Composer Larry returns to Russia, with love

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Larry Sitsky… “When I got an email with the invitation, I thought it was a hoax, so I answered in a silly way, but after a few more emails I realised it was real. Photo: Heide Smith

Canberra-based composer Larry Sitsky will be honoured with a long weekend this month of musical festivities by the Moscow Conservatory as an artist who, though not born in Russia has, through his heritage, contributed to the Russian musical tradition, reports arts editor HELEN MUSA

IT was a terrific turnout last week when the Canberra community packed into the Larry Sitsky Recital Room to mark the famous Canberra composer’s 85th birthday, but when it comes to musical celebrations, it’s the Russians who really know how to do it in style.

Sitsky will be honoured with a long weekend this month of musical festivities by the Moscow Conservatory as an artist who, though not born in Russia has, through his heritage, contributed to the Russian musical tradition.

“CityNews” caught up with Sitsky and his wife Magda last week at their home in Chifley as they were preparing to leave for Moscow with their daughter and Canberra pianist Edward (“Teddy”) Neeman, who will perform a sonata by Sitsky at the event.

It was supposed to be a surprise event, but Neeman knew all about it long before Sitsky did, having been tipped off by Anna Borisova, the Russian PhD student who is writing her thesis on Sitsky, that plans were afoot.

Sitsky tells us: “When I got an email with the invitation, I thought it was a hoax, so I answered in a silly way, but after a few more emails I realised it was real.

“When they said that they would shell out for transport there, I realised it was serious and our embassy in Moscow has been very supportive – I got in touch with them to make sure it wasn’t a scam.”

It wasn’t and both the Australian and Russian diplomats have since combined to make sure it runs smoothly.

The weekend of September 27-29 will feature musical performances on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday and a formal reception at our embassy on Monday, September 30.

Sitsky, who has lived in Canberra since the 1960s, has thoroughly involved himself in the community here and written his greatest works in the ACT, including his massive opera “The Golem” and even a musical score for Splinters Theatre of Spectacle’s fiery production of “Faust.”

He and Magda have raised a family here and he always comes across as more of an Aussie than anything else.

In fact his mother was from Irkutsk in Siberia and his father from Vladivostok. Both became part of the caravan of Russian-Jewish émigrés who went to China in the wake of the Russian Revolution and later emigrated to Australia.

Born and raised in the French Concession area of Tianjin but schooled in the English Concession, the young Sitsky was used to crossing borders daily, so when at age 15 he landed in Sydney, it was hard to believe that there were no such barriers here. “And no one gave a stuff,” he reports.

Sitsky took to Australia like a duck to water, edited a youth magazine, started studying engineering, switched to music, and ended up as an academic at the Queensland Conservatorium.

From there he was headhunted to help galvanise the ACT into musical activity. Once here, he found himself composing more than playing.

In the meantime, learning of his fluency in Russian, the Federal government sent him to Moscow as Australia’s first cultural ambassador to Russia during the Cold War, after a cultural relations agreement was signed in the early 1970s.

Russia was freezing. The pipes burst in a big music library and everything was different – there were flowers thrown on to the stage, the final rounds of a ballet competition were screened on national TV, and even the exiling of controversial composers showed that the authorities believed they had influence.

Heady stuff for a young artist, but the sceptical Sitsky came to realise that composing in a cultural vacuum here gave him a certain freedom.

“You’re not bound to anyone, no expectations are formed, it can be liberating,” he says, but academia is the only way a composer can survive in Australia.

As part of his Canberra birthday celebrations (the real birthday is on September 10) he played a couple of pieces, but as a self-described “composer-musicologist-pianist”, he has decided not to perform when he goes to Moscow, so has politely declined, telling his hosts: “You have so many pianists, you don’t need me.”

Besides, he has Neeman, who will perform one of his sonatas, “Retirer d’en bas de l’eau”, which Sitsky based on the voodoo ceremony of purification by water.

He and his family can just watch, listen and enjoy themselves.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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