefer to forget. Subsequently I became acquainted with his daughter Averil who was Head of Music for the British Council and she became one of my greatest friends until her death.

D.G.: And concert going?

J.M.: Oh yes. Sometimes we could go to rehearsals at the Queen's Hall, and so I heard Bruno Walter, Toscanini, and Furtwangler. And amongst the pianists were Backhaus, Kempff, Gieseking, Rachmaninoff, Moiseiwitsch, Alfred Cortot and the young Horowitz. I couldn't afford opera, but I remember scraping up the money for a seat in the gods at Covent Garden for the Ring Cycle conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. And then there was London itself. Can you imagine its impact? I had never been north of Dunedin, but London seemed immediately familiar and I loved it all, the streets, the parks, the galleries, and the lovely old London theatres when one could afford it. Sadler's Wells too; I remember Terry Vaughan taking me to see an early performance there of Walton's Facade. And my love of walking dates from those early days when friends introduced me to the joys of the English countryside around London.

D.G.: One of the things I learnt from your Who's Who entry was about your time spent playing for the armed services, the concert parties.

J.M.: I finished my studies in July of 1939, and I was offered a post at a very attractive girls school in Winchester called St Swithuns. About two years later it was suggested that I should audition for Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), a vast organisation catering for all kinds of entertainment for the armed services and for factory workers. The classical music division was run by Walter Legge, later the founder of the Philharmonia. I remember presenting myself to audition at Drury Lane Theatre after a bitterly cold foggy trip from Winchester. I was accepted and not long after we began our touring, playing for the navy, the army, and the air force from as far north as the Orkneys, Shetlands and the Western Isles to the extreme south of England.

Janetta McStay during her ENSA days, London 1944

D.G.: Did you have a rigorous schedule, concerts every day?

J.M.: Yes, it was rigorous, but we were young and very keen. Most of us had just finished our studies, and we knew how fortunate we were when so many of our contemporaries were drafted into uncongenial occupations. Walter Legge rehearsed us, and we played really fine music you know, because we were actually assigned only to those camps that wanted to hear classical music, and we knew we weren't in too much danger of 'getting the bird' as they said, people whistling or stamping or groaning in the middle of the performance. Conditions were pretty stark as far as concert halls or huts were concerned, and you can imagine the pianos, but it gave me an amazing training in adapting to so many varied circumstances.

D.G.: Did you go further afield than just Britain?

J.M.: Yes. After the invasion of Europe we were the first classical music party to play for our armed forces. We were issued khaki uniforms with a rather dashing cap and we travelled in army transport through Holland, Belgium, and France. The suffering in the occupied countries, especially Holland, haunts me still. When the war ended, we toured in an area of Germany occupied by the British Army of the Rhine. I know you've seen a good deal of the restored Germany so it would be hard for you to reconcile that with the indescribable devastation then.

I was still based in London, but in 1947 I went for the first time to Spain to join a Spanish dancer whom I'd met during my years with ENSA. She was forming a small company for performances in Holland and Britain. Spain, then ravaged by its Civil War and its isolation, was a very different country from the one the tourists know now. Its landscape and people had a profound influence on me and I have returned many times since, many remarkable car journeys with Frank through magical places.

D.G.: But you decided to return to New Zealand.

J.M.: In London I was scratching along, doing things like Arts Council tours, some of the music club circuit, a little BBC work, all rather precarious. Despite that, I never really wanted to leave London. However, I'd been away from New Zealand for 18 years and I wanted to see my mother. I planned to come back for six months, but when I returned, in 1954, I was based in Wellington and the music scene was very lively. I gave some performances with the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra and that led to my long association with the splendid and formidable Ruth Pearl who led the orchestra, and with Marie Vanderwart, principal of the cello section, who later became my colleague at Auckland University. The New Zealand Wind Quintet was drawn from the ranks of the NZSO, and I had a lot of musical pleasure-an~ fun-working with them. James Whitehead was in New Zealand for a short time then too. He was a splendid English cellist, and he, Ruth, and I recorded trios together and we played a number of sonatas. I remember Jimmy especially because he was one of those colleagues who could somehow induce you to play better than you ever believed you were capable of. And there were concerto performances with the Symphony Orchestra in the days of James Robertson and John Hopkins, and with visiting conductors like Karel Ancerl and Alceo Galliera. The Broadcasting Corporation really opened doors for me, and so did the Chamber Music Federation.

