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For the love of music

Adaptation and advancement key to GIMC success.

At the helm of a week-long event that involves many moving parts — to coin a phrase — such as the Gisborne International Music Competition there are many strings to manager Mark La Roche’s bow and many developments in the event’s 32-year history, as he explains to Mark Peters . . .

Thousands were evacuated from their homes during nature's discord in the skies above the East Coast in 1988. Floods madly conducted by Cyclone Bola damaged houses, destroyed crops, silted up farmland and scoured hillsides.

But out of the devastation flowered a beautiful thing. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, community-minded Gisborne man Ian Dunsmore, co-owner of sport and music store, Guy and Dunsmore, wanted to help restore morale in the region. He approached the Gisborne Rotary Club and leading New Zealand musicians with the idea of staging a music competition for young orchestral instrumentalists.

Ian felt the music competition would benefit both the Gisborne community and New Zealand musicians. The first Gisborne Solo Wind and String Competition was staged in 1989. By the second year, inquiries about the competition were already coming in from musicians overseas.

The Gisborne Solo Wind and String Competition was to evolve into what is now the annual Gisborne International Music Competition (GIMC) and is now in its 32nd year.

“After Bola, Ian was at a retailers' conference in Rotorua,” says GIMC manager, and the late Ian Dunsmore's son-in-law, Mark La Roche.

“During the regional reports they said ‘don't worry, Gisborne has been so wrecked we'll move on'. Ian was intensely proud of Gisborne and wanted to do what he could to get the town back on the map. He started two initiatives — a Gisborne music competition, and an art competition.”

Montana took the art competition to Auckland where it fell victim to changes in their corporate structure. The international music competition is still ours though.

“We're still the only competition for orchestral instruments in the world,” says Mark.

“It's not an easy model to replicate. If it was easy everyone would do it. It takes a lot of community support. Ian's goal for this competition was to support New Zealand musicians and to give back to the Gisborne community.

“He had a combined love of sport and music, the Salvation Army, and the Rotary Club which was the organisation through which he ran both competitions.”

Ian's heart for the community continues with the GIMC's community engagement programme which begins even before musicians arrive for the week-long competition.

Each year, Mark, and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra's (CSO) community engagement programme leader Cathy Irons run an annual music residency at a local school. In recent years the duo have hosted creative music residencies at Wainui and Cobham Primary Schools, Ilminster Intermediate and, in partnership with Jolt Dance Company, developed a music and dance residency at Gisborne Girls' High that brought together mainstream music and dance students with students with disabilities.

The programme culminated in an extraordinary and powerfully-affecting dance performance at last year's Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival.

This year, Mark and Cathy ran a residency at Matapuna Training Centre.

Community engagement

During competition week GIMC musicians perform at schools, rest homes and have previously held lunchtime concerts at St Andrew's Church, and performed in Marina Park.

“We're constantly looking at new ways to reach into the community,” says Mark.

For the competition's young competitors (the cut-off age is 25) the GIMC is an opportunity to benchmark their skills against national and international performers, to network and build friendships, he says. It is also an opportunity to take risks.

A 2009 finalist's career prospects turned to gold even though she effectively scuppered her chances of a win after playing an “insane jazz cadenza” (an improvised ornamental passage) during a Prokofiev concerto.

One of the jurors was so impressed he put her in touch with Nigel Kennedy.

Kennedy's star ascended in the 1980s when he adopted a punk persona and what one British arts administrator described as a “self-invented accent”.

“She's still touring with his orchestra,” says Mark.

“She took a different risk and got a different result.”

Mark became involved with the music competition after he met Ian and Margaret Dunsmore's daughter, Gretchen, around the turn of the century.

Mark, principal timpanist with the CSO and Gretchen, a clarinettist, were both — and still are — members of the CSO. Gretchen was a GIMC finalist in 1993 and is now chief executive and artistic manager for the CSO.

As a percussionist, and past the cut-off age when he wrote to Ian, too late, to ask if he could compete, Mark has not performed in the competition but he is instrumental in its growth and in its success.

His initial involvement with the GIMC though began with a Karate Kid-grade apprenticeship. Margaret taught him how to empty rubbish bins, keep the bathroom clean and to hand to each competitor 45 minutes before they went on stage the jurors' selections for his or her performance.

He is not alone in his humble start with the GIMC. Collaborative pianist, Somi Kim, who familiarises herself with all competitors' programme selections, began as a page turner for the accompanist.

Interns learn massive amounts of repertoire with the aim of becoming collaborative pianists at the event, says Mark. In fact, after her role with the GIMC, Somi returns to perform in Gisborne next week as pianist with the NZTrio.

The apprenticeship all seems a long time ago now to Mark, but after year after year of the GIMC equivalent of “wax on, wax off” he took on more responsibilities. From 2009 he and Gretchen co-managed the competition. After Rotary handed the running of the music competition over to the GIMC Trust in 2014 Mark was an essential part of the competition's upgrade initiatives.


“What's interesting about this competition is its changes,” says Mark.

“Because the competition happens annually, we need to make sure we evolve year-to-year.”

Changes include a rebuilt, state-of-the-art theatre to hold the competition in, and developments in digital technology. The GIMC's semi-final and final are now live-streamed around the world. An app developed by “friends of the competition” is available from audienceprize.com so people can vote in a “people's choice” capacity for musicians. Voting began when the live-stream started on Friday.

Competitors once had to arrange the several sheets of their scores across multiple music stands so they could perform without having to turn pages. Now, if they haven't already memorised the music, they upload their scores and use an iPad controlled by a Bluetooth foot-pedal to turn the virtual pages.

“We used to have big crates of music to traipse upstairs to the jurors,” says Mark.

“And the collaborative pianists would bring big crates full of all the music.”

This year also marks the first time the competition's behind-the-scenes administrators have gone paper-free. Keeping up with changes in technology has improved efficiency in competition operations, says Mark.

One of the proudest moments for the GIMC was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's visit in 2018 for the competition's 30th anniversary celebration.

“That was an acknowledgment of the importance of the event,” says Mark.

The biggest challenge the GIMC has faced in its 32-year history was 2020. When the reality of the restrictions imposed in a bid to quell the pandemic kicked in,­ organisers refunded the 18 international musicians who had registered.

“But that opened the field for more New Zealanders,” says Mark.

“It was very much a case of making lemonade out of lemons.”

Adaptation and advancement seem to be key to the success of the GIMC. Expect more developments next year, says Mark although he won't tell us what those are just yet.

“I'm really excited for the future of this competition.”

MOVING PARTS: From mustering musicians to taking outreach programmes into the community, the Gisborne International Music Competition is a model of many moving parts and at the helm is manager Mark La Roche. Pictures by Paul Rickard
TAKE A BOW: Gisborne International Music Competition manager Mark La Roche pauses for a moment for a photograph during the week-long event he is in charge of.