Ten Days on the Island presents
Sonya Lifschitz’s collaboration with composer Robert Davidson, is a recital like no other, deftly synching virtuoso piano with texts from iconic creative and political figures like Bertolt Brecht, Goebbles, JFK, Ai Wei Wei, Stalin, Sontag, Gillard and Trump, Stalin’s Piano is a captivating – at times devastating, at times tender and humorous – tour de force weaving music, archival video footage and the performer’s own speaking voice to explore big themes in modern history. Praised by the New York Times and The Age for her “dynamic” and “powerful” performances, Ukranian-born pianist Sonya Lifschitz is internationally recognised as one of Australia’s most innovative and fiercely creative musical voices. Of her recent performance of Stalin’s Piano at the Brisbane Festival a critic wrote:“Lifschitz was a life-force of extraordinary density and capacity”.
In 1953 Joseph Stalin died in his bed. Found spinning on his record player was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, a recording of the often banned and exiled Russian pianist Maria Yudina. A formidable, outspoken champion of new music and artistic freedom Yudina was famed for her vehement defiance of Stalin’s tyranny. Whilst so many of her fellow artists ‘disappeared’ or were purged by the KGB, Yudina outlasted Stalin and lived to tell her story.
Join the equally fearless and fierce pianist Sonya Lifschitz, as she fires up Australian composer Robert Davidson’s electrifying new work Stalin’s Piano. Conceived with and for the Ukranian-born virtuoso, Lifschitz deftly syncs Davidson’s collection of rousing compositions with the pulsing texts from history-shaping speeches and interviews, taking us into the heart of the ever-simmering conflict between state and individual with contributions from people as diverse as Goebbels, Ai Wei Wei, Jackson Pollock, Whitlam, Judith Wright, Frank Lloyd-Wright, Stalin and Yudina herself.
Set in twenty vignettes, this 65 minute audio-visual epic, weaves together virtuoso piano music, the recorded voices of iconic creative and political figures, archival video footage and Sonya’s spoken voice. Starting with Bertholt Brecht as he faces the House of Un-American Activities Commission and continuing through a diverse range of artists and politicians, Stalin’s Piano creates a devastating and captivating exploration of the big themes of modern history.
“If you think piano recitals are dead, go and see ‘Stalin’s Piano’: Robert Davidson’s audio-visual epic of ten fingers against the inexorable sweep of history.”
Roland Peelman – Artistic Director Canberra International Music Festival
A NOTE FROM THE COMPOSER
It has been a fascinating journey creating Stalin’s Piano, kicking off from a fascination with the courage of Maria Yudina in her artistic resistance to tyranny. Sonya and I first really started talking about it on our long bus trips while touring with Topology in North Queensland, so the piece will forever be associated with the image of looking out the window at canefields, glorious mountains, and giant sculptures of cane toads. It’s been a genuine composer-performer collaboration, with Sonya’s creative vision very much tied to my own in selecting what stories to weave together. It’s a complex interplay between the roles of creative artist and politician – roles that seem often to overlap and mingle in diverse ways, from artists informing public policy, to politicians getting involved in artistic projects, to artists being subjugated to political agendas, to politicians seeing themselves as artists working with populations as modelling clay. There’s no set meaning to the piece, but there are many linkages between the works. The hope is that audience members find dense layers of meaning for themselves in considering these striking slices of history. Part of the project is also about finding empathy. When we focus on words, as our thinking brains are so much in the habit of doing, we sometimes miss the deeper, emotional communication that is going on behind the words in the intonation of speech – the melodies, rhythms, timbres that communicate a lot more than just the dictionary meanings of words (as Oliver Sacks so eloquently described in “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”). I find that hearing the speeches as music assists me in hearing these meanings, and hearing the person rather than just their words, or the category they represent. How does speech become music? It’s not through editing the speech, forcing it into a pre-conceived musical mould – rather, it’s done here through carefully attending to the speech, finding the music that is there, and using the piano as a frame in which to place the music I find – creating an accompaniment that primes perception to hear the music that was always there. Such an approach builds on those of predecessors such as Janáček (who was fond of collecting speech melodies in his notebook (starting in the 1870s) and letting them inform his operatic writing), Mussorgsky, Harry Partch, Hermeto Pascoal, and most importantly Scott Johnson, whose 1978 “John Somebody” had an important influence on me, and on other composers such as Steve Reich, whose “Different Trains” is one of the better known speech-melody works. In Australia, Sherre Delys is a great example. To me, it’s a kind of portrait making – careful observation of a person’s voice (rather than their face) and a kind of extraction of the essential, distinctive musical style they project into the world. It’s treating everyone as a composer – they create melodies spontaneously, unconsciously, with their spoken utterances. Sonya’s piano helps the rest of us hear those melodies.