When I look back, I've had an unexpectedly vivid life, I would never have envisaged all the opportunities that came. I had given a concert in 1954 in Auckland with the visiting violinist Maurice Clare whose name will be very familiar to my generation. He invited me to join him on a three-month tour of Japan which I was foolhardy enough to accept. Foolhardy because it was all at very short notice and at that time I knew so much less of the violin repertoire. There were four, perhaps five programmes, and the schedule was punishing. I remember that in Osaka for instance, we gave 27 consecutive concerts in three weeks, "and we travelled the length and breadth of the country, always playing to packed halls. But the pluses were enormous. It opened up for me the diversity of Japanese culture, the Kabuki theatre, the fine arts, the temples and gardens, the exquisite presentation of their food, and the wonderful inns in the less populated areas. So, despite the tremendous pressures, the rewards have been great; the time spent in Indonesia in the 1950s, still under Dutch occupation, and in Korea. And in 1960, in the time of Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai, Frederick Page and I were invited to China to their October celebrations. All that based in Wellington, and very different from what might have happened had I returned to London!

Henryk Szering, Auckland October 1968, with the inscription 'To Janetta McStay with many thanks for her outstanding artistic co-operation! Fondly, Henryk Szering'

D.G.: And later on there was so much other travelling.

J.M.: Yes, so many trips to Europe, especially Switzerland, but exploring Turkey too, many places around the world. And the travelling on sabbatical leave to go to piano teaching institutions, which was so valuable, from San Francisco to Moscow!

D.G.: I can't imagine your musical associations were all unalloyed joy. There must have been some trepidation with certain people?

J.M.: Trepidation played a big part. I can still remember that sinking feeling before meeting a new colleague, especially a famous one. Another short notice association comes to mind. Henryk Szyering had a big tour of Australia, and his pianist fell ill. John Hopkins was then with the ABC and asked me to come over. By then I was at the university and I really couldn't contemplate such an undertaking. But finally John rang me in the early hours one morning and said 'Janetta, I think you'll have to come'. Well, I arranged to go, but it was a most hair-raising tour, crossing backwards and forwards across the Tasman every time Henryk had a concerto engagement so I could fulfil my teaching commitments and a staff concert to boot.

Henryk had been accustomed to bringing his own pianist and he enjoyed the social aspect of his life, engagements with Lady So-and-So or Sir Something Else, and finding time to rehearse with a strange pianist didn't really fit into his agenda. He also had some quirks like wanting to board the planes long before anyone else, which meant my sitting there fretting about the time I could have spent practising all those many different programmes. Finally the ABC arranged for me to go to the airport in a separate car. And he liked to arrive for the concert with just enough time to unpack his violin and walk out onto the platform, whereas I often needed time to discuss matters with the page turner. These are aspects the public doesn't know about, and why should they?; but it was all very nerve-wracking. Nevertheless he was really very charming and, indeed, flattering, and he was a wonderful violinist. I could appreciate the beauty of his playing but, in the circumstances, fitting with him needed all my nerve and concentration.

It was a different matter with someone like Ruggiero Ricci. After our first tour together for the New Zealand Chamber Music Society, he asked for me to tour Australia with him, so I had the reassurance of knowing he wanted me there. He would say 'You do what you want to do, and I'll be listening'. And he watched your hands. Such a situation allows for a flexibility that makes chamber music such a joy. And Jimmy Whitehead once said to me 'One rehearses to allow for something different to happen on the platform'.

D.G.: You played with the Borodin Quartet when they toured here?

