John Psathas studied composition and piano performance at Victoria University of Wellington. He studied further with composer Jacqueline Fontyn in Belgium before returning to New Zealand where he has since lectured in music at Victoria University and continued to fulfil a busy schedule of commissions.
Early success came with Matre?s Dance in 1991, a maximum-energy duet for percussion and piano that has since made Psathas? name internationally through having been taken up and championed by percussionist Evelyn Glennie. This work and Drum Dances have become standard repertoire for percussionists throughout the world.
John?s relationship with Evelyn Glennie has been a particularly fruitful one for them both. Her repertoire includes Matre's Dance, Drum Dances, Spike, Happy Tachyons and the double concerto for piano and percussion, View from Olympus. She has recorded Matre's Dance on her CDs Drumming and Greatest Hits (BMG).
It was the performance in 2000 (in Bologna, Italy) of the Saxophone Concerto, however, which first drew Psathas? name to international attention. This is an unusual work, commissioned to be performed at an open-air concert by a symphony orchestra with Michael Brecker, a soloist whose background and strengths are in jazz improvisation. In its successful combination of these two disparate elements, the concerto wowed the 8000-strong audience and paved the way for further international performances of Psathas? larger concert works. Notable amongst these was the programming of the Percussion Concerto (for four soloists and orchestra) at the 2001 ?Klangspuren? Festival in Schwaz, Austria (where the ubiquitous Drum Dances was also heard in an arrangement for mallet percussion and drum kit). In 2002, View from Olympus was given its premiere during the Manchester Commonwealth Games by Evelyn Glennie and Philip Smith with the Hall? Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder at the Royal Gala finale concert of the ?Pulse? International Festival of Rhythm.
A retrospective concert of Psathas' chamber music was given in the 2000 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, culminating with the premiere of the specially commissioned Piano Quintet by the New Zealand String Quartet with pianist Dan Poynton. The 2002 International Festival also featured a major new commission, Psyzygysm, a concerto for mallet percussion and chamber ensemble which featured the young Portuguese virtuoso percussionist Pedro Carneiro as star soloist.
Notable performances of 2004 included the premiere season of Zeibekiko, a major commission from the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble (NBE), which invited him to create an entire programme based around the theme of 2500 years of Greek Music. This collaborative work was performed by the NBE throughout Holland and at the Bath Festival (UK). Three Psalms (for solo piano, percussion, harp and strings), commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was premiered at concerts throughout New Zealand in April 2004 by Stephen Gosling with the NZSO under James Judd.
The principal highlight of the year, however, was the exposure Psathas received as the composer of the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Psathas has received a number of awards and honours, including twice winning the SOUNZ Contemporary Award (2002 and 2004) for individual works and three Classical CD of the Year awards (2000, 2004, and 2007). In 2003 he was made a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate and in 2005 was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM).