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
I find it interesting people’s responses when the composer Béla Bartók is mentioned. Those with a deep knowledge of music will speak about his importance as an original voice in the 20th century. There are others who have learnt the piano or violin as children who say that they played some of his short pieces which were hard but rewarding when they got the irregular rhythmic patterns right. And then there are those who say that while they believe what the others have said however to them the music feels dense and highly sophisticated and they’re not sure what they think about him.
My response to his music combines all three of these because, while I have an understanding of his structural innovation and mastery of instrumentation, every time I hear his music it feels like it’s for the first time, so fresh and original is his compositional voice yet demanding and complex to understand at the same time. [Beethoven has exactly the same impact on me, by the way.] For me, what’s special about Bartók is the combination of intense compression aligned with passion and romanticism. I find all his music exhilarating listening.
The experience that really got me understanding Bartók was quite a funny one, in retrospect. It happened in 1993 at Musica Viva’s Mittagong Easter Music Festival when I turned pages for pianist Michael Kieran Harvey as he performed the First Violin Sonata with Kirsten Williams. To be so close to the performance was amazing, made more so on this occasion as I didn’t know the work and I hadn’t been to a rehearsal. Of course, in the frenetic first movement I missed a page turn (Michael still talks to me, so it must have happened to him before…) which meant that I concentrated even more intently for the rest of the work. The piece is pretty extreme, with the two instruments seeming to be playing in the same time space but on entirely different planes. Like a lot of his great works he dedicated it to a woman, on this occasion the violinist Jelly d’Arányi; you can sense his respect for her as a performer because of the challenges he throws at the violinist and also as a person through the beauty and intensity of the violin melodies. Sitting next to the piano, the work came over as something personal and fresh and embedded itself in me. It’s one of my Desert Island Discs works now!
Even though Bartók was a pianist some of his greatest works are for strings, and I’ve been lucky to hear many of them in concerts. One of my favourites is his Fifth String Quartet, which has a wonderful symmetry and balance in its form, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the Kelemen Quartet perform it on their tour this month. And because there’s not a piano involved, I can relax and not worry for the page turner.
Director of Business Development, Concerts
Some Personal Reflections
In the third of ABC Classic FM’s series of blogs on Australian Music, Musica Viva’s Director of Business Development, Concerts, Tim Matthies, celebrates and reflects on the diversity of composition that has resulted from nearly 50 years of commissioning by Australia’s oldest independent professional performing arts organisation.
As someone immersed in the music scene on a number of levels – administrator, performer, audience member – Australian Music Month is a time for both celebration and reflection.
What I’m celebrating is the great depth and breadth of the works being written and performed and how audiences are responding so positively to them. Two recent experiences come especially to mind: being part of the visibly moved audience at the Sydney Symphony and other forces’ performance of Nigel Westlake’s heartbreaking Missa Solis – Requiem for Eli last year; and witnessing how excited audiences across the country were by the Elias String Quartet’s performances of Matthew Hindson’s compelling String Quartet No. 2 earlier this year.
These two works come from very different places and take very different forms, yet share some commonalities – the composers have really pushed their craft in writing the works, outstanding performers have taken up the challenge of performing the works to the highest standard, and audiences have listened openly and deeply to them. In a culture that is sometimes accused of being only interested in quick and easy grabs, it’s terrific seeing thousands of people willing to engage at a deep level with complex music.
What I’m reflecting on is how there still seems to be a discussion required about the validity and importance of Australian music. Of course, this isn’t across the board and it’s a much more nuanced discussion than I have space to consider here, yet the fact that there is a still a discussion happening both bemuses and surprises me. What I find particularly perplexing is that for some organisations, Australian music doesn’t necessarily seem to be part of their DNA. In being like this, I believe, they do themselves, their performers and audiences a disservice.
I’m lucky enough in my role as an administrator to be part of an organisation where Australian music is at the very heart of all its activities. Since the company’s first two commissions in 1964 (Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 6 and Felix Werder’sString Quartet No. 6), over 130 works have been created for Musica Viva’s public concert activity, with many more works created for the company’s award-winning Musica Viva In Schools program.
