Words: Kim Newth Images: Supplied Christchurch violist Bryony Gibson-Cornish was only 19 when she graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Canterbury with First Class Honours. After gaining selection as a Fulbright Scholar in 2012, she began studying towards a Master of Music degree at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. The 21-year-old’s dream is to carve out an international career combining her love of chamber music, teaching and solo playing. Watch this space.
Not that long ago Bryony Gibson-Cornish was a teenage musician learning the ropes at the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. Now she’s playing with one of the world’s most versatile orchestras for talented young performing artists, the Juilliard Orchestra, part of the Juilliard School in New York.
She’s worked with conductors such as acclaimed violinist Itzhak Perlman; Alan Gilbert (Music Director of the New York Philharmonic); and James Levine (Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera). She is taught by two of the world’s best viola teachers: Heidi Castleman, founding trustee and former president of Chamber Music America; and Misha Amory, founding member of the award winning Brentano String Quartet.
From the students’ residence hall where she lives, there are views of the Hudson River, Broadway and Central Park. It’s only a short stroll to the Met (New York’s famous Metropolitan Opera House).
“I find it hard to believe there are more people on this island, Manhattan, than the whole of New Zealand! It has taken a while to adjust but the nice part is living at the hall right beside the Juilliard School. You’re surrounded by friends and other people in the same situation.
“The whole experience here has been wonderful. I auditioned for Juilliard because I knew Heidi Castleman and Misha Amory were the right fit for me. I’m now coming to the end of the second year of my masters but, because of the short and early duration of my undergraduate degree, I asked if Juilliard would let me stay another year in the programme before I graduated so I can take advantage of the brilliant opportunities here.”
Bryony has just been accepted into the school’s prestigious Scholastic Distinction Program with the aim of pursuing individual study on the topic ‘The Partimento (Improvisation) Tradition: Implications for Pedagogy and Performance of Bach’s Unaccompanied Music’. She is one of three students to be selected from the entire student body and, upon completion of her project, she will graduate with Distinction. “I also plan to audition for Juilliard’s doctorate programme next February, commencing in September 2015. If I get into that, I would definitely like to stay: it’s so incredible here and I’m very lucky to be in this environment.”
Bryony is enjoying the contrasting styles of her two teachers. Heidi Castleman is “an incredible viola pedagogue” while Misha Amory’s active professionalism brings its own unique musical insights. She also has weekly studio classes with input from two other highly skilled teachers, Steven Tenenbom and Hsin-Yun Huang. “The schedules are always so varied – there’s never a dull moment.”
Study areas include interactive music technology, composition, chamber music coaching and historical performance using early instruments. She recently played with the New York Baroque Incorporated, an ensemble of emerging professional players on period instruments and has also taken part in concerts with the school’s resident ensemble, Juilliard415.
Bryony enjoys exploring the traditional viola repertoire but she also relished the opportunity last month to perform a commission by New Zealand composer Philip Norman with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. She is the orchestra’s 2014 Young Soloist of the Year.
“I love whatever I’m playing at the moment and that includes music from Bach to contemporary classical composer George Rochberg.”
Last year she attended the Taos School of Music in New Mexico as 2013 Young Concert Artist, bringing her more invaluable coaching opportunities. “It was life changing to be playing chamber music for eight weeks and what was particularly special about that is they only invite nineteen students a year. You get to know the other students incredibly well and I still play with some of those students at Juilliard now.”
Bryony grew up immersed in music. Both her parents – Nick Cornish and Catherine Gibson – are oboists; her father is also a saxophone player. Her mother has worked as an oboist and in educational music outreach and artist liaison. She is currently the Artist Development Manager for Chamber Music New Zealand. Bryony remembers there being plenty of encouragement when she first picked up a violin at the age of four and pursued early dreams of wanting to be an opera singer.
“My aspiration as a twelve-year-old was to become an opera singer. I was in many productions at Canterbury Opera and it was so inspiring. At thirteen, I switched from playing violin to viola. I never quite clicked with the violin but the sound of the viola really drew me to it.”
By 14, she was playing viola with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) National Youth Orchestra and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. She also credits her experience of the New Zealand Community Trust (NZCT) Chamber Music Contest in her teens for her decision to ultimately favour viola over voice (and violin). During her years at Rangi Ruru Girls’ School, she entered the contest in two groups every year and one of her groups was the national winner in both 2007 and 2008.
While at Rangi Ruru she began studying concurrently at the Pettman National Junior Academy of Music with Stephen Larsen (viola) and Dame Malvina Major (voice). She made a seamless transition into university study, completing performance papers whilst she was in Year 12, becoming a full time student the following year. “I was very lucky to study with Dame Malvina Major. My experience as a singer has been invaluable. I will also be forever indebted to Stephen, who was my viola teacher for five years. I’m absolutely sure his twice weekly lessons got me to where I am now.”
Recently Bryony sang in public again for the first time since ending her formal singing studies in order to help out some friends who were looking for a voice to complete a performance they were preparing. “It was really fun. Singing is something I will continue to do as my second instrument. It is an integral part of who I am.”
Ultimately though, Bryony’s dream job is to play in a string quartet and teach the next generation of viola players. She is also interested in exploring new and innovative ways to present the viola, to inspire audiences and make the concert experience as accessible as possible. “There are certainly great things happening over here I’d consider trying to do in New Zealand in future, such as staging house concerts.”
Her exceptional gift for music is one Bryony shares with her younger brother Todd, who was also a student at the Pettman National Junior Academy of Music and excels as a performer. Bryony remembers him being given a cello to play but instead he insisted on a bassoon … from the age of four! “It’s what happens when your parents are oboists,” she quips. “They’re closely related instruments.”
Bassoon turned out to be the perfect choice. As well as having played as principal bassoonist in the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, Todd was selected as a fellowship student with the NZSO and soon after began playing with the orchestra when extra players were required. In 2010 Todd’s ensemble was the national winner in the NZCT Chamber Music Contest and the following year he won first prize in the Australasian Double Reed Society Competition. Todd is now studying at the Royal College of Music in London on a prestigious Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Scholarship.
He has already played with major orchestras in London, such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra. “To be nineteen and playing regularly with the Philharmonia Orchestra – it’s practically unheard of,” says Bryony, who keeps in close contact with Todd via Skype. “I’m very proud of him.”
Last May the two performed for the Royal Overseas League and the Dame Malvina Major Foundation, playing solo and as a duo. Bryony hopes they can perform together again in the near future. Both are looking forward to catching up over June/July when they’re back in New Zealand on a break from study.
Bryony feels a debt of gratitude to Christchurch for launching her on the road to being a professional musician. “I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to professional opportunities from a young age, such as playing with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.”
On this latest visit home she spoke at Rangi Ruru and also performed at a cocktail evening organised by her old school. (Updates on other NZ concert dates can be found at her website, http://bryonyviola.wix.com/bryonygibsoncornish)
“Christchurch will always remain close to my heart,” she says.
Bryony wishes to acknowledge those who have supported her through scholarships and grants including the Adastra Foundation*, Creative New Zealand (NZ/Aotearoa Music Scholarship), the Dame Malvina Major Foundation*, Fulbright New Zealand (General Graduate Award), Inspire Foundation*, The Juilliard School (Genevieve Hustead Scholarship & Alumni Scholarship), the Kia Ora Foundation (Patricia Pratt Scholarship in Music Performance), the Kiwi Music Scholarship, the Pettman Foundation, Canterbury Branch of the New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women, Rangi Ruru Girls’ School, the University of Canterbury and the Winifred Bessie Louisa Owen Trust*.