J.M.: Yes, the Shostakovitch Trio and the Quintet. The sound they made was unforgettable. I remember so well our first rehearsal. When they began the opening bars of the Quintet, I was too overcome to play at all! That tour was the greatest joy. Except for the leader, their English was minimal, but we managed to communicate so well, and it was a tearful farewell when they departed.

One of the most beautiful collaborations I ever had was with the violinist Szymon Goldberg. I had heard him at the Festival Hall in London playing all the Mozart Violin Sonatas with a pianist I revere, Radu Lupu; I never could have expected to be associated with him. I was really in awe of Szymon Goldberg but he turned out to be one of the greatest, most considerate musicians one could work with. He didn't have a big sound but his musicianship was exquisite and he made the most beautiful pianissilI1oo you could imagine, pianissimos of real quality.

D.G.: I remember Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus Quartet telling me 'If you want to make sure everyone listens to you, play more quietly'.

J .M.: Yes, these pieces of advice you get on the way are something you don't forget. There's nothing more arresting than a beautiful pianissimo. We had a striking example of that recently with the visit of the Ysaye Quartet.

D.G.: Did Szymon Goldberg like to rehearse?

J .M.: He was happy to rehearse, but you know sometimes things just gell without much discussion. With him I felt musically airborne.

Janetta McStay with Karel Ancerl, rehearsing for an NZSO concert, Wellington 1961

D.G.: You came to Auckland University in 1963.

J.M.: Yes, after I had been living in Wellington for eight years, Charles Nalden approached me in 1963 to begin a piano department at Auckland University. There was already a strong group there including Marie [Vanderwart], Michael Wieck from Germany, and Winifred Stiles, a distinguished violist on the point of retirement.

I didn't see myself at all in a university role and my teaching experience had been confined to two years in Winchester at the beginning of the war, and later on a term at a girls' school in Switzerland. So I had considerable misgivings. I began very modestly with only a handful of students but I was fortunate that they included Christine Cuming and Bryan Sayer and I received a lot of support from the two outstanding private teachers, Olwen Burton (now deceased) and Mary Nathan who remains my friend and continues to teach with that integrity we all respected. She brings me a bag of persimmons every year.

D.G.: You told me once you came to the University as a performer, and found yourself being a teacher.

J.M.: I had to teach. I began teaching on one o( those little Knight uprights with the short strings, and after some years I graduated to a very second-hand Steinway medium grand. Looking back on the procession of students in those 20 years, it was a richly rewarding time for me, but I can honestly say that right until my retirement I worried greatly. Teaching is such a responsible and demanding profession. Trying to nurture talents (greater and lesser ones), dealing with young people on a one-to-one basis, their aspirations and problems. It's a little like being a parent, and I still feel apprehension when after all these years one of them says to me 'I remember you saying so and so'. I often think I taught too hard, but there seemed to be so much to get through. It wasn't a course designed for people just to play around. Being a professional is very hard and they were students, they had a responsibility, and so did I. I realised too that there was quite a lot of the vast literature for the piano that I didn't know, and they knew even less, so I began a piano repertoire class which is really a subject on its own, as you know. Choosing repertoire for the students always worried me-seeing that they had a balanced diet. But I also realised before long that if a student showed a passion for a work, even if you thought it beyond their present stage, they could achieve miracles.

D.G.: But your being tough was the right thing for many. Your requirements were up there at a professional life.

J.M.: I didn't think of myself as tough, and I hope I never discouraged anyone who was really making an effort. I suppose I could deal somewhat tensely with an arrogant or hostile attitude, but that happened so rarely, and the serious students appreciated the demands I seemed to make. Otherwise I wouldn't have so many life-long friends from my earliest days in Auckland. I think the ones who have gone on have appreciated the detail they were exposed to.

D.G.: Yes, the detail. Articulation. You have a great pair of ears.

J.M.: We all listen differently don't we, I'm not aware of anything special! I just listen. Perhaps that's a reason why I find most concerts too long.

D.G.: I guess quite a lot of your time had to go for teaching which you would have wanted to be using for playing.

