Tzinakis Orchestra (compiled from information mainly provided by Shona Caughey and Ted Smith)

Gene Blazer, 1970

Gene Blazer, of French-Hungarian parentage, came from a family all of whom were professional musicians. At the age of five he began piano lessons. A year later, guided by his father, a concert cellist, he started on the cello that was to be his favourite instrument.

Gene had played in many orchestras in Europe and since arriving in Auckland, had become a familiar face on the Auckland music scene. He held the position of principal cellist with the Auckland String Players (founded in 1940 by Owen Jensen), which in 1964 became the Auckland Symphonia (predecessor to the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra), the only professional orchestra in Auckland until 1980. In 1968, Nikos Petousis, then President of the Greek Society, gave Gene a bouzouki so that a small group could play Greek music for them in Danish House (in the suburb of Parnell, at the time). Also inspired by the Osipov Balalaika Orchestra, Gene gathered mandolin, bouzouki and guitar players to form an orchestra. Nikos Petousis gave its name "Tzinakis", which was the name "Gene" with "akis", a term of endearment.

Gene Blazer with Bob Paris Combo, at Moulin Rouge, Onehunga, 1959
Apart from his orchestral activities, Gene was also involved with the local jazz bands performing with such people as Brian Smith and Bob Paris.

From left: Bill Fairs, Brian Smith, Desma, Keith McMillan (hidden), Bob Paris, Gene Blazer, Dave McCrea

Among the original members of the Tzinakis were Gene and his wife Gabrielle Blazer, Bob and Rosemary Sevigny, Alan Kingsley Smith, Roslyn Kingsley Smith, Ted Smith, Bonnie Malpas, Shona Caughey, Bob Nipper, Bill Hines, Patricia Dean, Diana Mazuran, Joanne Hesketh and Robin Hayden.

Linden Duncan

Sylvia Vowless

During the first two years, many strings players from the Auckland Symphonia also performed with Tzinakis. In May 1970, Linden Duncan, a B.Mus student at the University of Auckland at the time, was appointed the Associate Conductor, and Ray Gunter was the leader of the orchestra. By then, the orchestra had grown in size to approximately 60 players and they gave a public concert in the Mercury Theatre on Mercury Lane (off Karangahape Road) in Auckland. In the mean time, a small group of Tzinakis continued to perform regularly for the Greek Society.

Shortly after the formation of the original Tzinakis ensemble, Sylvia Vowless was asked to lead a small group of dancers in a performance of "Zorba's Dance" at a Greek Society Ball. The group proved so popular, they soon became an integral part of Tzinakis activities. The Tzinakis dancers appeared in colourfull traditional and modern costumes and entertained audience with some authentic and traditional dances from many countries including Greece, as well as original dances choreographed by Sylvia herself to some of the orchestra's more contemporary works.

The Tzinakis dancers included Karen Free, Karen Turner, Pauline Murray, Margaret Miller, Gail Harrison, Kay Harrison, Jennifer Elliot, Jane Matthews, Gay Parker, Debra McMenamin, Susan Miller, and Cheryl Penerata.

On 16 Oct 1971, Tzinakis Orchestra put on two concerts (2.15 pm and 8 pm) with Tzinakis dancers and soloists at His Majesty's Theatre on Queen Street, Auckland, which was demolished in 1988. The event had been promoted as "Exciting music and dances from Greece, Hungary, Israel, Spain, Russia, New Zealand...". The programme included famous numbers as "Hava Nagila", "Midnight in Moscow", "Ilonka", "El Cumbanchero", "The Great Gate of Kiev", "Freitag of der Nacht", "Minka" and some of Gene's original compositions such as "The Pearly Adriatic", "The Grand Valley", "Dnal Kcva".

As the orchestra grew larger, it became more challenging to manage and Gene wanted to focus more on folk music and decided to downsize the orchestra. Tzinakis orchestra was disbanded in 1973 but the small group continued to exist, but later reformed as the Balkan Folk Orchestra in 1974.

In the mean time, Sylvia Vowless and the original Tzinakis dancers became known as the "Auckland Folkloric Dancers" and continued to put on their own performances.

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