Piano Man: Marcus Norman

Newly appointed director of The Piano, Marcus Norman is returning to Ōtautahi after more than a decade away. Metropol writer Joseph Harper spoke to him about his vision for Christchurch’s destination venue and his passion for enabling the arts to flourish.

When asked about formative moments in his indoctrination into the performing arts, Marcus cites an experience which will be familiar to many who grew up in the Garden City. “I remember taking part in the Christchurch Schools’ Music Festival. There’s something quite amazing about being part of a massed choir of over a thousand primary school children every night,” he says. “Being part of that collective music-making experience has stuck with me.”

That sense of awe from the potential and power of live music is something that radiates from Marcus when you speak to him about his work and the arts in general. “I think I bring a desire and a passion to enable accessible arts experiences. I have a commitment to ensuring the arts flourish.”

This month he is returning to Christchurch, the city where he was born and raised to take the reins as director of The Piano – the stunning performing arts venue in the CBD. Marcus has fond memories of his youth here and the role of music in his life. “From the very beginning, music has always been a part of my life. Growing up in a musical family and having music being played, it was just always a part of day-to-day life. It really feels like it’s something that’s part of who I am as a person as much as a professional.”

As a young man, he left his home to study as a performance clarinetist, first in Wellington and eventually in the United Kingdom. “At that time, that was absolutely what I wanted to do. What I saw myself being was a professional performer.” Eventually though, performance gave way to a new passion after he took up the prestigious Pettman DARE Fellowship through New Zealand Opera and Opera North in Leeds.

“That’s how I got my foot into music administration and arts management. It was a really exciting turning point for me. It was when I discovered what arts management was. I experienced being a part of creating experiences – seeing ideas through from start to finish, conception and completion, and enabling music for the community.” This led to a role with the Southbank Sinfonia (now Sinfonia Smith Square) which he says cemented his passion for arts development.

After returning to Aotearoa, Marcus put together what he describes as a “portfolio career”. This included stints as the general manager of both the New Zealand String Quartet, and The Dust Palace Circus Company & School, time as a scheduler and presenter on Radio New Zealand Concert, and a move to Auckland to support his husband’s career as contrabassoonist of the Auckland Philharmonia.

Marcus is excited about his return south. “It’s a really vibrant place to be – the rest of New Zealand just needs to know that. There’s so much amazing stuff going on and it definitely punches well above its weight.” He already has a lofty vision for the venue and the cultural value a space like The Piano can provide. “I feel like the Piano is one of those aspirational and inspirational meeting points for the city. A real catalyst for social cohesion and cultural enjoyment and cultural value. I’d like it to be a truly accessible community space that people feel is theirs and is for them.” He also speaks very highly of the work outgoing director Bronwyn Bijl has done to tune up The Piano into a world-class, destination venue. “It’s a real privilege to be continuing on her incredible work – not just with The Piano but with the wider arts community in Christchurch. She’s passing the baton and I very proudly take it forward.”

When asked what makes the venue special, one word springs to Marcus’ mind: acoustics. “The quality of the sound is so vibrant. It’s so clear and warm that it really enhances the music making, and the listening experience. It’s like paying for really great headphones and suddenly hearing music like you’ve never heard it before.”

The vision he holds for the venue is a beautiful one. “For me it’s about those third spaces, the public spaces, the ones where people gather and see each other outside of home or work. There’s something about a public venue that inspires you to enjoy or create that is just so important for the health of a city.” If he can make that vision a reality, the whole city is sure to benefit.

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