Esther Benjamin from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra asked me to write something appropriate for their newsletter The Bridge. This is what I came up with. I think Percy Grainger would consider it a ramble…
I love touring.
It’s often said that pianists are among the most solitary of musicians, practising obsessively in their rooms, alone with their imaginations, egos and neuroses, and it’s not far from the truth at times. There are many things that have offset this unhealthy way of life in my case. Having a family: number one. Not a lot of solitary time with two teenage daughters and a beloved wife who rushes around organising everything and everyone. Then there is the fact, linked to the three females already mentioned, that I don’t practise much any more, compared with the eight or so hours a day I used to put in back in the fevered days of international competitions in my early twenties. Also, working with students and colleagues periodically provides social relief and intellectual stimulation that I could not live without. I think that, were you to plot on a graph the number of words I spoke over the course of a year, you would see troughs relating to my periods of practice and sharp peaks to my times teaching at ANAM and to festivals, concerts and tours. My wonderful recent tour with the delightful MCO would certainly appear as a raised outcrop.
Finally, of course, there’s composing. I confess that I wish I had been a bit more muscular in my approach to writing when I was a student, trying to make my way in the profession early on. That was in the early 1980s, when ‘serious’ music was still defined by its impenetrable complexity and capacity to annoy and depress an audience, to paraphrase Satie. I remember a particular instance when I presented a piano piece to my composition supervisor at the VCA (we didn’t have an actual lecturer in composition then, curiously). Poor Richard was bemused, as his own music was as different from mine as Fernyhough to Hindson, and I was left with the distinct impression that I had somehow disappointed him. So I set about trying to please him, writing a ‘graphic score’ and transposing it into relatively conventional notation. The piece, which I immediately knew to be worthless in its musical insincerity, was greeted with enthusiasm, which depressed me even more. And so I gave up composition for ten years, apart from a bit of ongoing dabbling, and concentrated on playing the piano.
By the time I returned to Australia in 1995, though, my daughters had been born and I realised that I needed to write for my sanity, and that the only music that was worth writing was that which gave me satisfaction. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since and, as Maxwell Smart would say, loving it! When Bill Hennessy asked me to write a piece for the MCO and come touring with them at the same time, I leapt at it. Bill’s interesting philosophy, relating to the rebirth of the composer-performer tradition, is one I utterly agree with, and the opportunity to share some time on the road with him and my brilliant young colleagues was time I will treasure. I especially like playing in Australian country towns, where the appreciation of such orchestral concerts is palpable. This tour, also, reminded me of the very first one I made with the MSO way back in 1983, after I had won the I & V (now Young Performers), a tour that also finished up in Horsham in midwinter. Some of the excellent young players in the MCO weren’t even born then, and I saw myself in them, starting out in this wonderful, demanding but beautiful profession.