July 2011

July 2011

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

In Support of Art

Over the course of nine years of living and working in New Zealand, Art Zegelaar has carved out a nice little niche for himself. His one-man piano-teaching business is flourishing, to the extent that his modest school now boasts a waiting list of potential pupils keen to avail themselves of his services.

The usual measure of a good businessman is the burgeoning of his balance-sheets. By this criterion, Art is not a good businessman, but that’s only because financial gain is far from being his top priority. Art sees what he does as a vocation. Above all else, Art cares – he cares about his students and he cares about Whangarei’s classical musical culture.
Art is a not only a dedicated and imaginative teacher, but also an enthusiast, brimming with ideas and possessing the wherewithal to bring these ideas to fruition. His students benefit not just from his teaching, but also from his constant efforts to keep costs within the reach of as many people as possible. On the one hand his fees are more reasonable than most, whilst on the other a goodly proportion of the profits of his “extracurricular adventures” go straight into the pot labelled “Money to Help My Students Pay Their Examination Fees.”
An Example
A fine example of Art’s extracurricular adventures was his “Beethoven Project”. In 2009, he started a series of lunchtime concerts (proceeds to the aforementioned pot) featuring Beethoven’s piano sonatas. On 16 December 2010, which just happened to be the composer's 240th. birthday, Art finished what turned out to be, to the best of my knowledge, a unique Beethoven piano sonata cycle.
Top-flight pianists seem to churn out live and recorded Beethoven cycles like there was no tomorrow. These are all, of course, polished to perfection long before they're allowed anywhere near our ears. However, the unassuming Art boldly went to the opposite extreme. This skilful but otherwise relatively "ordinary" pianist performed this supreme pinnacle of the piano repertoire almost in its entirety – not as a finished product but, remarkably, as "work in progress". If there were any nagging reservations regarding "washing dirty linen in public", these were soon dried out by the unfolding of this ingenious idea.
Eavesdropping on Art was a revelatory and ultimately very moving experience. The slick virtuoso, by definition, can show only what comes out, whereas Art, crucially, showed what goes in. Having spent 50 years of my life, off and on, gaining an appreciation of Beethoven's art, in that 15 months I came to appreciate Art's Beethoven!
However, it didn’t end there. At the final concert someone remarked on certain dance-like qualities in the sonatas, even going so far as to declare that “Beethoven is Dance”. A minute or two later, Art was asking, “Why don’t we put it to the test?” He took the idea to Alys Hughes and her amateur group, Dance Inc. Northland, and only a couple of months later, at the Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, they staged “Beethoven Dance”.
A good experiment doesn’t succeed or fail, but provides new knowledge to guide further progress. The choreographers, both in responding to Art’s question and in picking up Beethoven’s gauntlet, pushed their brave young dancers right out to the edge – which is exactly how it should be. The Beethoven Project was a good experiment, even unto exemplifying the “knowledge/progress” aspect, and exactly the sort of thing that does the culture of a provincial town a power of good.
What’s Really Important?
Sadly, though, Art’s current lunchtime series, of piano preludes by Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich – again presented as “work in progress” – has been rudely interrupted: Art’s work permit has not been renewed and he is therefore required to depart New Zealand’s shores.
Earlier, he had tried to obtain residence through INZ’s Arts and Sports Category, but this had been turned down, apparently because he is not important enough. I am forced to wonder: what is meant by “important”? The rules talk about exceptional talent and international reputation, though arguably, particularly in the field of classical music, the latter implies the former. So, am I to conclude that “importance” equates only to the applicant’s international celebrity? It rather looks like it!
If this is the case, then it has to be conceded that people like Art are every bit as important. For, without them to nurture budding talent, the high-profile professors would be starved of their influx of students, and NZ’s opportunities for basking in the direct glory of home-grown talent would subsequently nosedive.
“Importance” is thus not limited to those with celebrity status, but should extend to those who are (for want of a better word) useful in supporting the emergence of NZ’s own international celebrities. Such people are useful in terms of the benefits they bring to individuals, to communities, and indeed to the nation as a whole.
The other main path to residency is for those who immigrate to fill skills shortages. Art also loses out here, simply because such as “piano teachers” and “lively contributors to local culture” don’t appear on the lists.  But, don’t his full books and waiting list, as well as testifying to his exceptional talents, suggest that there actually is a shortage of people with his skills? 
The “bottom line” is that there is more than enough reason for INZ to be actively seeking a way of keeping Art here – simply to send him packing, as dictated by the rigid rulebook, seems plain daft; it smacks of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
Paul Serotsky Classical Music Reviewer for Northern Advocate and Seen and Heard International.

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