Janetta McStay with the Borodin Quartet, Auckland 1968
 (Photograph: Frank Hofmann)

J .M.: That was an almost constant conflict trying to do justice to both. It's an almost impossible balancing act, and many don't attempt both. But I think the students did get something from their teacher being able to get up and deliver-more or less! I may say that playing to one's students and fellow staff members was for me one of the most frightening of all experiences.

D.G.: You have a very large repertoire. All the Beethoven chamber sonatas?

J .M.: Yes, all the cello and violin sonatas. And the Brahms, the Prokofievs, the Schubert works including the Fantasy, the two Bartoks. They were a big learn for me but so wonderful finally to play. Oh and the Cesar Frank which I never enjoyed because of the stretches. As a chamber music player you'd be expected to have these and more under your belt. While he was at the University, I did all the Beethoven violin sonatas with Ladislav Jasek. He was a lovely violinist with the silvery tone and the pure intonation of the Czech school. But he never wanted to rehearse, 'I think it is not necessary Janetta' when I suggested more time. Ladja was a very good pianist and that helped make playing with him so easy.

Another pleasure of those years was to do all the Schubert song cycles with Philip Todd. Since ENSA days I had done almost no vocal accompaniment, but what a joy and a privilege to be exposed to those Lieder.

D.G.: Trios, quartets?

J.M.: Schubert, Beethoven, Dumky, Arensky, Mendelssohn D minor. I even played that back in Invercargill if you can imagine! The first concerto I ever did in New Zealand was the Mendelssohn G minor, a really nerve-wracking experience, because Solomon was to come, and he developed a heart problem and had to cancel. Can you imagine my substituting for Solomon, ever, even for one bar? I liked playing Mendelssohn, it's lovely music, and the clarity of the writing, I always enjoyed that.

Szymon Goldberg and Janetta McStay, Auckland 1979

D.G.: A harpsichord player too?

J.M.: [Laughter] We should draw a veil over that... When that harpsichord came to Wellington; I think it was James Robertson who initiated that, I remember it being assembled. How I came to play a number of the Handel Suites I don't know, but I had the temerity to do some of them. I'm sure if I heard them now I'd want to bury myself. Of course it's wonderful music. Keith Jarrett plays them with great enthusiasm.

D.G.: Were you in any sense lonely as a piano soloist?

J.M.: Indeed I was. To be honest, I never had the temperament for public performance. I was so nervous and fallible, especially in solo work. You might ask why I didn't give up playing altogether, but then I would have missed the rewards of all those wonderful rehearsals with such great musicians, and just every now and then there was the public performance that made it all seem worthwhile.

D.G.: Did you feel the same about concerto performances?

J.M.: Yes, but there again one or two emerged better than expectations. I'm thinking of the third Bartok Concerto. I did it several times, but once in Wellington with John Hopkins it worked especially.

D.G.: Were you the first performer to tackle that in New Zealand?

J.M.: No. Eva Bernathova from Czechoslovakia had played it not long before. Somebody told me I gave the first performance of Prokofiev Three in this country.

Ladislav Jasek and Janetta McStay, Auckland, early 1970s
(Photograph: Frank Hofmann)

D.G.: That's a wonderful thought, you premiering Prokofiev Three!

J .M.: Well, it may be now! I loved the work, but I never played it really as I should have liked, and there have been so many wonderful performances of that work since then.

D.G.: You did so many new works with orchestra- Hindemith for example.

J.M.: Yes. One of them was The Four Temperaments which I played a number of times, especially with Dobbs Franks conducting the Lindsay Orchestra. I did quite a lot of work with Dobbs. A Bernstein work, some Mozart, the Bach Brandenburg with Ruth Pearl. With the Symphony Orchestra I played Nights in the Gardens of Spain many times, but that wasn't a first performance. I believe Richard Farrell did it before I did. Oh yes. Another first performance was Shostakovitch Number Two. I had played No.1 with Albert McKinnon who was such a beautiful trumpet player. Then I read that the Shostakovitch Second Concerto had just appeared so I wrote away to the Moscow State Music Publishers. For a long time I heard nothing but then one day I arrived home to find a brown paper parcel at my front door. No note, no message, but when I opened it, there was the Concerto with a message inside inscribed by Shostakovitch himself. So I did it several times with John Hopkins, and it was a very good Prom work.

