Born in Auckland, Gillian Ansell made her concerto debut as a violinist with the Auckland Philharmonia at the age of 16. At 19, an Associated Board Scholarship took her to the Royal College of Music in London for three years to study violin, viola and piano. She then won a German Academic Exchange (DAAD) scholarship for further study in Germany at the Musikhochschule Cologne with Igor Ozim and the Amadeus Quartet.
After working professionally in London she returned to New Zealand to become a founding member of the New Zealand String Quartet in 1987. She was second violinist for two years before taking up the position of violist of the group.
In 1992, Gillian founded the Adam Chamber Music Festival with a group of friends, performing five concerts in five days. In 2001 she became Artistic Director, with fellow quartet member Helene Pohl.
In 2008 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for her outstanding services to music in New Zealand.
She served on the jury of the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2019.
Gillian plays on a 1619 Nicolò Amati viola, generously loaned by the Adam Foundation.
Find out more about her instrument here.
10 QUESTIONS WITH GILLIAN
YOU BEGAN PLAYING THE PIANO WHEN YOU WERE 5. WHEN DID THE VIOLA TAKE OVER?
I started it to help my violin technique when a student at the Royal College of Music when I was 21 and fell in love with the sound under my ear immediately. But only when I became the violist in the NZSQ did it really take over.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A CHAMBER MUSICIAN?
Playing some of the greatest music ever written, having a part all to myself yet being in a team, being so responsible yet supported.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF WORKING IN A STRING QUARTET?
As with so many things, the good and the bad are intertwined. Having to have a consensus on everything is great yet also exhausting. Receiving criticism is good for learning and yet hard to swallow past a certain point. Being so musically exposed is exciting yet stressful…
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THE ROLE OF VIOLA IN THE ENSEMBLE?
The chocolate or red wine colour of the viola in the ensemble appeals to me. And within the quartet, the violins are a little team and the lower two are another — I love having the cello as my team-mate. I also really enjoy the middle voice role, with so much textural interest to create.
YOU WERE A MEMBER OF THE VERY FIRST NEW ZEALAND STRING QUARTET WHEN IT WAS FORMED IN 1987. WHAT WERE THE MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS IN THAT FIRST YEAR?
We spent 8 months building up to our 1st public concert! So that became a huge event for us. Our first rehearsals are etched on my memory as well.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE CONCERTS OR EXPERIENCES WITH THE QUARTET?
Going to the Adam Summer School and the Adam Chamber Music Festival both in Nelson have become highlights. Some of our overseas trips are especially happy. Best playing experiences are when I feel most free physically and artistically – am in the flow, see the big picture, often with pieces that we’ve done a number of times.
WHAT DOES TEACHING BRING TO YOUR PLAYING?
Being a people person, I love my teaching and dealing with students. I learn lots when I try to analyse how to do something technically or musically so then can be more aware of it in my own playing for a while. I always try to set a good example to my students – you’ll have to ask them if I succeed!
THE QUARTET HAS PREMIERED MANY NEW WORKS BY NEW ZEALAND COMPOSERS. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY ABOUT THAT PROCESS?
I admire and am envious of composers’ imaginations. When a piece is written for us, I enjoy being part of the collaboration that has given impetus to a new creation for the world and the opportunity to work directly with the person who has thought up the work is special.
YOU HAVE A BARTOK CONCERTO PERFORMANCE COMING UP – HOW DIFFERENT IS THAT FROM PLAYING IN A CHAMBER ENSEMBLE?
It feels different in that it is technically more generally demanding than many of my quartet parts. And whereas we rehearse together a lot before each concert in the quartet, I’ll only meet the orchestra (St Matthews’ Chamber Orchestra in Auckland) a couple of days before the concert.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE NOT REHEARSING, PERFORMING, RECORDING OR TEACHING?
Seeing my wonderful family and many friends, restful time pottering in the garden, reading , walking, movies, tramping, trying a new recipe.