Helene Pohl - first violin

Born in Ithaca, New York to German parents, Helene Pohl spent her childhood on both sides of the Atlantic. At 17 she was accepted for tertiary study at the Musikhochschule Cologne. She continued her studies with members of the Cleveland Quartet at the Eastman School of Music and at Indiana University with Josef Gingold.

As first violinist of the San Francisco based Fidelio String Quartet (1988-1993), Helene performed extensively in the USA, Germany, England, Italy and South America. The Fidelio Quartet was prizewinner in the 1991 London International String Quartet Competition and quartet in residence at both the Tanglewood and Aspen Music Festivals.

Helene joined the New Zealand String Quartet as first violinist in February 1994. In 2001 she became Artistic Director, with fellow quartet member Gillian Ansell, of the Adam Chamber Music Festival. In 2014 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for her outstanding services to music in New Zealand.

10 questions - Helene Pohl

When did you first pick up a violin?

I was 4 ½ years old.

What originally inspired you to become a chamber musician?

My first teacher, Sandy Reuning, always had us playing in groups. Of course as a Suzuki student you always play with the other students, but he got us playing music in two parts, and handing off the voices to each other, and I just loved that. I first played in a quartet when I was about 12 and we were coached by a university student. We spent an entire half year learning the 2nd movement of Schubert A minor quartet – boy, did I learn a lot.

What is a typical day on the job like for you?

Thinking about music, and about playing as well as I possibly can! Teaching of course is part of it too, particularly when we’re home in Wellington – but I gave my first lesson over Skype a few days ago.

What have you noticed about string quartet audiences over the years you’ve been playing?

Most of them know a lot about music. But sometimes the ones that don’t know a lot are the most amazing, because they don’t filter their responses, and we hear the most touching things. For instance – “Listening to your music I found myself thinking back to my childhood” or “it felt like being inside a movie”.

Tell us about one of your most memorable performances.

Memorable concerts – lots! Playing Beethoven opus 132 in Wigmore Hall on our second visit. Playing in Florence, Italy in the opera house with 12 firemen standing on guard backstage (not long after the La Fenice fire)! Playing with fantastic guest artists who take us for an exhilarating musical ride…Some of the people we meet make a concert memorable – for instance, at our first concert in Dunedin back when I started with the Quartet and an elderly lady came up to me and said she had been good friends with my grandparents back in Germany – she had emigrated to NZ after WW 2. Another time a very elderly gentleman came backstage after a concert in Pennsylvania and introduced himself as the minister who had married my parents.

What are the main challenges of touring?

Staying fit and finding good food. Jet lag is also tough.

How much time do you spend in New Zealand?

As much as possible! We are very lucky that we have lots of concerts here.

You work with your husband (cellist Rolf Gjelsten) – what is that like?

We love working together. When we’re in Quartet rehearsal he isn’t my husband though; he’s my colleague and we disagree as much as any other pair of players in the Quartet.

What does the experience of recording bring to the work of the Quartet?

Awareness of detail, and of hearing the whole (from hearing playbacks).

What do you do when you’re not rehearsing, performing, recording or teaching?

Lots of Tai Chi, as much tennis as possible, and hanging out with my seven-year-old. Reading, another passion, has taken a serious back seat to the last item – I do that on planes now.

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