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10 Questions with Suzanne Callam

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

As our hard working Operations & Finance Manager, Suzanne Callam has a fast-paced role that in any one day can involve tour logistics, writing grant applications or sifting through Adam Summer School applications. It’s a job that she views as an immense privilege and one that has enhanced her love of chamber music immensely. Suzanne shares some insights into her role in this illuminating interview.

1. When did you start working with the New Zealand String Quartet Trust?

I started late in 2007 as part-time administrator, which enabled a good work-life balance while bringing up a young family. I’ve always had a genuine interest in the arts, and although chamber music was somewhat uncharted territory, it seemed it could potentially be a good fit… and it proved to be just that! I learned so much from my first NZSQ manager, Elizabeth Kerr – a legend in the arts scene, highly respected and brilliantly astute. Having worked in a family business before, I found the principles were essentially the same, but the bonus has been developing a little musical knowledge along the way.

2.  Where does your interest in the arts stem from?

My background is in furniture design, administration and marketing, so I’ve always been familiar with the creative process: taking an idea and a bunch of raw materials and transforming them into objects of beauty. Over the years I’ve been stimulated and inspired by visiting art galleries, theatre, dance, and pop concerts. When I need a creative burst of energy the first thing I turn to is music – for me it has the power to motivate. I also recall the many times my grandmother would take my sisters and me to St Mary of the Angels to hear the magnificent organ played by Maxwell Fernie. She adored his playing and the majestic power of the organ. These and many others are the experiences that have contributed to my love of the arts.

3. Do you play an instrument?

When you work for the New Zealand String Quartet, one of the most commonly asked questions is “Which instrument do you play?” When I respond that I don’t, it often comes as a surprise! Knowing what I know now, I’m sure, given the opportunity, I would have enjoyed learning a string instrument. It would be hard to choose, but possibly the viola’s mellow, earthy tone appeals the most.

4. Describe your most memorable performance by the New Zealand String Quartet.

There have been so many… As a complete ‘newbie’, the first concert I attended was at the Boatshed in Wellington, with clarinettist Philip Green joining the Quartet. I was truly wide-eyed and it exceeded all expectations. Their beautiful performance was breath-taking - I remember having that spine-tingling ‘moment’ and knew right then that this was for me! Then there’s the NZSQ’s complete cycle of Beethoven’s quartets in 2012, memorable because of its passion, drama and epic scale. That cycle took so many of us on a journey and for me it will remain truly momentous. And more recently, the profoundly moving Requiem for the Fallen composed by Ross Harris, melding string quartet with voice, taonga pūoro, poetry and visual images, was a performance that will be etched in my memory for all time. The driving force behind the project was the NZSQ’s previous manager Rose Campbell. Collaborative undertakings can be so complex, and this was a mammoth undertaking, yet Rose found pathways and showed outstanding vision to bring the project to fruition.

 5. How does an average day ‘play out’?

An average day at the office involves logistical planning for tours and engagements, financials, preparations for grant applications, reporting, special projects as they arise, and all the general admin duties associated with any arts organisation. It’s a fast-paced and busy office with no time for twiddling our thumbs! We’re fortunate to be sharing office space with colleagues Helen and Robert Philpott of the Turnovsky Endowment Trust and we frequently enjoy a chat about the concerts we’ve attended and share our impressions.

6.  Do you tour with the Quartet?

Not generally… at least, not for a full tour, but from time to time I travel for individual concerts. I do recall, though, a Classics Up Close children’s tour where I had my first taste of a day on the road with the Quartet - it took my breath away! It was a whirlwind day in Auckland where everything - people, instruments and props - were packed into a van while we hurtled through the city, presenting two energetic concerts to lots of eager young faces. While in transit, frenetic conversations filled the air - the buzz was electric!

7. What do you most enjoy about your role?

I enjoy that I am part of an organisation which has set the bar in chamber music performance, education, and innovative presentation style. The Quartet members are so approachable, breaking down barriers between themselves and their audience. Meeting long-standing supporters, many of whom go back to the beginning, is always a thrill. Our friends, donors, supporters and fan base, both nationally and internationally, are such a vital part of the Quartet’s success.  I hope they know that!

8. What keeps your role interesting?

Every performance I attend represents an awakening of sorts as I discover more about particular works and the subtle nuances of the Quartet’s performance. It’s a wonderful privilege to be working alongside these outstanding musicians.  We’re also extremely fortunate to have a dedicated Chair and Board of Trustees leading the way. Christine is my third manager now, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the wealth of knowledge, enthusiasm and boundless energy she brings to the role. We have a great synergy going on and there are always new projects to get excited about!

9.  What upcoming projects are you looking forward to?

The Adam Summer School in Nelson is the project I look forward to the most.  It’s an annual event, taking place each February, and takes a considerable number of months on my part in planning and administration. Students apply for the school online and, after an audition process, get selected to attend an intense and exhilarating week of coaching and music making under the guidance of the New Zealand String Quartet and a guest piano tutor. It’s hugely rewarding to attend the finale concerts – the prodigious performances by these talented young musicians are quite simply awe inspiring and never cease to amaze.

10. How has discovering chamber music enriched your life?

Chamber music has intimacy, power, passion and drama. So often it has often transported me to another place; I am deeply moved by it. In the words of William Shakespeare, ‘If music be the food of love, play on’.

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