I can’t recall the first time I met Peter, nor the first time I heard his music. In thinking about him over the past few weeks, they both seem to have always been a part of my life. The beauty of his mellifluous voice, his warm presence, the emotive power of his visceral music have all come together as I reflect on the joy he has brought to my life.
An early memory is singing his 1988 carol The Birthday of thy King in the Sydney University Musical Society’s Carolfest in the university’s majestic Neo-Gothic Great Hall. The combination of the memorable text after Henry Vaughan and the vibrant music with its wonderful alto solo line was a powerful indication of what contemporary music could do. Similarly hearing his 1990 his eleventh quartet, Jabiru Dreaming performed by the group he wrote it for, the Kronos Quartet, that year was a very powerful music experience.
Some of my most memorable listening experiences in the past few years have been hearing works by Peter, including those that I have played a small part in helping to bring to life.
When Peter was Musica Viva’s Featured Composer in 2005, he decided to adapt his 1999 String Quartet no 15 to feature William Barton alongside the Goldner String Quartet. After much discussion with the musicians and a lot of re-workings the performances proved a great hit.
Two other memorable performances involved the Goldner’s. Their performance of the String Quartet no 6 (the first Australian work Musica Viva commissioned in 1965) at Ken Tribe’s 90th birthday concert was a reminder of how striking a compositional voice Peter had. Equally, their performance of his String Quartet no 17, commissioned by Ken as his gift to Australian music, at the 2007 Huntington Estate Music Festival was a very moving occasion for everyone in the hall.
Most of all, Peter’s String Quartet no 16 has a very special place in my heart and is the work I’m most proud to have worked on with him. It was commissioned for Musica Viva by Julian Burnside, QC to be performed by the Tokyo String Quartet in November 2005; the group reprising it on their June 2013 farewell tour, and the last time Peter took at a bow at a Musica Viva concert. The work was inspired by From Nothing to Zero, a book of extracts from letters written by asylum seekers in Australian detention centres which Julian had written the preface and chapter introductions for. Peter’s response to its heart-rending testimony of the inhumane treatment of refugees, including children, was some of his finest music and the work stands as a powerful reminder of the power of art to help tell important stories. The response to the work was palpable and the Tokyo’s cellist Clive Greensmith commented at the time that “It’s always a special feeling to work with a composer but to play Peter’s piece all over Australia with him in the audience for almost every performance was very special indeed.” Peter himself said that “the work is, I feel, among my very best.“
From the time I began to work in the artistic area at Musica Viva, a particular pleasure was calling Peter. It felt a huge honour to be given his private studio number rather than having to call. Best of all, though, was receiving either a hand-written note – what a distinctive and wonderful hand Peter had – or beautifully composed email. Looking through my folders in writing this, I came across many such emails however this is my favourite. It’s a wonderful combination showing Peter’s pride in his achievements and his love of people and a good party!
Yes, the Christmas party was just great. I must confess, though, that I didn’t feel too good the following morning!
Thanks so much for the SMH article. I’m really pleased to have a copy of this. Meantime, have you seen this month’s ‘Limelight’? String Quartet No.16 rates two questions in The Big Quiz.
Happy happy Christmas to you and to Chris.
Best wishes and love,
Director of Business Development, Concerts
When we speak, the American Brass Quintet is in the middle of its Aspen residency, an annual commitment of eight weeks that is central to the ensemble’s annual timetable. Founded in 1949, the Aspen Festival is only eleven years older than the ABQ itself. These days the Festival attracts 70,000 participants; in its own parallel development, the Quintet has performed over 150 world premieres and re-defined public perception of music written for brass ensemble.
But while John Rojak and his colleagues work in ensemble and orchestral concerts, as teachers and as chamber music coaches in the former silver-mining town, their minds are on their forthcoming Australian tour. The ensemble has only toured Down Under once in its seven-decade history, and that was before any of the current members had joined. When they heard that the tour had been arranged, says Rojak, the mood was one of unanimous enthusiasm.
“We’re all incredibly excited. We immediately wanted to know: How long till we go? How long can we stay?”
After four decades of touring the world as part of a brass quintet, how can the musicians still find the energy to be thrilled about yet another destination?
“There are some places we don’t get that excited about,” concedes Rojak. “But going to Australia is a fantastic opportunity. It’s a trip you don’t get to make too often.”
Together with Musica Viva (“Somehow they knew all our repertoire, which I guess is flattering…”), the Quintet put together two programmes for the Australian tour. Both feature a broad range of repertoire, from Renaissance to contemporary.
“We’ll always play contemporary music,” says Rojak, “and we’ll generally play Renaissance music. And in the history of brass quintets, there’s not a whole lot in between.”
One programme features Ludwig Maurer’s 1880s “Five Pieces”, an example of the rare “in-between” works.
“Mauerer was actually a violinist,” explains Rojak. “Sort of a classical composer – Beethovenish. And he wrote what we consider some of the first 19th century music for small brass ensemble.”
Some eight decades later, William Lovelock wrote his “Miniature Suite.”
“He’s one of yours,” Rojak says. “He’s Australian. We performed the suite quite a bit in the 90s. It’s a very charming piece; in fact I think he wrote it for the ABQ. We recorded it about 10 years ago.”
The players’ favourite work on any given programme tend, he says, to be whichever piece they are playing at that moment.
“If we played concerts of only contemporary music, we’d miss the Renaissance, and if we played only Renaissance we’d miss modern music. And if we left out the stuff in the middle, we’d miss that.”
To explain the origins of the ensemble’s repertoire, Rojak refers to Renaissance Venice.
“The instruments were predecessors of what we play now, although the trombones were very similar,” he says. “In masterclasses I like to say that the trombone was conceived as the perfect instrument, so there wasn’t much need for improvement over the centuries. Trumpet-players tend to contradict, and say that there was no hope for the instrument, so they just left it like that.”
The wooden cornetto, which was leather-covered and sported a trumpet-like mouthpiece, was the ancestor of today’s trumpet, and surpassed the violin as the virtuoso instrument of the day.
“There was a lot of music written for unspecified instruments, but there was also a lot for two cornettos and three sackbutts,” Rojack explains. “There was Anthony Holborne and Thomas Morely in England, Giovanni Gabrieli and his uncle Andrea Gabrieli in Italy. And they had many students, including the Germans Heinrich Schutz and Erasmus Widman. As with any period, once something catches on, everybody does it.
“There were no formal concerts in the way we have them now. There was a lot of church music, and also secular music. If you were royalty, you had your own set of musicians as part of your staff.
“The music that comes to us in manuscript form is very basic. The notes are there, but it’s not edited the way music is now, with dynamic markings and accents and phrases. It’s like popular music today. When you see popular music notated today, it also doesn’t carry dynamics and phrase markings, because everybody knows how it goes. And we think that the Renaissance music we play now was the popular music of the time, and everybody knew how to play it. I think the level of performance was probably outstanding, and we believe from the complexity of the music that there were many virtuosos of that time. The music was incredible.”
Knowing each other as well as they do, says Rojack, means that the players are able to operate with a high level of trust in one another, leave certain things unsaid in rehearsal, and concentrate on subtleties. That has a great deal to do with the ability to listen, something each player developed in a different way. In his case, he maintains, it comes from having an outspoken family.
“My parents were both quite brilliant people, but they often spoke at the same time about different subjects. Listening to both of them, keeping track of the conversations, prepared me for a life in chamber music. I tend to listen to everything. Even traffic.”
The ensemble’s commitment to teaching, a key aspect of their Aspen residency, is something it carries along on every tour.
“Most of our touring includes masterclasses; it’s very seldom that we’d just go and play a concert.
“In Australia, we’ll have at least twice as many masterclasses as concerts, so we’ll be working with students all over the continent. It’s actually very satisfying for us. We form much more serious connections, and really get to know people.”
The American Brass Quintet was founded with a commitment to playing only music written specifically for brass instruments (or for unspecified instruments in the case of some historical repertoire). That continues to define the ensemble in the context of an increasingly diverse brass ensemble landscape.
