The Sonata Project is designed to capture the opulence and excitement of intimate 19th Century European music salons where great musicians launched new works. I have orchestrated the overall design of this project including the stage décor. Props by leading furniture makers together with abundant floral arrangements, frame immersive paintings. This set will transport the audience into an sensory utopia.
Limelight Magazine | Features | Classical Music
by Angus McPherson
The pianist will explore this question and more through the premieres of four new works in a setting of Lisztian opulence.
How did the idea for the Sonata Project evolve?
The sonata project is my response to three questions: is the piano sonata relevant to composition of the 21st century?; why are so few piano sonatas written by female composers?; and what is the future of classical piano music?
What do you hope to achieve through this project?
I am enlarging the number of large-scale, serious solo works for piano written by Australian women composers. I hope for a time when these compositions are featured in serious piano recital programmes the world over. I’m presenting these new works on a stage adorned by the work of some of Sydney's best creative designers and artists and is my way of showing my respect both for the value and importance of the new works as well as my appreciation for all art forms. Kurt Vonnegut's famous quote sticks with me: simply that “art is a very human way of making life more bearable.” I would add to that, more beautiful.
What were some of the things you wanted to keep in mind when putting together the programme?
Well, above all to excite the imaginations of the audience. To show them that there is more to musical life than Beethoven and Mozart! And that these sonatas can be as easy to get to know as any of those by the Old Masters!
In choosing the sonata as the compositional model for the project and the concerts, I’ve determined the kind of programme I want to deliver and made my job much easier than it normally is. Programming is an art in and of itself, and a difficult one especially when considering the overwhelming amount of material that exists for solo piano! In terms of the sonatas themselves, I asked the composers to write a large-scale serious work for piano according to their individual responses to the word, Sonata. The programme I will present on November 11 is one of great variety – dark and frightening at times, lush and romantic, exciting and virtuosic.
What is it about the music of each of these composers (Aristea Mellos, Melody Eötvös, Jane Stanley and Ross Edwards) that speaks to you?
Of course it is the shock and the excitement of the NEW, but mainly it is the ethos of the journey it has taken them on. Interestingly, each one was greatly challenged by the prospect of writing a sonata – it has such an esteemed pedigree. They had to think big and bold and virtuosic, and each one has achieved this in vastly different ways. Not one of the women had written a sonata before!
Aristea’s evokes the sounds, colours and moods of her time in Italy – I am attracted to the use of lyricism and compelling rhythmic movement of her first and third movements which are cast in the lush mode of E Flat Minor. The slow movement in particular is evocative, with the ghastly “suffocating” atmosphere of the Cardinal Spada gallery – this movement winds itself up into a glorious, though short-lived, climax.
Melody’s sonata grips me in a malevolent and pervasive strangeness that I imagine to be the “King in Yellow” upon which the work is based. She magically maintains this dark presence throughout, whilst portraying through sound-imagery the unfolding action of the ghost story of the Demoiselle D’ys. Her working out of the sonata form is extremely subtle – she forced me to dig deep into the intricate textures and overlapping thematic material to get at the truth. I enjoyed this challenge!
Jane’s sonata is tightly and remarkably designed for a composer whose harmonic language is essentially non-tonal. It is muscular, powerful, gestural and incredibly virtuosic. The slow movement, despite the dissonance, has some achingly beautiful moments brought about by her keen examination of the use of pedalling and other technical devices unique to the piano.
And finally Ross’s work, as with every piece I have played of his, expresses the joy of life, positivity, love of and beauty of nature. He has used as his inspiration one of the most beautiful of chants in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Star of the Sea, and its gently mournful arcs are heard throughout the first movement. The lushness of the E flat mode connects this sonata with the first on the programme, Aristea’s, giving the programme a sense of communion. The following movement springs to life in a typically exuberant, rhythmically compelling joyous dance, interspersed with wild bird calls. The cool, quiet moments to me are like being at rest on the floor of a forest, listening to its sounds, and the faint return of the chant is like a dream.
These sonatas are all close to me now. I love every part of each one and I can’t imagine life without them! The composers have poured their hearts and souls into these compositions, and it behoves us as players and listeners to give them profound and wholehearted attention, and to find the jewels which lie hidden within them.
How collaborative was the composition process?
Pretty close, yes, but not overpowering. They all know my strengths and how to play to those. They would send me snippets, which I would comment on – and of course we workshopped them – some in the flesh, others by electronic means, so that there is nothing which the audience will hear that we haven’t worked on together! I compose a little myself, so I am very aware of my role as a presenter, but I think the composers have found it useful to bounce some of their best ideas off me as they push their own boundaries.
What were the challenges in putting this together?
There was of course the question of funding. How to buy these gifted composers the time to work. That’s where the Australia Council comes so splendidly to the rescue of composers such as Melody, Jane and Aristea. A private donor sponsored the piece by Ross, and dedicated it to the love of his life. And of course I am indebted to Tall Poppies and Belinda Webster, who has produced the Sonata Project’s first CD, not to mention my husband Peter, my recording engineer and editor. Since part of my Project was also to construct a magnificent setting – such as Liszt used to organise for his salon concerts – I was fortunate to have the services of Lynne Bradley, who has designed a beautiful stage setting, and Romance is Born which has provided me with unique gowns.
What can the audiences expect to hear in this concert?
They will hear the outpourings of three gifted female composers and one male composer who are taking piano music to a new level in this 21st century. They will also experience some of the luxury and opulence which Franz Liszt used, in presenting his marvellous new music to amazed audiences, and hopefully they will all smile and say: “Classical piano music is in good hands.”
Why is this project important to you?
Because I am a performer first and foremost, and it is musical death for a performer to get so stuck in the old, ‘acceptable’ repertoire that, by the time you’ve discovered what new excitements lie ahead, it is too hard to play it! I also feel as I mature that I want to contribute something of considerable value to the next generation of performers and composers, and to Australia’s cultural identity.
Where do you want to see the Sonata Project go from here?
I see no end to it, for it is a very viable and flexible art form, and will endure as long as good, original piano music endures and as long as there are composers wanting to write for it. Oh, and as long as we have The Australia Council, Tall Poppies, the Conservatorium and… the audiences to support us!
Bernadette Harvey performs The Sonata Project at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music's Verbrugghen Hall on November 11.