Arts / Sitsky at 80, Larry has lots to be happy about

“I FEEL silly as ever,” Larry Sitsky tells me as he prepares to mark his 80th birthday on September 10, “I’m in good health. I’m producing at a great rate. I enjoy working with young people.”

His only health problem was a cardiac incident about 15 years ago, quickly sorted out. “I’m not a vegetarian or anything like that,” he adds, “and besides, 80 is just a number.”

Composer Larry Sitsky… “I like to challenge the audiences”. Image from “A Portrait of Canberra and of Canberrans”, by renowned photographer Heide Smith

Composer Larry Sitsky… “I like to challenge the audiences”. Image from “A Portrait of Canberra and of Canberrans”, by renowned photographer Heide Smith

As we sit in his ANU practice room surrounded by music, the celebrated Canberra composer and pianist prefers to talk about his pupils. There’s a current one, Aaron Chew, with whom he performed a duo piano recital at Wesley last week, and Adam Cook, with whom he performed a devilishly difficult Busoni work for two pianos last year.

There’ll be a bit of celebrating, he says, with a recital of his carillon music at Aspen Island on September 24 and Canberra Youth Orchestra will perform a Sitsky concerto on September 31. Then with the support of the ANU School of Music, he and Canberra violinist Tor Frømyhr will do a Busoni-Sitsky recital where each opus and sonata involves the number 1.

Government House in Hobart has invited him to a concert and reception in his honour on September 10, his actual birthday. This, Sitsky tells “CityNews,” is very appropriate because his first opera, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, premiered at the Theatre Royal Hobart in 1965.

But as far as he knows, nothing has been planned by the CSO, and as for Opera Australia, well, when he approached director Lyndon Terracini about performing his completion of Ferruccio Busoni’s unfinished opera, “Dr Faust,” (a nice bookend to the music he wrote for Splinters Theatre’s “Faust” in Canberra) he was told Australian audiences didn’t appreciate modern music. Not to worry, a conductor in Germany has offered to stage it in Buenos Aires and later in Cologne.

You’d expect Sitsky to be enraged, but he isn’t. On the contrary, he still enjoys getting up people’s noses.

“Not only do I push the envelope, but also I like to challenge the audiences,” he says, likening himself to composers Nigel Butterley and the late Richard Meale – “we write music that is honest, without worrying whether it’s politically correct.”

His has been a long musical life.

“I gave my first concert at 10 and that means I’ve spent bloody 70 years on the concert platform,” he groans. “I think I was destined to be a musician.”

Born in China, Sitsky came to Australia in 1951 and though as a child prodigy he began piano lessons at age 4, his parents didn’t want him to be a musician.

“I was supposed to be an engineer.” He tried that, accountancy, librarianship and even operating a radio in Antarctica, before putting his foot down and studying piano at the Sydney Conservatorium with Winifred Burston then at San Francisco Conservatory with Egon Petri.

Sitsky has enjoyed plenty of accolades. He’s travelled to the USSR on a DFAT cultural exchange, won the AH Maggs award twice, the Alfred Hill Memorial Prize, the China Fellowship, the inaugural Fellowship of Composers prize, the inaugural National Critics’ Award and the inaugural Fellowship of Australian Composers. He was granted a personal professorial chair at the ANU, where he is now emeritus professor.

And has he passed his talents on? His daughter is a piano teacher but loathes the very platform experience Sitsky rejoices in. His granddaughter, here in Canberra, is studying piano and has perfect pitch. But does that mean she has musicality?

“Perfect pitch is a freakish ability,” Sitsky says. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

 

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