“We have a great wealth of repertoire; we don’t play transcriptions. We’re also defined by our sound. There is always something slightly visceral about hearing brass. The sound gets into your bones. We hope that people will experience a sense of wonderment at how people could write music for this combination of instruments and get such intricate results.
“And we would like to present something that doesn’t leave your mind the minute you leave the concert hall.”
American Brass Quintet will be touring Australia 15 May – 31 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/abq
Interview by Shirley Apthorp June 2013
I first met up with the Sitkovetsky Trio early on Wednesday morning in Sydney. Their maiden appearance in Australia, the first concert of their national concert tour for Musica Viva, was in Newcastle the following night. Violinist Sasha (Alexander Sitkovetsky) had only landed in Australia the previous evening, but they weren’t going to waste any time getting stuck into the tour repertoire, and particularly into my new piano trio, The Village, that nobody in the world had ever played before then.
As with most of the artists appearing for Musica Viva, jetlag is an inevitable feature of the start of every tour, with a variety of home remedies and “travellers’ tips” (most of which don’t work) being tried out in the process. Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich had landed two days earlier, so was nearing the worst of that unstable phase where metabolism tries to rotate night into day. Pianist Qian (pron. “Chen”) Wu seemed as bright as a daisy, while Sasha philosophised that, as the father of a new baby daughter, he had forgotten what sleep felt like, so didn’t miss it. He appears to have been correct.
I was to leave them alone to rehearse for four hours before they would let me hear my new trio. It turns out that they continued working through until 9pm that night, with Leonard taking advantage of the quiet solitude to practice on his own until after 10pm. These musicians are serious!
I returned at 1pm and we spent 90 minutes thrashing out all the mistakes in the score and the individual printed parts, and correcting some of the simple misunderstandings that inevitably accompany first readings of new music. At this stage it was hard to tell exactly how well the composition would flow, or whether any of the experiments in material, texture and architecture that I had tried for the first time in this work, would actually work in real performance. I left them alone to continue acclimatising and working through their demanding tour program.
I didn’t see them again until the following afternoon, before their debut concert. I had just delivered a seminar on my still non-existent piano trio to keen and attentive students from the Newcastle Conservatorium, the wonderful auditorium of which was the venue for the evening’s performance. The Sitkovetskys arrived at 4:30pm, ready for their last two hours of preparation.
They played through my composition almost without flaw, and with a sense of organic flow and development that I hadn’t dared hope for. When they played it for real, to a paying audience a few hours later, it had become a living piece of music that, it seems, had really touched the players and could connect with listeners who had no idea what they were about to hear. This was a stunning experience that every composer hopes for, and should live to experience.
At the end of a rapturously received concert, the group came back on stage for one of our trademark “Meet The Artists” sessions, for which about 50 audience members remained, armed with a bevy of fascinating questions. But the players’ evening still wasn’t over, being then whisked away to one of the post-concert suppers that have become legendary, and unique to, the highly dedicated Committee of Musica Viva Newcastle.
Committee members had piled tables high with great food, and we were swamped with excellent wines from Huntington Estate, while a dark chocolate birthday cake materialised from nowhere to celebrate Leonard’s birthday the following day. (The trio themselves had forgotten all about this, but our canny Operations team triple check EVERYTHING when they secure work visas).
We all got back to the hotel, overlooking picturesque Newcastle Beach, a little before midnight. I had to remind myself that two of the trio had, at that point, only been in Australia for not much more than 48 hours, and had spent at least 16 of those in deep rehearsal. Someone suggested that they meet early the next morning for a quick dip in the surf. I went to bed, confident that, as they flew to Melbourne the next day to continue the rest of the tour, youthful energy and innate brilliance would make this a completely memorable sequence of appearances in Viva’s 2014 concert calendar.
For more information on the Sitkovetsky Trio, and to book your tickets, please visit musicaviva.com.au/sitkovetsky, or call 1800 688 482.