D.G.: I'm interested in this great repertoire that you played, of new music.

J.M.: I suppose I should have kept a list, because I did do a lot of new works. It didn't come easily as it seems to come to younger musicians. I remember doing works of Gillian Whitehead and Ross Harris that I found incredibly difficult.

D.G.: Yes. They remain so.

J.M.: Well, I'm glad to hear you say that because, although I felt totally inadequate, I wanted to do them justice. One of the most wonderful more recent chamber works has been Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, one of those works where the source of the work so inspires you that it transcends one's own feelings.

D.G.: This is an interview for Music in New Zealand so perhaps we should talk more of New Zealand music. Edwin Carr?

J .M.: Yes, I played a two piano version of his Electra back in the '50s with David Galbraith, and his Piano Concerto. That is a very unhappy memory as I am sure it is for Ted. I found it extremely difficult, and added to that, on the day of the concert I had a most dreadful migraine and arose from my sick-bed for the performance. Even now I don't care to think what it sounded like. But other experiences playing and teaching New Zealand music were more happy. David Farquhar, Douglas Lilbum, John Rimmer who was such a good colleague at the University. I admire so many of my successors who cope so well with the rhythms and notation of newer music. In Auckland, I very much support what the Karlheinz Company is doing, the diversity of their programmes and the opportunities young students have to become acquainted with new techniques of writing and playing.

D.G.: An important part of your life were the events after concerts, some of the world's great musicians visiting here.

J.M.: That was part of the chamber music scene then, we took turns at entertaining people in different homes, but it doesn't happen now. I remember Marie and Alfons had the Borodin Quartet on their last night in New Zealand, and it was a wonderful evening. The cellist Berlinsky had a most beautiful voice, speaking and singing. He sang some Tchaikovsky songs at Marie's party, it was just wonderful. You know that lovely song, After the Ball, and I can remember I was playing and the tears of emotion were pouring down, partly because they Were leaving the next day. I think he cried a little too.

Janetta McStay, Auckland early 1970s
(Photograph: Frank Hofmann)

D.G.: Other visitors here? Brendel.

J.M.: He was here briefly. So many. One with whom I became friendly was Alicia de Laroccha. Were you here on the night we had a party and the place was so crowded with people, and she was so gracious? I had that old Bechstein in the other room and she used to come and practise on it.

D.G.: I remember her concert in Wellington, all of Iberia, and you could hear ten things happening at once.

J.M.: Absolutely. And with her tiny hands, you remember how she extracted all those different voices, defined all those different areas. She is an amazing pianist, especially in certain areas like Spanish music. Talking about being fastidious in one's playing, when you listen really attentively to someone like Alfred Brendel, you realise just how many components there are to a marvellous performance. The articulation is immaculate, the balance of sounds, the whole thing is riveting. I think his approach to the keyboard is quite miraculous really, the way he articulates each sound. Especially when he is playing Mozart Concertos and the classical repertoire. There's something about Brendel and the relationship of one note to the next that is quite spell-binding. Frank and I went in many successive years to the Schubertiade in Feldkirchen in Austria. Alfred Brendel was a regular visitor there, and of course Andras Schiff, Peter Schreier, Fischer- Dieskau, Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbinder, all these great great names. And now younger singers, people like Ian Bostridge, the marvellous Thomas Quasthoff, wonderful baritone, and Robert Holl.

D.G.: You've received a few honours for your work too?

J.M.: Yes, but when you're doing it, you're not thinking about that, you're just doing the work. One of the things that gives me most happiness now about anything I've ever done is when somebody says they remember my playing. I think as I look back that there must have been something in my playing that meant something to quite a lot of people. Well, I think it's getting time to have a glass of wine. And a little pasta??