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Emeritus Professor Peter Adams. The musician, conductor, composer, performer and teacher has made an outstanding contribution in his 35 years with Otago’s Music programme

Peter Adams has been made an Emeritus Professor on his retirement from the Music Programme at the University of Otago.  This honour is a reflection of Peter’s outstanding contribution to the University.

“I am first and foremost a practicing musician, I compose, perform, conduct and play music, mainly clarinet,” Peter says.

Peter is an embodiment of the symbiotic relationship between the University and the wider Otago community. Born in nearby Oamaru (his mother was staying with his grandmother while his father was on a journalism scholarship in America) and raised in Dunedin, he has enjoyed a rich career in his home city.

An early inspiration was music teacher Peter Warrick at King’s High School.

“He was brilliant and very very cool” says Peter, remembering Ford Capri posters in the music room. Several of Peter’s classmates were similarly inspired and went on to the National Youth Orchestra.

Peter studied undergradute music at Otago and then undertook postgraduate studies in London, where he focussed on analysing music and understanding it more deeply.

“I think that was incredibly helpful for my conducting – what’s going on in this Beethoven symphony? What are the rhythms propelling it forward? The harmonies that prolong something or go somewhere and why that direction?”

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Peter Adams conducting in the Performing Arts Centre, University of Otago

A career in music

On his return to Dunedin, Peter was offered a role as a research assistant by then Head of Music, Professor John Drummond. His work included writing out out by hand all the parts to Mozart's opera Zaide for a performance in 1988. Undeterred, Peter became a permanent member of staff in 1989 as an assistant lecturer.

“I had great colleagues. Honor McKellar was the singing teacher, Terence Dennis piano, Pamela Bryce violin.”

It was his former teacher and now colleague Jack Spiers who really solidified for Peter what he wanted to achieve in life and career.

An enigmatic conductor and composer, Jack was an excellent analyst of music, an active creator and admired teacher.

“He was very charismatic and elegant – an amazing lecturer. All the girls were in love with him and the boys were in fear of him.”

Peter decided he wanted to do the same as Jack – base himself at the University and “make as much music as possible with the locals”, albeit with a far more approachable teaching style.

He has loved teaching conducting and has been particularly pleased to see more female conductors coming through, including former student Holly Mathieson.

Over his 35 years with Otago, Peter has been pleased to see the music programme grow, join with the theatre, and then the dance programme to form The School of Performing Arts and become well-housed in purpose-built facilities.

Peter’s outstanding contributions have been multi-faceted, his research in the areas of conducting and directing, as a creative composer of instrumental art music and electric-acoustic music, and as a teacher and leader within the School of Performing Arts.

One of his highlights in his time at Otago was offering the first Music Technology paper, MUSI132. During a six-month sabbatical to London with his young family, he observed several universities were getting into technology, and knew this would flow on to New Zealand. The 100-level paper began in a basement in Marama Hall, with one computer, a tape recorder and a couple of effects machines. It is now a cornerstone paper offered every semester.

“We often say that the laptop is now an instrument for kids. They can make amazing sounding things.”

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Peter Adams conducting a rehearsal of Tally Ho with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra and Otago students Molly Devine and Lani Alo as soloists.

“Making as much music as possible with the locals”

Peter’s contributions to music can’t be captured without including his involvement in his community.

“I have always thought giving back to the community that I am living in is important. It would be terrible to be a musician in Dunedin with no music happening, so if I can stimulate music-making and be part of it, that’s a great privilege.”

Also, Peter adds, “I have a reputation for not saying no.”

“I have worked with just about every amateur music group in Dunedin, from the opera company and the musical theatre groups to brass bands, youth orchestras, the professional orchestras, the amateur wind band and the city choir. I do feel community music is absolutely important. Tertiary music should be taught in all the centres, with students contributing to their community.”

One of his commitments has been as conductor of the St Kilda Brass band. Peter began as conductor to the band in 1990, and competed in the National Championships.

“We came dead last. The year after that we got middle of the field. The year after that we won.”

Peter says brass bands are one of the finest examples of community music as they perform to high standards, and keep their repertoire contemporary. The four bands in Dunedin know each other well, and University students comprise much of the membership.

Peter is also intrigued by the correlation between medical students and music as some of the finest young performers are found in the medical school.

The next movement  

Post-retirement, Peter has many more projects to say ‘yes’ to.

He’s already been back to the University, teaching on the Summer School conducting paper alongside longtime colleague and close friend, Head of the School of Performing Arts, Professor Anthony Ritchie.

There’s more compositions to be done, including for his sister Miranda who is also a conductor.

On being made Emeritus, he says, “I was absolutely blown away. I had never thought of that. I was more pleasantly surprised than I had thought I would be. It sort of cements the links that I’ve had with this place for so much of my life. So, I was quietly chuffed.”

Listen to Emeritus Professor Peter Adams talk and listen to music with Bryan Crump on Radio New Zealand Three to Seven:  Music Professor hands over the baton.

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