Violinist Mark Menzies on Brahms’ Violin Concerto and why he loves Autumn in New Zealand

New Zealand-born Mark Menzies, described in the Los Angeles Times as an ‘extraordinary musician’ and a ‘riveting violinist’, is performing Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the Manukau Symphony Orchestra this month.

A viola and violin virtuoso, chamber musician and pianist, conductor and advocate of contemporary music, Mark has performed in Europe, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and across the United States, including prestigious appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Los Angeles’s Disney Hall. Mark returned to New Zealand in 2016 to take up the position of Professor of Music and Head of Performance at the University of Canterbury.

Mark shares his thoughts on the Brahms’ Violin Concerto, and what he loves about being back in New Zealand.

The Manukau Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is thrilled to be playing Brahms Violin Concerto alongside you in May! Have you ever played with the MSO before?

I am excited to play with the MSO – and this concert will be my debut with the ensemble. I have performed as soloist with maestro Uwe Grodd conducting before, and so I am very much looking forward to resuming that collaboration. 

Have you ever played the Brahms Violin Concerto before?

Not with an orchestra. In my youth, like many a student violinist, I learned many concertos that I performed initially with piano. This is one concerto I have, so far, not yet performed with orchestra…

 What are the challenges and highlights of this piece our audience should listen out for?

One of the challenges of this particular concerto is that it has a demanding orchestra part as well as a virtuosic violin part! To successfully play the concerto, the orchestra and soloist have to be a real team. What is this team communicating? To my perception, it is like an elaborate audio-garden: richly fragrant of the sounds from many sources, diverse backgrounds. For instance, the solo violin first enters, dramatically!, as a gypsy violinist. Throughout, you can hear allusions to the past – baroque, and classical era music – as well as more folk-based music (particularly in the last movement). Though very organic in its unfolding, there are so many moments in this concerto that are like a precious flower in a varied, at times wild and overgrown, garden.

Having performed extensively in the USA, and now teaching at the University of Canterbury, do you have any words of wisdom for our aspiring New Zealand violin virtuosos?

As the saying goes, the more experienced you become, the more you realise how much you don’t know. And I think this is precisely the point: if you, as an aspiring violin virtuoso have the feeling you’d rather do this than anything else – believe in yourself, and find your way. This way will not always look obvious…but in the long run the world will be grateful for your persistence. 

What music other than Classical do you like to listen to?

I listen to it all – and find something to admire, cherish and be nourished by in every style. The latest ‘other than classical’ artist I have been exploring is Stan Walker, who’s brave and moving autobiography Impossible – my story is most current on my reading list. 

What is your preferred hot beverage?

I’m a caffeine omnivore!

What is your favourite season of the year in NZ and USA and why?

Don’t tell the other three seasons, because they’ll likely get jealous – but Autumn in New Zealand is very uniquely special. After not having been in NZ during Autumn-time since I was 19 – when I re-experienced this after taking up my position at the University of Canterbury in 2016, it reanimated so many long-buried memories… 

In the US, it depends where you live – the experience will be dramatically different. Winter into Spring in the mid-West, for example, is a riotous experience! I still maintain part of my professional life based in Southern California: there the seasons are less dramatically different, but for precisely that reason, make for an interesting year of subtle transitions. 

Do you have a favourite Composer?

Absolutely: the one I am currently playing. So, when you hear me play the Brahms violin concerto, Brahms will be my favourite composer!

What is your favourite drink you have after performing in a concert?

A glass of red wine.  

What hobby(s) do you have other than Music?

It does feel like music is my hobby – a most fun ‘pastime’ – that I am so very lucky to also call my profession. I also enjoy roaming – sometimes running – and other physical ‘exercise’. I write poetry. 

Did you consider any other career path other than Music?

Like every young aspiring artist, I worried about what to do if things didn’t work out in music. So, as an undergraduate student, I minored in accountancy, reasoning that even if things did work out in music, it would be helpful to understand how money functions. Then I got too busy (if not much wealthier) to have time to worry about such things and that was, as they say, that.

What sort of vehicle do you own?

I own a fairly spacious car. Why? Upon taking up a life again in New Zealand and hoping to seriously contribute to the cultural taonga of Aotearoa in any way I can, I seek to make the case that this is a country worth making a cultural destination, a centre – and not just a place to leave. Over the decades of playing all over the world – the connections I have made I bring to this country when and as I can – and they bring instruments, suitcases: the intention is always for such associates to stay longer than a day or two ‘on the way to somewhere else’, and so, again, this literally requires a spacious vehicle to make this possible. 

I also tour – with small ensembles – as much as I can in New Zealand, particularly to smaller places that are often forgotten about when it comes to presenting music. The spirit of appreciation that I have encountered over the last six years in this way has been extraordinary, and something I treasure greatly.

Tickets for Brahms Violin Concerto are on sale now at Eventfinda or email