Music / CIMF Concert 21: “The Art of Speech: Australian Rhetoric in Music”. At the National Gallery, Sunday, May 7. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY
BARBARA Blackman’s Festival Blessing is an annual event of the Canberra International Music Festival in honour of her philanthropy to the festival.
This year’s concert featured the world premiere of “Stalin’s Piano”. Its composer Robert Davidson introduced the 19-movement multimedia work for solo piano, hinting that it would show that we all compose music every time we speak. And so it did.
The rebellious Russian pianist, Maria Yudina, inspired the work. Ironically, Yudina was Stalin’s pianist of choice and a recording of hers was playing on Stalin’s record player when he died. And to double the irony, the work includes the story of Dmitri Shostakovich’s music in Stalinist Russia.
There are stories about political events and the arts, each of them poignantly ironic. It perhaps suggests that the arts are much smarter than politics.
Each movement features audio/visual of these events. What was remarkable was that Davidson’s music had been able not only to capture the myriad moods, but also to set the speaking to music. Timing, of course, was crucial and Ukrainian-born pianist Sonya Lifschitz did a brilliant job, especially in playing the “talking” music in perfect synch with the actual talking.
It started with Bertolt Brecht telling the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 that he was never a member of any Communist party.
Other characters whose spoken words were turned to music included Judith Wright and David Malouf reading their own poetry, and Percy Grainger, who declared himself to enjoy being morose: “After all, music is derived from screaming”.
The architectural philosophies of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright were juxtaposed as were the ideologies of Thomas Mann and Joseph Goebbels.
Robert Helpmann talked about dance, and Arthur Boyd and Jackson Pollock, art. And, yes, music now adorns Whitlam’s famous quip in his retrospective look at the wisdom of buying “Blue Poles” when he said: “I’m not one to say I told you so, but …”
Contemporary events feature, too, including Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech and the very public admonishment of Donald Trump and his comments about women during his election campaign.
In this marvellous composition, the music is integral to each story. Sonya Lifschitz’s playing was so empathetic to the moods and messages, that it, too, became integral, but not so central as to dominate. Lifschitz tied the whole thing up into a neat but highly thought-provoking and very musical package.