Munro’s romance has audience hanging on every note

As the Goldner String Quartet and Ian Munro head to Melbourne for concerts on Tuesday 30 August and Saturday 3 September, Robin Usher speaks to Ian about composing, performing and balancing the two.

The Age, 26/8/2011

PIANIST Ian Munro has discovered the pleasures of composing after a career as one of Australia’s most highly regarded concert pianists.

“It is a bit of a lark because I have all the fun of going to the concerts when I haven’t had to do the hard work of practising,” he says. “People then come up to me and tell me their stories sparked by what they have heard. I love it.”

The rewards of composing came after his first large-scale composition, the piano concerto Dreams, won the Queen Elisabeth international competition in Brussels eight years ago, resulting in a series of commissions. After his win, Belgium’s Queen Fabiola tried the Aboriginal wood sticks he had taken to the concert and told him of some of her dreams. “That was an unusual experience, but it was when I realised my music had the effect of sparking associations in the audience,” he says.

Now he is combining the “easy” life of a composer with the discipline of performing with one of Australia’s most acclaimed chamber groups, the Goldner Quartet, in concerts of quintets by Brahms and Dvorak, alongside his new piano quintet No. 2, as well as the quartets by Szymanowski and Beethoven. Munro is Musica Viva’s composer of the year and two of his works have been performed by Austria’s Eggner Trio and the American Brentano Quartet, with his clarinet quintet, Songs from the Bush, to be performed by Sabine Meyer and the Modigliani Quartet in November. Added to that packed program is his second string quartet, which was premiered by Melbourne’s Flinders Quartet last April.

He has found that the public enjoys his work, while critical opinion has been mixed. “Some call it derivative, but I am happy to acknowledge my influences.” As far as he knows, the musicians on stage have liked his music, but he acknowledges there will be a piece they do not like. He is a long-time colleague of the Goldner members through the Sydney-based Australia Ensemble, to which they all belong. The quartet has recently returned from playing in the City of London Festival last month. The group’s recent recording with pianist Piers Lane of Elgar works was named disc of the month by BBC Music Magazine. “I think the Goldners have reached a new level in recent years,” Munro says. “One of the unstated secrets of quartets is that they have to be together for along time for their skills to jell.”

He originally chose to concentrate on playing rather than composing, because the style of modernism in vogue when he was a student at the Victorian College of the Arts was not suitable for him. “I always knew that it was not the only way to write music,” he says. “Peter Sculthorpe is not avant-garde and that is true for many other composers. “But my experience at the time also applied to a lot of other people… that style of music… underestimated the intelligence of the audience.”

He describes his own music as quite romantic, as much of it is based on his favourite stories and pictures. He is also a big fan of music by Brett Dean, which he says synthesises many of modernism’s ideas into a romantic style all his own. “He incorporates great romantic gestures into his music that provide strong narrative drama,” he says.

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