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Canberra Today 14°/17° | Wednesday, November 29, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Ronan sets his sights on musical snootiness

Ronan Apcar… “How can I use my training to break the rules?” Photo: Queena Kuang

ARMED with talent and a handy dash of pragmatism, Canberra pianist and composer Ronan Apcar is determined to get the snootiness out of music recitals.

Apcar, a third-year piano and composition student at the ANU School of Music, is about to make his Art Song Canberra debut accompanying soprano Sarahlouise Owens in a concert devoted to new works by Canberra composers.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard of him. After performing around town with the Canberra Sinfonia and the ANU Orchestra, in May he was chosen by Canberra International Music Festival director Roland Peelman to be its designated “young artist”. 

In June, after recording in Llewellyn Hall, he released an album of solo piano pieces, including seven world-premiere recordings, by Dulcie Holland, the legendary Australian educator and composer, whose work he had researched during his second year at ANU. 

“Bright Star” is, of course, the title of a famous poem by John Keats and it’s been the inspiration for a new composition by 2019 “CityNews” Artist of the Year, Mike Dooley in the Art Song recital.

But it might just as well apply to the 21-year-old Apcar, who also attended the 13th International Music Festival in Moscow in 2019 and will be seen with the Sydney Contemporary Orchestra next year.

Apcar is known for canvassing jazz, avant-garde, classical and contemporary, with a special penchant for the works of Irish singer-songwriter Róisín Murphy and tells me: “I don’t like to be pigeonholed and my honours project next year will be about breaking down boundaries in terms of genre… seeing new ways.

“There’s a lot of tradition and protocol in classical music; it can be exclusionary and intimidating so I’ve got to look at ways of breaking down the barriers, maybe changing the instruments and playing in fun ways.”

Perhaps a little disingenuously, Apcar describes himself as “self-taught,” having started learning his keyboard skills on a Nintendo device when he was a child, moving to the piano of his father, who played blues for a hobby, then plundering his sister’s music books.

“But I had a lot of bad habits so eventually I got a teacher, who straightened me out,” he says.

He likes to stay open-minded about pre-20th century music, which he likes, but asks himself all the time: “How can I use my training to break the rules?” 

Here’s his beef: “Newcomers to classical music can be put off because it’s hiding behind ritual and tradition and questions about when you clap and what you wear.”

“When Roland [Peelman] asked me to do a solo recital at the music festival, I was so ecstatic when he said: ‘I want you to do a solo recital but I want it to be left of field’.”

The result was a recital upstairs at Verity Lane Markets in an empty space where people would bring food or drink from downstairs. With a mixed bag of very short pieces – everything from Stravinsky tangos to a Gershwin medley and an Armenian piece played in homage to his own family background – Apcar found new audiences for music who, he thinks, enjoyed it because it was so casual and even funny.

“I do think they were really listening and everyone had a favourite,” he says.

One thing Apcar can’t tolerate is simply not performing, a problem during lockdown, and here’s where his pragmatism comes in.

His former piano teacher Wendy Lorenz invited him to play piano and organ at the First Church of Christ in Barton and he jumped at it, partly as an excuse to get himself out of bed on a Sunday, while also recognising that when you’re a classically trained pianist, there aren’t all that many spots.

Soprano Sarahlouise Owens… “Bright Star” is the result of her commissioning works from three Canberra composers.

There he met Owens, who performs regularly as a solo soprano.

Owens was one of the lucky recipients in 2020 of an Arts ACT Homefront grant and the concert, “Bright Star”, is the result of her commissioning works from three Canberra composers.

Apart from the title song, Mike Dooley has also written a three-piece suite, “Hymn to the Trinity”. 

There will also be a piece by Sally Greenaway called “Cocooned in Breath” involving piano, soprano and a kind of crystal Tibetan singing-bowl to create a soundscape. 

Finally, Margaret Legge-Wilkinson has written “Girls and Horses in the Fire,” a work based around the 2003 bushfires in which she lost her home.

“Bright Star”, Wesley Music Centre, 3pm, Sunday, November 14. Book at

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Helen Musa

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