Composed by Robert Davidson
Performed by Sonya Lifschitz
Praised by the New York Times and The Age for her “dynamic” and “powerful” performances, and by the Woodstock Times for her “miraculous keyboard technique and musicianship”, Sonya Lifschitz made her debut with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at age 18 and is internationally recognised as one of Australia’s most innovative and fiercely creative musical voices.
In 2016-2018 seasons, Sonya made a critically-acclaimed solo debut in one of New York’s most prestigious concert venues, the BargeMusic, with other highlights including performances at the Melbourne (MIAF), Adelaide (AF), Brisbane (BIAF), Canberra (CIMF), Darwin, Metropolis and MONAFOMA Festivals; and venues such as the Melbourne Recital Centre (Melbourne), City Recital Hall (Sydney), QPAC Concert Hall (Brisbane), National Gallery of Australia (Canberra), Elder Hall (Adelaide) and Detroit Institute of Art (Detroit, USA). Her recent performance of the world premiere ‘Stalin’s Piano’ by Robert Davidson at the Canberra International Music Festival received a 4.5 stars review in the Limelight Magazine, and a recent performance of Larry Sitsky’s piano trio, Sandakan, commissioned by her contemporary music ensemble Press, Play, received the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Contemporary Masters Award for the best performance of new work. Sonya’s performances are regularly broadcast by ABC Classic FM, ABC Radio National, and 3MBS and she has appeared on radio in interviews with Andrew Ford, Margaret Throsby and Alice Keath.
Sonya is increasingly active as a music curator and director, creating innovative, cross-disciplinary, multimedia works that re-contextualise the classical canon and push the boundaries of conventional concert practices. In 2015 she directed and performed a critically-acclaimed multi-disciplinary project (Canzone) for the Melbourne Festival, which integrated performance, visual art, and animated projections to re-imagine music of Claudio Monteverdi through contemporary lens. In 2016, as a Fellow at the Australian National Academy of Music, Sonya directed and presented a fully staged, multi-space performance of all four books of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos in collaboration with Australia’s leading theatre and lighting design artists as well as the students and faculty of the Academy. In 2017, she has premiered a multimedia work for piano and video (Stalin’s Piano) at the National Gallery of Australia, integrating archival footage of iconic creative and political figures, virtuoso piano music and spoken word.
A Fulbright Scholar, Sonya studied under the legendary pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music (John Hopkins University, USA). Currently, Sonya holds a Lecturer in Music Performance position at UNSW and has previously been a Lecturer in Performance (Piano) and pianist in the Ensemble-in-Residence at the ANU School of Music. Sonya is a regular presenter on ABC Classic FM radio.
Robert Davidson (b. 1965) is a prolific composer, bassist, lecturer and founder and artistic director of Topology. He is the Head of Composition and Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland, in the top 50 universities worldwide. Davidson studied composition with Terry Riley in California before completing a composition PhD at the University of Queensland. He previously studied South Indian vocal music in Kerala, India. Davidson’s compositions are regularly performed, recorded and broadcast around the world. All of Australia’s professional orchestras and many leading soloists and ensembles have commissioned and performed his works. With Topology he has released twelve albums and a DVD, and has directed numerous artistic collaborations with such artists as The Brodsky Quartet, Katie Noonan, TaikOz, The Kransky Sisters and Kate Miller Heidke. The ensemble has won numerous awards for excellence in music performance, composition, music education and recording, including APRA Art Music awards, Sydney Opera House, and ARIA awards.