The ASO’s Principal Piccolo Julia Grenfell describes music as “what brings colour to the world, transcending boundaries and allowing one to be transported to another place. As the saying goes, music begins where words end, it is somewhat indefinable and that is part of the mystery and wonder of music”.
Julia never knew for sure she’d make a career in music until she finally got her job with the ASO nineteen years ago, but she knew she wanted to be a musician from the age of nine.
Take some time to get to know Julia and find out who has most influenced her as a musician, what instrument she’d choose if she had to pick another, and how she’s found time to practise in between home schooling her kids and performing for her neighbours on her veranda while we were social distancing due to COVID-19.
Hometown: I grew up in Christchurch NZ.
I have a Bachelors and Honours in NZ (Canterbury University and Victoria University of Wellington); Masters in Chicago (Northwestern Uni.) and a Doctorate in Houston (Rice University).
If I weren’t a professional musician I’d be:
Probably a high school teacher.
How did you choose the piccolo?
My best friend in primary school took up the flute, so I chose the same instrument. My sister already played the violin so I couldn’t do the same as her.
Is there anything special about your actual instrument/does it have a name/any quirks?
I have one flute and one piccolo as my main instruments and they are both made in Boston, which is a mecca for flute makers. I did get my piccolo stolen in Sweden last year but thankfully I managed to get it back and it wasn’t damaged. The experience reinforced how much I love my piccolo!
Describe the best thing about being a musician:
Where to start?! You get to do what you love, and make a living from it. That doesn’t negate it still being difficult and the labour of a lifetime to play at a high level, but the reward is something that I can’t imagine coming that frequently in other professions. The highs that you get in the job (playing incredible music) are an amazing experience.
Who has influenced you most as a musician?
I’ve had some wonderful teachers influence my playing and life. If I had to choose one it would be my teacher Leone Buyse, who is Professor of Flute at Rice University in Houston. She is still teaching in her 70s and is one of the most all round inspiring musicians and human beings that I know.
Which solo or moment in the piccolo orchestral repertoire is your favourite?
There are lots of really fun moments for piccolo. I guess when the orchestra is playing loudly all together and I can try and be the ‘icing on the cake’ at the top end of the sound (high pitch!) that is fun! An example is the fast section in the William Tell Overture.
What is your most memorable performance with the ASO?
I think that would be when I had the opportunity to play Paul Stanhope’s Piccolo Concerto with the ASO in 2013. That was definitely a highlight for me and I got to be a bit cheeky and play (lively Brazilian piece) Tico Tico as an encore.
What is your first orchestral concert memory and what made it memorable?
I have two memories: as a child I played in my first festival orchestra in Christchurch (made out of secondary school children), I don’t remember the repertoire but I do remember the absolute thrill of the experience, all these kids playing together in a huge group on stage. Then, when I was sixteen I played my first concert with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. I couldn’t believe I was in my first ever gig (where I actually got paid!) but significantly, I remember being put on piccolo for that concert (probably not a wise idea) and I didn’t even own one, so my parents hurriedly bought me a $300 plastic piccolo, which I still own to this day! I do remember one piece from that programme, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture. That experience also was completely thrilling, reinforcing my dream to be in a professional orchestra one day.
COVID-19 put a hold over ASO concerts for a time. What did you miss the most about not being able to perform?
Everything! I was quite bereft about not playing regularly in an orchestra, it’s something I seem to have done my whole life and it’s what I love to do. Just making that amazing sound all together, it simply isn’t the same practising on your own.
Despite not being able to perform in concerts you still had to remain playing fit in order for when concerts resumed. How many hours a day were you practising, and what repertoire were you selecting? Where in the house do you practise?
I do what I can with practise, in between home schooling my kids. I’m lucky I have my own study where I practise and can teach. At the moment I am just doing studies and solo pieces, I did play a little concert for my neighbours on the veranda recently and played some French solo pieces, some well known short tunes, and a piece by my sister.
What is the thing you most crave whilst living in isolation?
Playing in an orchestra! And some peace and quiet at home with the house to myself and the ability to focus on my practise!
