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14 July 2008

Ann Carr-Boyd at 70

Four generations of music in the family

Ann Carr-Boyd Image: Ann Carr-Boyd  

Ann Carr-Boyd has music well and truly ingrained in her family. Her Bohemian grandfather, Albert Wentzel, was a musician in an orchestra that came to play in Australia for the centenary celebrations in 1888. Her father and uncle, Norbert and Charles, both played viola in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In her teens, Ann Carr-Boyd herself was contemplating a career in visual arts, but music took over.

She graduated from Sydney University as the very first music graduate, completed a Master of Arts degree and proceeded to study composition in London with Peter Racine Fricker and Alexander Goehr. When returning to Australia – with a husband and children – she went on to teach and to compose music.

Four decades later, Ann Carr-Boyd seems to be living an equally busy life. Her 70th birthday on 13th July is being celebrated in quite a few concerts and almost as many new recordings. The WIN Wollongong Symphony Orchestra premiered and performed her Piano Concerto No 2 with three performances at the beginning of July, and later this month the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre organises a birthday event featuring a new work commissioned for the occasion.

Very special, in its own way, will be a concert at the State Library of NSW (25th July), which will feature music not only by Ann Carr-Boyd, but also by her father and grandfather. The compositions will be performed by younger members of the family, so that, all in all, four generations of musicians are involved.

'I can't remember a time when I wasn't taking part in some sort of music activity – either appearing as a pianist at concerts, or listening to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, or hearing organ recitals in the Sydney Town Hall, or listening to the ensemble which practised in my home. Not to speak of the pupils who came for lessons in our home all the time. I wrote my first piece when I was six – it was called Running – I remember how it went, but the manuscript is not around!' the composer reveals.

She is known as a skilled performer herself, although she becomes a bit modest when asked about it.

'I've always loved playing the piano and exploring its colours from a compositional point of view but have never wished to strive for that upper level – I'm very happy to stumble along.'

'I am a limited performer, especially on viola which I have strived to play: I helped years ago to found the Lane Cove Symphony Orchestra, and playing in an orchestra gave me wonderful insight into the psychology of being a member of an orchestra, and how all the different instruments knit together. I love writing for orchestra, and having a huge palette of colours,' she says.

'I've always loved playing the piano and exploring its colours from a compositional point of view but have never wished to strive for that upper level – I'm very happy to stumble along. Nevertheless, over the years I have done a lot of public performing, and also recording. It is really quite curious that in our family the strings are dominant – grandfather was a string player, a violinist, and also my father and uncle – although my father was also very good as a pianist and as a composer. However, my brother Peter and I are not string players – this jumped to the next generation: my daughters Xanthe and Katrina play viola and violin, my niece Alexandra plays violin, and her brother Drew played cello.'

Ann Carr-Boyd's output ranges from orchestral compositions to educational repertoire, and from chamber music to solo pieces. Her music, despite her studies with Goehr and a visit to the Darmstadt summer school, is generally firmly grounded in tonality. The works often have as their starting point an impression of nature, or sometimes a specific place – but what kind of stories these pieces tell, is left for the listener to decide.

In the concert at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre (26th July), a new composition, Cool Valley, will see the light of day. The work was commissioned for the birthday event by Father Arthur Bridge, on behalf of Ars Musica Australis, and will be performed by the Sydney Symphony Fellows.

On this occasion, Carr-Boyd set out to turn into music the waters of the Nepean River and the surrounding wilderness. The initiative for the piece came from Valda Silvy, the General Manager of the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre.

'Valda came and visited me in Moss Vale on a very wet day in June 2007, and the planning was then set in motion. I felt that it was important to feature the area around Penrith, as the work is to be performed there – and to me, all my life, it was the link between my home in Sydney and the Blue Mountains, where I've spent many holidays and which I love', Carr-Boyd explains.

'I have tried to convey some of the water, which is surrounded by majestic gum tree forests filled with birds and wildlife – including the bellbird with its distinctive call, which appears in the piece in an ad-lib fashion. The Boulevard Waltz complements the more natural environment mood of Cool Valley by turning to the city of Penrith, which is being remodelled by a French city architect and will maybe come to reflect some of the elements of a French city. A waltz came to my mind and quickly established a firm place in my imagination, with a slow opening reminiscent of dusky lights and people seated at coffee tables, followed by the waltz itself.'

In addition to the concert, Carr-Boyd will be spending a day in Penrith with senior schoolchildren, who will be studying and performing her music. For this purpose, she has rearranged her Razz Suite (originally written for solo mandolin) for oboe and string quartet. The suite will also be heard in the concert on the 26th, along with other works. Again, the music of this suite has a very real connection with the world surrounding Ann Carr-Boyd.

'There are six little pieces reflecting the character of my cats both past and present – it was great fun to do. The pieces were recorded in March so that they could be included in the CD which accompanies a book written by Frank O'Brien for the school masterclass. Several of my pieces are analysed in it, and the scores reproduced, resulting in two weighty volumes!'

'I'm lucky to associate with many people in the present day, for whom live music making is an important part of family life.'

Ann Carr-Boyd is also known as an authority on the history of European music in Australia. Her own family is a living testimony to the fact that making music at home does not necessarily belong to a long gone era:

'I'm lucky to associate with many people in the present day, for whom live music making is an important part of family life.'

Gala Concert
Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre
Symphony Orchestra Fellows (Victoria Jacono, violin, Yilin Zhu, viola, Patrick Suthers, cello); John Martin (solo piano), Louise Page (soprano), Philippa Candy (piano).
26 July, 8 pm
Information and bookings

Subjects discussed by this article:

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and the acting editor of resonate magazine.


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