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CIMF / Composer Sitsky, up close and irrepressible

Pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska with composer Larry Sitsky. Photo: Dalice Trost

Canberra International Music Festival / Concert 10, Duet with Tamara-Anna Cislowska. At Smith’s Alternative, May 4. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY.

ABC’s Classic radio network Duet series of musical conversations, with pianist and presenter Tamara-Anna Cislowska, welcomed composer Larry Sitsky to share an hour of music and conversation at the keyboard.

In the cosy confines of Smith’s Alternative, Concert 10 of the Canberra International Music Festival, was an intimate chat with a composer who has created some of the most startling and progressive music any Australian composer has ever made. 

Larry Sitsky, is emeritus professor at The Australian National University. His tenure at the ANU goes back a long way. In 1966, he was appointed head of keyboard studies at the School of Music. His legacy is still a work in progress, but his influence is cemented throughout Australia.

Cislowska’s first question to Sitsky was about his first experience with music and how he reacted to it. Sitsky said: “It was on my grandfather’s gramophone. I heard a recording of a concerto by Liszt. The drama, the interplay of piano and orchestra is what caught my attention.”

Sitsky reminisced about the early days of recorded music, where mistakes and performers’ speaking were included in the published recording. He thought them more authentic than what is offered today. Other early musical influences for Sitsky were Chinese operas and Monks chanting from his time living in northern China.

Coming to Australia opened up a sense of freedom for him. He was allowed out to walk and go anywhere he wanted without being followed. It was a culture shock. He’d never experience different nationalities rubbing shoulders together. His first concert experience in Australia was hearing the music of Don Banks conducted by Eugene Goosens. 

Compromises were made with his parents on his education by doing a year of engineering at Sydney University. But he spent most of his time attending music units and then happily failing most engineering classes. He even learnt some morse code and radio repairing.

When asked to recognise a report about a performance space, which derided it completely, we found out it was a transcription from the composer himself describing the stage of the opera theatre at the newly opened Sydney Opera House. He also recalled performances at the Opera House in the early days.

Sitsky spoke about how he believed in the power of music to reach out and put listeners into a state beyond themselves. He said this is seen in an audience when in a hushed state at a concert where the music puts them into another world.

Cislowska asked about his three act, three-hour opera The Golem. As she performed Perele’s Song from the opera on the piano, he related how it came about. Some of his last words were to stand up for culture and state how much it is needed today. 

No one can ever take the place of the irrepressible force that is Larry Sitsky. It was such a pleasure to hear his words from the composer himself.

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