When you’re not performing or practising, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
A lot of time is taken up with the domesticities of a young family, but if I have any time and energy left I like to go for walks or catch up with friends, or just watch a movie or TV series with my husband for some down time. We also like camping as a family.
When I’m not listening to classical music what do you listen to?
I like Sting, Beatles, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Cat Empire, Ella Fitzgerald, Marmalade Circus (Adelaide band)… and anything by Neil Finn. Genre-wise, jazz is my favourite.
Name three pieces of music you love, and why?
- Stravinsky Rite of Spring. Totally mind-blowing and quite primal, I love his harmonic and rhythmic language and it’s just remarkable for its time.
- Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances. His lush Romantic melodies and harmonies are gorgeous, and although the piano concertos are fantastic, this work really showcases the orchestra.
- Prokofiev Symphony No. 5. My favourite composer used to be Stravinsky but Prokofiev has in recent years come up to rival that. I absolutely love the clarity of his writing, the quirkiness, the great instrumentation, and the soaring melodies. I admit I’m a fan of Russian composers!
What has been your most memorable musical experience as an audience member?
It’s hard to single out one, but when I was a student in Chicago I do remember regularly going to see the Chicago Symphony and it was such a thrill. I heard them play Mahler 5 amongst other things and that was amazing.
Do you come from a musical family?
My parents both grew up in households that loved music a lot, particularly my mother who had an uncle who was a percussionist in a Latin band in London in the 60s. Mum and dad both learned piano as children. I have one sister (Maria Grenfell) who is a composer and her work has been performed by most of the Australian orchestras (including ASO) and she is an Associate Professor at the Conservatorium of Music in Hobart.
Name three things people may not know about you:
- I was born in Malaysia and come from a family of immigrants and travellers. My mum was Malaysian and my dad a Kiwi born and bred in the UK. We moved to New Zealand when I was six so I grew up there. I’ve also lived in the US (five years) and Sweden (one year), and it’s interesting to realise all the things that are unique to different cultures, but then also recognise the things that are universal. I don’t identify strongly as one nationality since it’s been a varied journey, I guess it would be between New Zealand or Australian (except when it comes to the All Blacks!)
- I have a science degree in mathematics.
- I wrote a comedy piece for three piccolos which I’m getting published with an American publisher sometime this year.
What’s your idea of a perfect day in Adelaide?
I guess the perfect summer’s day is going for a walk and maybe yum cha with some friends, and then a later afternoon swim (and maybe kayak paddle!) at Henley or Grange followed by fish and chips at the beach.
If you could ask one composer one question what would it be?
Beethoven – how on earth did you write the incredible music you did, given your hearing, your health and your difficulties?
What piece of music never fails to move you?
Probably some of the moments in Mahler symphonies that are just sublime and transcendent. The Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 is case in point, which we were supposed to perform on 14 & 15 March with Adelaide Festival.
What’s your favourite type of food?
Hmm…too many! Yum cha, sushi, teppanyaki, Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian food – basically if it’s good Asian food I’m happy.
What’s the weirdest thing in your fridge/pantry?
I don’t think there’s anything too weird… Maybe Belachan (fermented shrimp paste) which I use to make Green Curry paste.
What books are on your nightstand?
Quite a strange assortment – I am currently reading a book on domestic abuse by Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do. I also have the Craig Challen and Richard Harris Against All Odds about the Thai cave rescue, as well as David Walliams biography Camp David. I also like audiobooks too, but I get through books pretty slowly.
Do you speak any other languages?
No, I’ve never been good at languages. I attempted to learn Swedish when we lived there but I only got as far as the basics and some understanding of written Swedish.
Do you follow any blogs?
No, but I like occasional podcast listening such as Chat 10 Looks 3 with Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb, and No Filter with Mia Freedman. I’m not a reliable or regular listener to anything, just more like a magpie…
Is there an anything else you would like to share?
I have two Burmese cats Winnie (brown Burmese, 14 years old) and Iris (lilac Burmese, 5 months old) whom I adore, and they were all very happy that we were home so much during quarantine (especially Iris the new kitten who we only got in February!).