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Ioannis (John) Psathas was born in Wellington New Zealand July 3rd 1966. His father (Emmanuel Psathas, from Nea Michaniona) and mother (Anastasia Psathas, from Thessaloniki) emigrated to New Zealand in 1960 (both sides of John’s ancestors descend from Anatoliki Thrace).

The Psathas family entered the restaurant business and John grew up in a small New Zealand town, Taumaranui. He then went to college in the city of Napier – where he developed a strong interest in music. He left college early to study piano and composition at Victoria University of Wellington. In 1988 John’s parents and sister (Tania) returned to Greece permanently. His parents live in Nea Michaniona. After completing his Master’s degree, John studied and worked for 2 years in the USA and in Belgium. Before returning to New Zealand in 1994 where he has lectured at Victoria University’s School of Music (now the New Zealand School of Music) ever since. He is now Professor of Composition.

John Psathas, is now one of New Zealand’s most internationally acclaimed composers. With performances in venues from Windsor Castle to Kalamazoo, Jakarta to Bermuda, Japan to Alaska, and Hong Kong to Tel Aviv, he has established and maintains an international reputation. His music is heard worldwide and is regularly performed throughout Europe, America, Australasia, and Asia.

John Psathas’ music has been performed by percussion superstar Evelyn Glennie, 11 time Grammy winner Michael Brecker, Joshua Redman, Pedro Carneiro, Michael Houstoun, Federico Mondelci, Orchestre Sinfonia Dell’Emilia-Romagna ‘Toscanini’, the Halle Orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Netherlands Blazers Ensemble, the New Juilliard Ensemble and many other performers, ensembles and orchestras.

Psathas has written extensively for Evelyn Glennie, who, in her debut in the prestigious New York Great Performer’s Series devoted nearly half her program to his work. Early success came with ’Matre’s Dance’ in 1991, a maximum-energy duet for percussion and piano that has since made Psathas’ name internationally through having been taken up and championed by Glennie. This work and ‘Drum Dances’ have become standard repertoire for percussionists throughout the world. John’s relationship with Evelyn Glennie has been a particularly fruitful one for them both. Her repertoire includes ’Matre’s Dance’, ‘Drum Dances’, ‘Spike’, ‘Happy Tachyons’ and the double concerto for piano and percussion, ‘View from Olympus’. She has recorded ’Matre’s Dance’ on her CDs ‘Drumming’ and ‘Greatest Hits’ (BMG).

Michael Brecker and the Orchestra Sinfonica dell’Emilia-Romagna ‘Toscanini’ premiered his saxophone concerto ‘Omnifenix’, in 2000 in Bologna at a large outdoor concert and broadcast throughout Europe. It was this performance which first drew Psathas’ name to international attention. Critics described this piece as a true hybrid of jazz and western art music. In its successful combination of these two disparate elements, the concerto wowed the 6000-strong audience and paved the way for further international performances of Psathas’ larger concert works.

Notable amongst these was the programming of the Percussion Concerto (for four soloists and orchestra) at the 2001 ‘Klangspuren’ Festival in Schwaz, Austria. A sold-out retrospective concert of Psathas’ chamber music was given in the 2000 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts. In 2002, ‘View from Olympus’ was given its premiere during the Manchester Commonwealth Games by Evelyn Glennie and Philip Smith with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder at the Royal Gala finale concert of the ‘Pulse’ International Festival of Rhythm. The 2002 International Festival also featured a major new commission, ‘Psyzygysm’, a concerto for mallet percussion and chamber ensemble which featured the young Portuguese virtuoso percussionist Pedro Carneiro as star soloist – this work received its European premiere in Lisbon in 2006. Notable performances of 2004 included the premiere season of ‘Zeibekiko’, a major commission from the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble (NBE), which invited him to create an entire programme based around the theme of 2500 years of Greek Music. This collaborative work was performed by the NBE throughout Holland and at the Bath Festival (UK). ‘Three Psalms’ (for solo piano, percussion, harp and strings), commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was premiered at concerts throughout New Zealand in April 2004 by US pianist Stephen Gosling with the NZSO under James Judd.

2006 saw the release of a CD/DVD project: ‘View From Olympus’. This is New Zealand’s most ambitious orchestral recording project ever and has been released to wide critical acclaim. View From Olympus went straight to the top of the Classical Music Charts in New Zealand and remained there for five months. Closer to home, his music opened the doors of Te Papa in 1998, and in 1997 his ‘Percussion Concerto’ was premiered by Glennie and the NZSO. He has written for the NZSO and the Auckland Philharmonia, pianists Michael Houstoun, Deidre Irons, David Guerin, Dan Poynton, as well as the NZ Trio, the NZ String Quartet, the Kandinsky Ensemble and Saxcess.

Psathas also has a natural inclination toward mega-projects. Since writing much of the ceremonial music for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, his music has been on the radar screen of a wider public than that normally associated with contemporary classical music. Most recently his epic project No Man’s Land involved direct collaboration with over 150 musicians from more than 25 countries. A ground-breaking cinematic performance in commemoration of the First World War, musicians descended from opposing forces were brought together on the battlefields of WWI in an original composition. These musical collaborations were fused into a unique 80-minute film, projected alongside live musicians on-stage.

Psathas has received several awards and honours, including twice winning the SOUNZ Contemporary Award (2002 and 2004) for individual works and three ‘Tuis’ for Classical CD of the Year (2000, 2004, and 2007). In 2003 he was made a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate and in 2005 was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM).

But it is the sheer power of his music that, despite its complexity, engages a wide range of listeners – both in and out of the concert hall. This is marking him out as a potent artistic force. Mentor and colleague, Jack Body said: “Many of his compositions have an energy and drive more extreme than any other music I know – it sweeps one up on a frantic roller-coaster ride and carries one to that height of exhilaration.” His music is energetic and vibrant, with a passionate exuberance that is a product of his Greek heritage. In his music one can hear both the Western classical tradition as well as the kinetic enthusiasm found in jazz and Greek folk music. His compositional style is difficult to define as each piece is unique and creates its own musical language, but regardless of the medium, whether it’s jazz quintet or string quartet, there is a constant intensity and immediacy in his music.

[As a recipient of a 2006 Arts Foundation Laureate Award more information about John Psathas can be found on the Arts Foundation website.]

Source: John Psathas, July 2007. Updated by SOUNZ, April 2017.


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