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Rolf 30 years in the NZSQ

30 years ago, on the 10th of May 1994, Rolf Gjelsten became the cellist of the New Zealand String Quartet. Today, he looks back on 30 years of music making in Aotearoa...

30 years have passed already in my time with the NZSQ?  Time flies when you’re having fun!  When I mine the depths of experiences since joining the Quartet in 1994, I realise the degree to which this has been the fulfilment of my dreams, personally and musically.  Very early on in my cello studies growing up in Victoria, B.C. Canada, I loved playing chamber music, and particularly string quartets (after many years being a solo accordionist!).  Every experience playing string quartets over the years, from my quartets in Cincinnati, Banff, Chicago, and New York prepared me for this opportunity of a lifetime in the NZSQ. 

Naturally when I first arrived, the natural beauty all around was uplifting, especially after living 10 years in and around New York City!  Immediately at my audition, I felt at home and inspired playing with the quartet members.  I knew Helene and had loved playing with her, but one never knows in an ensemble how effective the personal chemistry and the nature of the playing styles will feel in a group, especially the marriage-like medium of the string quartet.  In my first year, we were already preparing the masterful 6 Bartók Quartets for a nationwide tour of New Zealand and studying them in Banff, Canada with the world-renowned duo partner of Bartók’s, Zoltan Székely, of the Hungarian Quartet.  Does it get any better?  Yes!!  The richness of experiences continuing for three more decades flood my memories as I write this.


The onion-like layers of support and inspiration around me has constantly fuelled my fulfilment.  My committed, caring, and discerning colleagues push me to better myself and my playing day-in and day-out.  Our management over the years have been a model for an organisation with supreme competence, drive, vision, creativity, optimism, and personal and cultural sensitivity.  The Victoria University position has allowed me to pursue my love of teaching and to work with brilliant and visionary colleagues to pass on wisdom from my teachers.  The myriad of relationships and encounters with passionate music lovers throughout New Zealand has been a source of great joy and fulfilment.  Our choices of repertoire, programming, venue, timing, collaborations, different type of events always consider our audiences experience – which must be fulfilling for us as well! 


Hence, over the years I’ve experienced extent of repertoire and collaborations that I could only have dreamed of, from Bartok and Beethoven cycles to most of the standard repertoire over four centuries.  Another wonderful dimension has been working closely with and playing the music by New Zealand composers, with their extraordinarily diverse musical languages.  It has been an especially fascinating journey collaborating with taonga pūoro, beginning with our relationship with the powerful voice of Richard Nunns.


The Adam Chamber Music Festival where we collaborate with world-class artists and our Adam Summer School for exceptional young chamber music students where we can pass on our experience have always been highlights for me in New Zealand.  I could fill pages about exciting experiences we continue to build on overseas.  Raised in Canada, I feel fortunate that the Quartet has been invited to the Festival of the Sound in Ontario for the last 19 years where I’ve been able to collaborate with many of Canada’s finest musicians.  Our tours have taken us to Australia, North America and Europe regularly as well as Asia, enriching our lives with new experiences, friendships and an awareness of the music world beyond our borders.  I’m also proud of the legacy we’ve created through our many recordings.  


This glimpse at my blessed life, where I’ve also been able to experience the trials and tribulations of having a Kiwi kid, and a brilliant thoughtful wife who can share with me the power of music-making, the joys of string quartet life, and the gratitude we feel in serving the cultural richness of this country.

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