9 July 2012
SIPCA 2012 - Australian music takes centre stage
Twenty emerging pianists from around the world compete in the Stage III quarter-finals of the Sydney International Piano Competition at the Seymour Centre on 9-10 July. The two options for an obligatory Australian work are Anne Boyd's Kabarli Meditation and Carl Vine's Toccatissimo. Composer Stephen Adams from ABC Classic FM's Australian Music Unit takes a look at the history of Australian music in this competition in an article published originally on the ABC Classic FM website. To find out more and to listen to live performances of the works, see the ABC Classic FM's SIPCA website. See also: competition schedule.
Scores for the two works will be available for purchase following the completion of Stage III recitals. Toccatissimo will be available from the Australian Music Centre, courtesy of Vine's publisher Faber Music. Kabarli Meditation is published by the University of York Music Press.
It's a truism that winning awards in piano competitions is the sine qua non of building a career as a concert pianist. And every four years there've been plenty of aspiring pianists from all over the globe keen to prove themselves in the musical arena of the Sydney International Piano Competition.
Less obvious to most of us is the importance of the SIPCA competition for Australian composers. With two exceptions (in 1977 and 1992 when competitors could play a post-1950 piano piece from their own country instead) every SIPCA competitor who has reached the designated stage has had to learn and perform one of the selected Australian piano works for that year. Since 1988, the Australian works have been part of Stage III - meaning that the 20 most successful pianists from the initial selection of 32 go on to perform the Australian works.
Why include Australian piano music in an international piano competition? Australian pianist-educator and SIPCA artistic director Warren Thomson OAM says that SIPCA organisers had it in mind from the beginning that the competition should not only promote high quality piano performance in Australia, and Sydney as a cultural destination, but also promote Australian piano music and composers. The SIPCA organisers decided that the best way to really support Australian piano music was to commission two or three composers to write new works especially for each competition. And to make these works a mandatory component of the competitors' programs. This would give composers the chance to write something that would be exposed not just in print, but in numerous performances, as well as broadcasts through the SIPCA partnership with ABC Classic FM.
Imagine this - 20 top emerging pianists from all over the world, a mandatory Australian composition, every performance broadcast around Australia and New Zealand, and heard internationally on the internet. That sounds like a lot of exposure: at least a performance or two by highly skilled and ambitious pianists to one of the biggest audiences you're ever likely to get. And then there's the chance that competitors will fall in love with the piece and take it with them when they go. That is if you can get your music onto the list.
So, how do the organisers choose who to commission? According to Warren Thomson, the decisions were originally made by then Sydney Conservatorium of Music director and competition co-founder Rex Hobcroft. Hobcroft knew many composers personally and selected individuals whose music he believed in and thought capable of creating piano music of a high standard. The first round of commissions in 1981 went to two composer pianists along with Australia's best-known living composer, also a closet piano devotee. The results were: Nigel Butterley's ecstatic Uttering Joyous Leaves, the sinuous lines of Larry Sitsky's Fantasia No.4 Arch, and the brooding Mountains from Peter Sculthorpe.
Music by composer-pianists has featured frequently over the years since, highlighting a largely unremarked and surprisingly strong tradition in this country going back at least as far as Percy Grainger. In 1988 the competition changed tack, deciding to mine this back catalogue and bring forgotten works back to the light. They used the cultural energy of the Australian bicentennial moment as the impetus to get a number of impressive out-of-print works reissued. The Australian composer-pianists featured were: Percy Grainger, Roy Agnew, Raymond Hanson, Miriam Hyde, Don Banks and Richard Meale. To take just one example, the exposure of Miriam Hyde's Valley of Rocksat SIPCA 1988 made it her best-known work, with numerous subsequent performances by Hyde herself and by artists such as Kathryn Selby, Jonathan Bradley and Katie Zhukov, and publication on Canberra School of Music, Move Records, Southern Cross and ABC Classics CDs.
Since 1988 the organisers have returned to the practice of commissioning new works for each competition. This year the two selected composers are Anne Boyd and Carl Vine. According to Warren Thomson, it's an indicator of the success of SIPCA in promoting Australian composers overseas that a number of this year's international entrants already knew the work of Vine and Boyd and had decided which composer's work would suit their playing before even seeing the scores.
Anne Boyd's back-catalogue contains only a handful of solo piano works, but they include her 1981 epic Book of the Bells for Australian virtuoso pianist Roger Woodward, and the exquisite restraint of her meditative Angklung from 1974. It will be fascinating to see what this composer produces now that SIPCA's organisers have tempted Boyd back to the piano.
Carl Vine on the other hand is the classic composer-pianist, with a more extrovert style and a host of solo piano works to his name. His early career pianist activities included playing Australian and international new music with the Sydney ensemble Flederman, and performing his own scores for works by the Sydney Dance Company. Vine also has an established association with SIPCA. The organisers uniquely included pre-existing works by Vine in the lists for the 1996 and 2000 competitions - his Piano Sonata No.1 and his Five Bagatelles. Nonetheless, 2012 is the first time that Carl Vine has composed a new work especially for the SIPCA competition.
© Australian Music Centre (2012) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Stephen Adams is a composer of concert music, music theatre and digital music. Since 2004, he has been working full-time at ABC Classic FM in the development of Australian music programming, recording and commissioning projects, and online Australian music presentation. Since 2006, he has been co-producer of CFM’s New Music Up Late program. Recent online projects include the AMU podcast, Orpheus Remix Awards, Lute Project and classic/amp.
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