Every year sees multiple performances of both new and existing Australian works by a diverse range of composers placed on equal footing with other works, both old and new, from around the world. Musica Viva’s national audiences embrace this positioning, with many of them saying this is a key reason for them attending the organisation’s concerts. Similarly, the artists Musica Viva engages with are those who have a similar DNA and want to take up this opportunity across the country and then take the works onto other stages; such performers include the Takacs and Tokyo String Quartets, violinist Anthony Marwood and the Atos and Eggner Piano Trios. There is a shared belief that the best music of today is reflective of many voices and has to sit at the very centre of what we do.
– Tim Matthies
This piece was originally published on ABC Classic FM’s website on November 4th, 2013. Photo by Rusaila Bazlamit courtesy of Flikr.
Timothy Matthies, Musica Viva
My recording collection is as eclectic as the live music I listen to and enjoy. As a failed pianist and a practising singer I especially enjoy listening to works that I know from the inside, and the composer that I am drawn to most and frequently listen to in that regard is Johann Sebastian Bach. Recordings of the piano music by Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt and of the great choral works by John Eliot Gardiner and Philippe Herreweghe are on pretty constant ‘play again’ on my iPod and iPhone (I listen to a lot of music while travelling as part of my Musica Viva Australia role).
The two Bach recordings that I most listen to, though, are of works for stringed instruments and while I have never performed the works featured I feel I know them inside out as a listener, from hearing them live in the beautiful acoustic at the Huntington Estate Music Festival. Both are by performers who exude intensity and intelligence, yet are also able to bring great musical freedom and spontaneity. They ensure the listener understands the rich architectural structures of Bach’s music while instinctively bringing out the earthy dancing qualities that are so inherent in the musical lines. Above all, for me, both performers never impose themselves on the music; rather the listener has the impression of hearing the composer’s vision as though freshly minted and newly composed.
The first features the wonderful twenty-something Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova. Her performance of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (Hyperion Records, CDA67691/2) is delivered faultless intonation, achingly beautiful tone, superlative technique and a musical wisdom far beyond her years. Each of the works is interpreted with a vast range of colours and textures, and the recording as a whole creates a powerful impression of the vastness of Bach’s musical imagination.
Here is Alina playing one of the solo pieces in a purpose built space for her interpretations:
The second features the great Chinese-born cellist Jian Wang, discovered by Isaac Stern and featured in the documentary film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China. Like Alina, Jian is not a hugely demonstrative musician yet there is something about his music-making that immediately draws you into his world. His technical command of the cello is paramount, and the lyrical and characterful beauty of his playing brings out the natural lightness and gracefulness of the six Suites for solo cello (Deutsche Grammophon, CD DDD 0289 477 5228 8 GH 2). Wang draws the listener deep into these works of supreme profundity and depth. It’s too difficult to name a favourite suite or movement, and I often listen to all six suites in a single day as the journey from the opening Prelude of the First Suite to the final Gigue of the Sixth Suite is one of the great musical explorations and an experience in listening to a world that is both highly abstract and deeply rooted in life.
Here is Jian performing movements from the Fourth Suite:
These recordings bring me great joy and I hope you can find the time to explore them also.
You are also able to hear Jian Wang live across Australia in July, when he tours with Bernadette Harvey for Musica Viva. Together they will perform the two great Brahms sonatas for cello and piano and audiences will also get the opportunity to hear Jian perform the JS Bach Cello Suites nos 1 and 6. Details are here:
Timothy Matthies is Director of Business Development, Concerts of Musica Viva Australia, the largest chamber music entrepreneur in the world. Timothy’s role oversees all aspects of Musica Viva’s public concerts activity, manages the company’s six interstate offices and staff, and leads the development and strategy around all partnerships and associations relating to the company’s concerts. Tim also has a successful and stimulating musical life as a member of the Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers, has also performed with Cantillation and ACO Voices and is a member of the Australian Youth Orchestra’s Artistic Advisory Committee.