Peter Walls

Photo credit: Vanessa Rushton

Tell us a bit yourself.

Undergraduate at Victoria University in the days when Frederick Page was Professor of Music and Douglas Lilburn, David Farquhar and Jenny McLeod were teaching. Then to Oxford for a DPhil in musicology. (Douglas showed up with John Mansfield Thomson at a concert in which I was performing his violin sonata; his greeting, ‘What on earth are you doing in a place like this?’). Then back to Victoria University where I taught for the next 26 years. In 1996, I was appointed to the board of the NZSO (and elected Deputy Chair); then in 2002 moved over to the Chief Executive role, which I held for just under a decade. I loved this – planning four international tours, overseeing the distribution of over a million NZSO CDs, securing the Te Reo title for the Orchestra (Te Tira Pūoro o Aotearoa), helping ensure the safe passage of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Act (2004) through the House – and much more). I retired from the Orchestra in 2012 in search of different adventures. In 2015, I again transitioned from board membership to the CE’s role, which I held for four years. Now, I am enjoying a ‘retirement’ in which I can concentrate on musical roles (mostly conducting) and musicological research (mostly on historical performance practice). It is wonderful to be able to assist as a board member with the Chamber Music New Zealand Foundation, the Lilburn Residence Trust, the Lilburn Trust and, especially, SOUNZ.

What is one of your earliest musical memories?

As a pre-schooler, hearing my mother practising the piano at night after I’d gone to bed. It gave me a sense of security to hear Mum playing beautiful music so well.

What do you think makes the music of Aotearoa New Zealand unique?

An interesting question in 2020 since the answer is different from what it might have been 50 years ago. Douglas Lilburn, famously, dreamed of forging a national identity in music. What is more evident in the third decade of the 21st century is diversity. We have an array of first-class composers with distinctive voices. Yet, is there still something distinctive about the music of Aotearoa? Our unique sounds (bird calls, water music . . . and, of course, Taonga Pūoro) are often present – but we couldn’t claim that those are defining features. What strikes me about New Zealand music – regardless of its stylistic orientation – is that it is never conservative; it is always alert to possibilities at the edge, so to speak.


My ‘working’ year began in January at the NZIRMT conference in Auckland. One of the pleasures of that conference was having Stephen de Pledge play a delightful selection of New Zealand music and speak so authoritatively about the suitability of each piece for students. Jonathan Engle was there managing a SOUNZ stall – so teachers, stimulated by Stephen’s commentary, were able to acquire these pieces and others on the spot. This was a great example of SOUNZ in action – ensuring that New Zealand music is front and centre in the consciousness of our musicians.

Why is music important in schools?

Don’t get me started. The research is overwhelming that students engaged in music have an educational advantage across all subjects. Music (partly a matter of developing an emotional vocabulary with a complexity that far outstrips spoken language) is enriching for young people. What makes me sad is that increasingly it seems, quality music education (or at least the facilities for supporting that) are increasingly the preserve of private schools.

What is the importance of music in society?

Music is basic to humanity – a fundamental need. Every culture has its own music. Beyond that, though, music communicates across cultures. During my years at the NZSO, I was regularly in meetings with translators (in Japan, China – even in Germany where I had a borderline-functional grip on the language) which seemed clumsy and slow-moving; then into the concert hall where there were no barriers to communication, where we shared in the elation and profound feeling that great music has to offer. The East West Divan Orchestra (Israeli and Palestinian musicians) is a superb example of music as a force for peace.


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