Sydney piano concert The Sonata Project to capture the romance of the salon

The Sydney Morning Herald
Barney Zwartz
October 28-9, 2017

In the 19th-century mansions of Paris, female leaders of society hosted soirees at which the aristocracy mingled with intellectuals, writers, artists and musicians. In such salons the shy Chopin would perform his intimate piano masterworks, almost entirely eschewing public concerts.

Australian pianist and lecturer Bernadette Harvey will recreate something of that milieu on November 11, turning the Sydney Conservatorium of Music into a salon, with two large canvases by Sydney artist Lara Merret, magnificent floral creations by Myra Perez of the My Violet florist studio, and props arranged by interior designer Lynne Bradley. Harvey herself will wear Romance Was Born outfits.

Australian pianist and lecturer Bernadette Harvey will recreate something of the Parisian salon milieu on November 11.  Photo: Craig Wall

Australian pianist and lecturer Bernadette Harvey will recreate something of the Parisian salon milieu on November 11. Photo: Craig Wall

The purpose of this opulence is to frame four new piano sonatas by Australian composers in the first recital of Harvey's Sonata Project.  Her threefold ambition is to support 21st-century Australian composers, fill a void in large-scale piano works by female composers, and to keep the classical acoustic solo piano recital alive and engage new audiences.

"I adore the instrument," Harvey says. "I've been playing it since I was two, and my love for it hasn't waned. The idea is to keep it relevant, bringing it up to date, and including a much wider audience, a much broader reach into the community."

She is concerned that the traditional recital is increasingly confined to a small number of star pianists who travel the globe. "I've heard it said that the piano is a dinosaur and the piano recital is not relevant any more to young people. I love those recitals, but a lot of the repertoire is of the standard canon and attended by mostly elderly people."

Despite that, Harvey feels positive about the future of the piano. But she recognises the need to engage a younger audience, who she says no longer receive the same musical education in schools and often do not know how to listen to longer works.

Harvey will give the world premiere of new sonatas by three young Australian women and by Ross Edwards, one of Australia's most acclaimed composers. The women are Sydney composer Aristea Mellos, Jane Stanley, who now lives in Scotland, and Melody Eotvo, who is based in the United States.

Women today have largely achieved parity in orchestral numbers and as solo performers, but not as composers.

Aristea Mellos says women could have careers as virtuosi and, particularly, vocalists in the 19th century but often used a male pseudonym to write.

"It begins with Clara Schuman and Fanny Mendelssoh, and then you get the Dame Nellies– people who were able to subvert the rules of class," she says. "The equivalent doesn't occur with composition until the mid-20th century; that's when we begin to see women having their works performed publicly or even accepted into academic institutions as composers.

"So for us everything is just beginning, it's really emergent, and in some ways that makes it difficult because for so long we've been excluded from music history or denied a voice. But things are just beginning to happen for women in the field of composition, and it's exciting."

Ross Edwards is supportive of the salon concept. "I think it's a terrific idea. What she's trying to do is wonderful, and it reminds me of what I tried to do for orchestral music in the late '80s. I wanted to get suitable lighting to create a visual atmosphere which would enhance the music, and it worked brilliantly.

For so long we’ve been excluded from music history or denied a voice. But things are just beginning to happen for women in the field of composition.
— Composer Aristea Mellos

"Then I started putting people into costume," he recalls. Australian oboist Diana Doherty performed his oboe concerto dressed partly as a bird, "and she was totally thrilled and went around the world doing that." Saxophonist Amy Dickson played his concerto as a goddess, cleverly changing costume on stage.

"I think that's what Bernadette is getting at, to recreate the romance and make music into something more than a whole lot of bottoms sitting in a hall trying not to rustle their programs or cough."

Edwards' new sonata, Sea Star Fantasy, is based on a famous and beautiful fragment of medieval plainchant called Ave Maria Stella Maris.  He often uses plainchant as a unifying device, to bring another dimension to the music. "My music is based on the sounds of the environment, but is clothed with all sorts of references to other cultures. Because it is a distillation of the sounds of the environment, I feel I am able to look at the world as an Australian and send the music out with that particular flavour."

Mellos was inspired by a week in Rome. The exuberant first movement is based on a party near the Pantheon, while the much darker second movement recalls a visit to Cardinal Spada's Gallery, with his grotesque collection of deformed children, crucified martyrs and gory biblical scenes. The final movement, Vanishing Point, is inspired by forced-perspective frescoes found throughout Italy.

Harvey wants to take the Sonata Project to other places in Sydney and around Australia. It will be an ongoing series, and she already has people writing sonatas for the second iteration in late 2018.

Although Harvey relishes the many links with women, past and present, in the first concert, she is wary of allowing a gender focus to dominate the Sonata Project.  She doesn't really feel it is necessary – it is hard for anyone to get new works performed today.

Although she could count on one hand the number of large-scale piano sonatas by women in the history of recorded composition in Australia, affirmative action is changing that.

"The University of Sydney has hired a world-famous composer, Liza Lim, to head composition. I think that now women have just got to get on with process of writing, getting more confident and writing big virtuosic works," she says.

"That's what I hope to show in this concert; these works are big, they are bold, they are great to play, and I'm sure they will be taken into the repertoire of Australian pianists – they're that good."

The Sonata Project will be unveiled at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Saturday, November 11.