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Vincent Aspey

Vincent Aspey
Vincent Aspey

When nine-year-old Vincent Aspey persuaded his mother to buy a violin he had spotted in a second-hand shop she was dubious that he would practice, let alone come to be described as ‘synonymous with orchestral development in New Zealand’.

Born in Lancashire in 1909, ‘Vince’ emigrated with his family to Huntly in 1911. By the age of 12 he was playing for silent movies, honing his performing skills to Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy. Blessed with a natural technique, an instinct for interpretation and a legendary ability to sightread, Vince had no tertiary-level training other than a brief spell at the New South Wales State Conservatorium.

Though he had never heard a major orchestra play, Vince’s experience leading orchestras in Auckland, Sydney and Wellington made him an obvious choice for leader of the new National Orchestra in 1946. He held the role for 20 years, earning great respect as a musician, as a fisherman whose exploits were renowned in the music world, and as a ‘sympathetic’, ‘modest’ person, ‘a thoroughgoing New Zealander who understands New Zealanders’.

Colleagues spoke of his dry sense of humour and knack of saying the right thing in any situation. A story still told in music circles today is his taming of a grumpy conductor who was spoiling for a fight. While the whole orchestra waited, Vince put down his violin and shuffled his chair and music around. When asked, ‘Are you quite ready?’ he replied, ‘I’m feeling a little temperamental this morning. So I thought I’d better get a bit comfortable before I settle down’.

In 1967 Vince said, ‘I’ve done my wack,’ and stepped down to become a rank and file player. Six years later he retired, leaving a very different orchestra from the fledgling ensemble of 65 whose first concert in 1947 had drawn a savage review from The Listener. Despite funding and recruitment problems, the orchestra now comprised around 90 seasoned performers who had worked with celebrities like David Oistrakh and Igor Stravinsky; it had its own studio, a substantial repertoire, and a good reputation with audiences and artists.

Vince received an MBE in 1958 and an Honorary Doctorate from Victoria University in 1974. He died in 1987, survived by his wife Elspeth Jean Aspey and two sons.

Emma Brewerton

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Vincent Aspey, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated