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Opera-singing greenie

GAVIN Maclean says he lives about four lives but jokes that he doesn’t do justice to any of them.

This is the humble side of a man who has packed a lot into nearly 70 years. He has built a house, carved chess sets, run for Parliament, has a couple of books on the go and been the conductor for the Gisborne Choral Society since 1979.

Gavin joined the choir in 1967 during university holidays, and was made the musical director when he settled back in Gisborne after teaching in Auckland and studying in London.

He always carries a pen and paper in his top pocket for when good ideas strike, and is the recipient of a QSM for community music (1999), the local heros award (2016) and a citizens award (2015).

Gavin went to Otago University to study physics in the 1960s but found it a drudgery, despite the exciting developments in physics, in which he still takes a keen interest. All his best friends were art students and his attention quickly turned towards music, where he found his passion in singing and learning the piano “after a fashion”.

“It would be nice to spend my life singing,” he muses. Opera would be his first choice, or anything classical, with a particular love for German Lieder (that’s German for song).

He describes himself as quite a bashful creature — “even though people might think I am a flagrant show-off these days”.

It wasn’t always like that.

He remembers getting palpitations when answering questions in class and because of this has a great empathy for singers, or any performers, who get nervous.

Gavin is also well-known for his political ambitions. He began his political journey as a list member with the Values Party — “I thought they made sense” — before it turned into the Alliance Party and then the Greens. While his political ambitions are no longer so public he continues to be a member of the Green Party, adheres to their values, thinks climate change is scary and watches Al Jazeera during the ad breaks.

He loves history and world affairs, liking to keep track of what is happening around him, but his closest watch is always at home — family reigns at the Maclean household — a dynasty he and his wife Catherine have created.

Gavin was born in Whanganui in 1947, before moving to Hawke’s Bay for nine years, then Gisborne where he attended Gisborne Intermediate and Gisborne Boys’ High School.

He met Catherine in Auckland. It was 1969 and they were both part of a well-known choir called the Dorian Singers.

Romance blossomed when they met up again in London just months later.

Gavin worked part-time stage-managing an educational television drama series in London to fund his singing lessons with a private tutor.

Catherine was working at the Town’s Women’s Guild in London to also pay for her lessons from several teachers.

Gavin also worked weekends as an acoustics researcher, a very secretive job, on the muffling of noise from jet engines (such as Concorde) being tested on the ground and from gas-pumping stations around England.

“It was great fun — pretty low-level physics because of industrial secrecy, and being in a small firm that could compete with the likes of British Gas.”

Gavin and Catherine returned to New Zealand in 1976, having married the year before. “We wanted to avoid a fuss but it was not a wise choice — there were some very sad parents when we decided to marry in their absence.”

They have lived on the family land since 1976 and have two children, Amanda and Belinda, who are both very musical.

They have always believed in the good life — growing their own vegetables and self-sufficiency, “and lapsing badly ever since”, he says with a smile.

Amanda lives in the cottage where she grew up, and which Gavin extended, adding a two-story “West Wing” to the ancient original, beside the big family home, with her husband and their three children.

Their second daughter Belinda lives a bit further away, in Wellington, where she is a manager in Te Koki New Zealand School of Music.

The trees he plants on the family land today are for his grandchildren, to wood-turn one day and turn into tables and chairs made from the wood their grandfather grew. He loves that kind of stuff.

In the summer holidays his day starts around 5.30am, at the computer over a couple of coffees to work on two non-fiction books he is writing.

He teaches singing part-time and charges his students the minimum wage plus expenses — something other singing teachers don’t think is particularly professional but Gavin doesn’t worry about that. he wants learning to sing to be accessible.

“There is a difference between professional and commercial. The average wage is the moral wage.”

So can anyone sing?

“I like to think so — even men.

“So many think they can’t sing. Sometimes it’s true, but I think it is when their voices broke and didn’t get those neural pathways for their new sound. Or maybe their wives don’t let them.”

One of his other passions is wood-turning, which has seen him create many things, but one piece he is quite proud of is a miniature recorder he carved out of ebony and tagua nut (black and white). It was 5cm long and had all the right holes in all the right places, and all six components. The ebony itself was from a chunk that had been flown from Africa, via Vancouver, to Gisborne.

It could not be played as the physics don’t work — you need more air apparently for it to actually make a sound.

He is full of praise for the Gisborne Woodturners’ Club. Like turners the world over, the members are extremely helpful to each other and encouraging to beginners.

His motto is do less, live more, but do more voluntary work, do what needs doing, look after each other.

Next on the list as musical director of the Choral Society is a set of 14 poems by New Zealand contemporary poets.

Gavin Maclean, politician, choir conductor, wood-turner, singer, writer and family man. He is pictured playing chess with his nephew Daniel Hunter on a chess set he carved out of elm trees over a few weeks in the middle of a Gisborne winter. "It was very satisfying", he said. Losing to his nephew duing a chess match not so much. Picture supplied.