Ask anyone to name a supremely talented composer, and Gareth Farr is likely to be the reply.
One of the most recognisable composers of his generation, the world’s most eminent performers have played Farr’s music.
Farr, who has just celebrated his 50th birthday, popped into the studio to share stories about life, music and things that go wrong on stage.
Farr is a fantastic story teller. Just listen to any of his pieces and they take his audience on an adventure.
And he says his 50 years have been just that – an adventure; particularly the last 20 which has seen his star rise as a percussionist and then as a composer.
His career has been full of memorable moments, from creating pieces he truly loves –such as his cello concerto – to performing with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
One of those moments came early in his career in the mid-90s. He was performing the tubular bells in a Hindemith piece with the NZSO, conducted by Franz-Paul Decker.
During rehearsals Decker was on Farr’s “case”.
“He did not like me,” he says. “He kept saying ‘What’s wrong with you? Can’t you play it any louder?’”
The team found Farr the biggest, hardest mallet they could find. He was hitting the bells so hard that chips were flying off the mallet during rehearsal.
In the performance, at the Auckland Town Hall, Farr sat in silence, growing more anxious as his part approached – about 10 minutes into the piece.
When it was time, he hit the tubular bell so hard that the string broke and it flew off the stand.
“I can see it in slow motion disappearing away from me,” Farr laughs. “It missed the principal trombonist’s head by four centimetres… dented the stage… and rolled across the stage stopping against the double basses.”
He continued to play his part, despite the missing bell. And what did the conductor do? “He didn’t say a word.”
He also made a clatter in the presence of Leonard Bernstein while participating at a Pacific Music Festival with the youth orchestra in Japan. Farr, and some of his fellow musicians went out dancing one night. He slipped and twisted his ankle badly.
Come performance time he was unable to use his ankle. He picked up the cymbals, played them and went to put the instrument back on the stand, but it didn’t go as planned. “I went down like a pine tree! The cymbals went smash on the floor and frightened the heck out of the conductor [Bernstein],” Farr says. “I moved over and there wasn’t a foot to support me.”
Farr is now making lots of noise with his compositions. Soloists and orchestras around the world have performed his work.
One of his favourite works is his piano concerto – which was premiered by the NZSO and performed by the BBC Philharmonia.
“Both orchestras are famous for being honest,” he says. “I got compliments after those recordings. I realized that meant a lot”.
He followed that up with his cello concerto, which was commissioned to mark World War I, for which he received a lot of positive feedback. “The terrifying thing is I think most artists start the day [thinking] ‘I hope I can still do this’,” he says. “There’s no guarantee. That’s the scary thing about being an artist… can I top what I have written?”
More than anything, Farr wants his music to speak to the audience and to be accessible to all. It’s about making important connections. “I don’t want it to be an elitist thing,” he says. “Or [to come across as] more clever than you. That would horrify me.
“I’m about connecting. That means writing something you can hum on your way home.”
Because of this he continues to gain commissions. He wrote From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs for the NZSO’s 50th anniversary, scored new opera The Bone Feeder in 2017 and most recently has been asked to compose a piece about Sir Edmund Hillary.
Writing about one of New Zealand’s most loved icons is easier said than done. He has to capture the “heart-stirring” the audience craves while not underplaying the importance of Sir Ed. “It does have to be incredibly original and some quality of ‘we knocked the bastard off’,” he says. “It’s about that balance between stirring but avoiding the cliché … it has to be genuine.”
Farr is known for including interesting instruments and for the Sir Edmund Hillary commission he’ll be including a Nepalese horn which, he says, makes his knees weak. He has crossed cultural divides in other compositions, and it’s something that makes his work distinctive. “I’m terrified they’ll stop [asking for commissions],” he says. “Occasionally I miss being a student and thinking … ‘I’m going to write a piece for contrabassoon and lute. No one will ever commission it!”
But for now, there’s no stopping him; and he’s enjoying being fabulous 50… well kind of. He’s a leap year baby, which technically makes him 12 and a half. “52 is going to be more significant. I’ll be 13,” he says. “That’s when Gareth will become a teenager. Watch out world!”