5 OCTOBER 2023

A touch of AWE: Justine Cormack and Benjamin Baker

A touch of AWE: Justine Cormack and Benjamin Baker

An interview with Justine Cormack and Benjamin Baker, directors of the annual At the World's Edge Festival in the Queenstown Lakes District.

We sat down with Justine Cormack and Benjamin Baker, directors of the annual AWE Festival, to chat about the festival, their vision for future generations, and why this festival is an opportunity for all adventurers to seek out a new experience.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves, and what led to the development of At the World’s Edge Festival?

JC -  I have been based in New Zealand for my entire career, with some time spent in the United States completing my Masters and PhD, but have played in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, been the concertmaster for the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, and was a founding member of NZTrio. After Ben and I played together at the 2017 Michael Hill Competition, we discovered we both shared a dream of setting up a chamber festival in Central Otago, and it made sense to combine our vision as I was well connected in New Zealand and Ben had access to international musicians from the Northern Hemisphere.

BB - I’m really proud of my Kiwi roots, but have been lucky to take advantage of my overseas experience and opportunities after getting a scholarship at an early age. I now spend my time travelling between Europe and North America as a violin soloist, and it’s really important to me that I can bring inspiring people from around the world back home to connect with the amazing things going on in New Zealand in composition and performance, and to nurture the next generation of young musicians. After a visit in 2018, Justine and I kept in touch, brainstorming and sharing ideas weekly for two years before launching our first festival, and we’re now in our third year.

What is it about the festival’s innovative programme that makes it attractive to both classical music enthusiasts, and those that are new to this genre?

BB - One of the key ideas of the Festival is the idea that we are a connecting point between generations as well as the communities within Central Lakes. As classical musicians, a lot of what we perform is old music, and what inspired these incredible people 10 or 100 or even 300 years to write this really powerful and expressive music is still relevant today, and we want to encourage curiosity to find that relevance. Every element is considered, including the space we’re in, so having Te Atamira as a venue is a game changer as it has given us a lot of creative potential and we are able to create an experience around the venue.  

JC - It’s really important to know what journey you’ll be taking the concert-goers on so there are lots of different considerations that go into programming, including who we invite, what the focus is that year, what instrumentation will be featured, and who the composer-in-residence is, and so all of this plays into the flavour and colour of the festival.  

Some incredibly talented musicians from around the world take part in the AWE festival, so how do you bring these people together, and what goes into developing the festival theme?

BB - There are two key elements, where the artists have to be incredible musicians and they have to be the right fit for the group. We work all year around creating the festival, and when the performers arrive at Queenstown Airport and they go ‘oh wow’, it’s a reminder that there are so many ingredients that make the festival what it is. Each Festival revolves around a number of central threads and the overarching theme, so whether you go to one concert or all of them, you’ll get a taste of those ideas and an insight into the different musicians, and what went into creating these pieces. Last year we looked at togetherness and solitude, which was influenced by what we had all experienced throughout Covid, and this year we explored identity, because as musicians we are often moving around, thinking about where we belong, where we are from, and what we choose to identify as. We are referencing and exploring themes through musical language, and allowing the audience to draw their own connections.

JC - The main reason we organise the Festival is for the community and New Zealand, but it's also an incredible opportunity for the artists as they go away feeling really energised and inspired. The connection piece is really important, where we are bringing in fresh energy with the right people, and it's a new experience for all of us, with different styles of playing and the musicians need to be complimentary. The ‘wow’ factor is why we wanted to have the festival here, to harness the drama and awesomeness of this area, and to have music and meaningful experiences in this place makes it so much more powerful.  

Both of you have had very interesting but quite different careers, so how does this have an impact on the Festival and your experience curating it?

JC - I’ve met and played with some incredible musicians throughout New Zealand, as well as having my own freelancing jobs, concert mastering throughout the country, teaching, and doing separate projects, alongside organising the Festival. I also coach professional musicians and would like to do more to help people develop their careers and harness the joy they feel in their music and performances. Alongside the Festival artists, we also have an emerging artists programme where each year we select three or four of New Zealand's best young musicians to play side-by-side the festival artists, and we call this a pathway because we support and mentor them as they develop throughout their career.

BB - It was an absolute game-changer for me getting that scholarship when I was eight and moving overseas, which has allowed me to build the life I lead now travelling as a musician. It’s an extraordinary privilege to travel the world doing what I love doing and sharing music with people. One of the things I am most fortunate to have access to is the incredible number of people which are connected through an interest and love of music, and the watershed moment for me was when I realised I could bring those thoughts and influences from around the world back to New Zealand through Festival.  

BB - There are two approaches when curating a festival where you can put on events and bring in formed acts, or we do what we do and curate individuals coming together. For AWE, it essentially all links back to the ‘wow’ factor where we bring artists together and we all learn from each other, and its like a professional, creative retreat for us to explore the repertoire and get to know each other within a whole new realm of opportunities and ideas coming together, and we leave with a full-formed experience that sets the festival atmosphere. I’ve performed at Festivals overseas where I have had friends playing on the same day and I haven't even seen them, so I think there is a missed opportunity there in those situations and we are taking advantage of that.  

What can people expect when they attend this festival, and how does it compare to other classical music festivals?

BB - The key thing we wanted to do is to tempt people from around New Zealand and across the world to come to Queenstown and experience something that only happens in that moment, and you have to be there, experiencing the live performance to really understand it.  

JC - The quality of the artists is paramount, and it's really important to have New Zealand artists performing alongside top international musicians. Each year the composer in residence has a strong impact on the programme and we weave the composer's work throughout the festival with different instruments so the theme will have a unique perspective throughout. This year’s composer in residence, Victoria Kelly, who writes incredibly powerful and emotional music, was writing for the different musicians which included the french horn, violin and cello. It’s all about providing something that engages and connects with the audience.  

BB - It’s also unusual that two performing musicians would organise a festival, so that breaks down some boundaries that other festivals might struggle to overcome, and it’s why the artistic curation is so important in AWE. It’s a risk, but because we believe it’s possible to curate and explore and thoughtfully take risks that we feel in our careers have been unexplored elsewhere. We’re not just creating the festival, we are the organiser, the artists, and the performer. In some festivals you will see a group performing who have played together for 5 years, but our festival is unique in that we are coming together for the first time.

You’ve talked a lot about the importance of the festival's involvement and exposure for young musicians, so how do you hope to inspire the next generation of young artists?

BB - As musicians, we keep growing and learning, and one of the privileges I have now is being able to share my experiences and lessons I wish someone had shared with me when I was younger, so it’s incredibly fulfilling being able to pass on these insights with young musicians at the beginning of their career. Another important thing is continuity, so to really add value to the region we need the festival to be something that happens each year. Starting a festival like this with free events wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible wave of initiatives to kick-start cultural initiatives in the area, such as Te Atamira, which five years ago was unthinkable. The festival can boost the region each year and our music, programmes and phenomenal artists can become a catalyst for inspiring young musicians to try a new instrument and see where it takes them. We strongly believe this music speaks for itself so overtime we want to open the doors and keep sharing.  

JC - As part of our free events programme, we connect the local schools with artists, emerging musicians and the emerging composer, so that's a really important part of giving kids a taste of how exciting classical music performances can be.

BB - Having Te Atamira as a space we can call our home has been a really powerful thing that enables us to make the most of the festival, with lots of different threads and interactions coming together throughout those two weeks such as the school programme with five-year-olds listening to the artists practice or the exhibition ‘A Migrants Path’ being showcased at the same time.

There is a common misconception that classical music is exclusive or elitist, so what makes the AWE Festival different and more inclusive?

JC - One of the biggest barriers is people's perceptions, so we are sending the message that you don’t have to have experienced it before. The challenge is getting people in the door, but when we do, they often can’t believe the power and immediacy of the music and how much they get from it. It’s really important to us that there aren’t barriers, so playing in accessible and comfortable venues is part of that and connecting it to real life, we don’t want to create any uptight feelings. The thing about chamber music is that it is so personal, we are playing with each other but sharing that with the audience, and the free events are giving people different ways in, such as coming to a rehearsal.

BB - It’s a problem for the whole classical music industry, and there are no convincing or effective quick fixes, but the main thing is that we share as widely as possible. We are offering an opportunity for you to listen and take part, and if you want to take it further we can help.  

JC - It’s about having the courage to experience something new. We live in an environment where people are adventurous, they like trying new things and are thrill seekers, so we want to encourage people to apply that to classical music and try something new. You'll find you have those same experiences, that you feel emotionally moved, sad, and thrilled, and that's the experience you can have by coming.

What does the future have in store for the AWE Festival?

JC - The community is at the heart of the festival, so it's really important that we are embedded in the community here, and that we can create a more vibrant, cultural classical music scene in the area. We are building the world's best chamber music festivals of its type that people travel from around the world to see.

BB - I have a little dream that one day we will have a festival where there will be a local youth orchestra we can use, along with a kids choir and adults choir. That’s the dream, that what we kickstarted five years ago will lead us to a place where we will be able to connect all of those worlds and we’re looking at a complete picture.

I also love the idea of being able to release the programme and within a week we’d be sold out [laughs].

AWE Festival has featured in New York - can you tell us about how this came about and the opportunities it brings for New Zealand?

JC - One very important reason is to be able to share New Zealand with other parts of the world, whether it be London or New York, so it’s kind of a cultural export idea.

BB - So much of New Zealand’s creativity stays in New Zealand, so having the opportunity to  showcase the festival to people overseas suddenly means a New Zealand composer can be involved in a conversation they wouldn't normally be a part of. It also gives us an opportunity to pitch the festival to international artists as a unique opportunity in a unique part of the world, and although we’re just starting, we are seeing a lot of enthusiasm and people travelling from really far away.

What is one thing you hope the audience takes away after attending the festival?

JC - For me, it's really important that the audience has a powerful experience. Different people will have different experiences, but I want it to be powerful, something that you don't get to have every day, something that’s meaningful, something that might change a little cog somewhere…

BB - A little realisation or a little idea while you’re sitting in a concert that makes you think about something in your life.  

JC - The only way you can have the intensity of the experience is to be there, in the room, and people are often surprised at how intense it is.

About At the World’s Edge Festival

At the World’s Edge (AWE) is a classical music festival in Central Lakes. A carefully curated program of live events that combine to create a journey through time, place and people, AWE is designed to transcend the walls of traditional chamber music and enkindle an entirely new relationship with our region.  

About Justine Cormack

Justine, AWE Festival Director, is a violinist and recording artist with an impressive career in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Concertmaster of the Auckland Philharmonia, and founding member of NZTrio. Justine lives in Central Otago and spends her time organising the AWE Festival, coaching up-and-coming musicians, and performs as a freelance violinist.

About Benjamin Baker

Ben, AWE Artistic Director, is a UK-based violinist who, at 8 years old, moved overseas after being awarded a prestigious scholarship. Despite his young age, Benjamin has already had a successful career, winning a number of international prizes and awards, and having soloed with the BBC Concert and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. Benjamin is a recording artist and sought-after soloist and chamber musician who travels internationally, returning to New Zealand each year for the AWE Festival.

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