Gillian Whitehead is a prolific composer whose steady stream of works include operas, orchestral works, choral pieces, vocal and instrumental chamber compositions, solo works, pieces involving taonga puoro and compositions including improvisation.
Fourteen years in Britain and Europe firmly established her international reputation, but in 1981 she returned to her Maori and southern hemisphere roots and began a 15-year teaching career at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, taking extended periods of leave without pay to focus on composition. Today she lives on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, devoting herself entirely to writing; she is acclaimed as one of the most important composers in Australasia.
From 2000 to 2001 Gillian was composer-in-residence with the Auckland Philharmonia, and several first performances took place during this time, including Taurangi for flute and piano, Nga Haerenga, a work for four women singers, percussion and narrator in Sydney, The Improbable Ordered Dance, written for the Auckland Philharmonia, and Bright Silence, for solo violin, written as the competition piece for the eighteen finalists of the inaugural Michael Hill World Violin Competition.
In 2002, Hine-pu-te-hue for taonga puoro and the New Zealand String Quartet was commissioned for and played in Gillian’s Composer's Portrait concert at the NZ Arts Festival.
In 2003 Arapatiki a ‘landscape’ prelude for piano, received its first performance from Stephen de Pledge in the Wigmore Hall, London, Alice, with a text by Fleur Adcock and written for Helen Medlyn and the Auckland Philharmonia, was performed twice in Auckland, Quintet was toured for Chamber Music New Zealand by the Brisbane-based Southern Cross Soloists and Gillian’s Hineraukatauri (1999) represented New Zealand at the International Association of Women Musicians in Seoul.
During 2004 - Gillian was invited to present a concert of her music in Jakarta, and formed a group, Tuhonohono for the occasion, and Taiohi Taiao, a setting of a specially-written text by Aroha Yates-Smith, was performed by Tower Voices in the Otago Festival.
2005 saw Gillian completing a commission for the New Zealand Trio and wrote a piece for Canada's ERGO ensemble, presented with four of her pieces in two concerts in Toronto, while several performances of Hine-pu-te-hue took place in the USA. In the same year, Gillian was appointed as Composer- in- residence, at the School of Music at Victoria University, Wellington. She lived in the Thorndon house that had belonged to Douglas Lilburn, where her time was spent on various composition projects, including an opera collaboration with 2001 Laureate and filmmaker, Gaylene Preston.
2006 – Gillian continued her residency to mid-year at Lilburn House, Wellington. There were a number of performances of Gillian’s music; first performances included Karohirohi (The Shimmering of Light), in Wellington by the NZSO with Carolyn Mills as soloist, and Hineteiwaiwa, performed by Canada’s ERGO Ensemble in the Glenn Gould Auditorium, Toronto.
2007 began with the first performance of Puhake ki te rangi, written for Richard Nunns and the New Zealand String Quartet, at the Adam festival of Chamber Music in Nelson, and Chamber Music New Zealand presented two performances of Gillian’s music by Tuhonohono, in Auckland in Wellington. A documentary on Gillian was filmed by Wild Iris Productions during her year as composer-in-residence and was screened on TVONE; The Auckland Chamber Orchestra Composer Portraits Series focussed on Gillian’s work at a concert in Auckland featuring several pieces, including Hotspur. The NZSO-SOUNZ Readings played the first two movements of Symphony: The Islands, the realisation by Gillian of a symphony left unfinished by Jack Speirs at his death in 2000.
Gillian was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1999. She has won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award three times; in 1999 for the opera Outrageous Fortune, in 2001 for the improbable ordered dance, and in 2003 for Alice. In 2000 she was made an inaugural Laureate for the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, in 2003 she was awarded a D.Mus. (honoris causa) by Victoria University of Wellington and more recently she was awarded the KBB Citation for Services to NZ Music. (The Citation is presented annually to an individual or organisation in recognition of their outstanding contribution and commitment to New Zealand composition). In 2008 she was awarded a Distinguished Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM) in the Queen's Birthday Honours, for services to music.
Gillian divides her time between two homes – one on the Otago peninsula, and the other at Ruakaka, on the same section where her family owned bach when she was a child.