Zubin Kanga on performing Elliott Gyger’s tribute to Nigel Butterley​

In my work as a pianist, there are few musical experiences more exhilarating and artistically fulfilling than collaborating with a composer at the peak of their powers. It’s a particularly rare honour to have a piano concerto written specifically for you to play, so it’s very exciting that one of my favourite Australian composers, Elliott Gyger, has done just that with his new piano concerto, From Joyous Leaves.

This concerto is the culmination of a collaboration that we have fostered over ten years. I first met Elliott in 2006 when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney. Visiting from Harvard, where he was then based, Elliott delivered a detailed lecture on some of his recent music (which included his concerto for cello and ensemble, Polishing Firewood) and I was struck by the visceral energy and intellectual rigour of the music, and of the wildly virtuosic writing for every musician in the ensemble that looked impossible on paper, but worked perfectly on every instrument, with a deep ergonomic understanding of the physical limits of performance. Although undoubtedly complex, it also sounded fresh and unique, with a direct immediacy and a delight in melody and beautiful harmonies that drew the listener in. From that day, I was a fan of his work, and since then his stature has rapidly grown so that he is now rightly regarded as one of the leading composers in Australia.

Soon after he moved back to Melbourne in 2010, I commissioned Elliott to write a solo work for me. The result, …out of obscurity (2011) is one of the most innovative, and challenging, works I’ve ever played. It took the form of a Bach-like two-part invention that gradually dissolves, but combined this structure with a smorgasbord of unconventional sounds – plucking the strings, strumming them like a harp and playing ‘prepared notes in the bass’ (with blu-tac attached to the strings to create bell-like harmonics). …out of obscurity went on to be nominated for Best Instrumental Work at the 2012 Art Music Awards and the CD on which it was featured, Piano Inside Out (Move Records) was nominated for Best Classical Album at the 2015 Independent Music Awards.

Last year, Timothy Phillips, the Artistic Director of the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble in Melbourne, got in touch to discuss plans for an 80th Birthday Concert for Nigel Butterley, that would include a new piano concerto. Butterley is one of the last surviving members of the first generation of uniquely Australian composers (alongside the late Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Meale) and the concert would feature several of his major works, including the large-scale orchestral work From Sorrowing Earth (not performed since the premiere in 1991). Tim discussed the project with Nigel, who felt unable to contribute a new work due to his frail health, but he instead recommended one of his former star students, Elliott Gyger, to write the new concerto. By this time, Elliott was already on my wish list for a piano concerto and with the generous support of the Australia Council for the Arts, he embarked on the composition of From Joyous Leaves.

From Joyous Leaves is an intimate tribute to Nigel Butterley, deriving all its musical materials from his classic solo piano work, Uttering Joyous Leaves, which was commissioned for the 1981 Sydney International Piano Competition. Nigel’s work is a virtuoso showpiece, but also an incredible flight of the imagination, full of many juxtaposed moods, textures and pianistic techniques that take their inspiration from a passage by Walt Whitman about his kinship with nature and the imagined inner life of an oak tree. It is a major work compressed into a 5-minute miniature.

In Gyger’s almost half-hour-long concerto, he sometimes quotes Uttering Joyous Leaves literally, but at other times stretches it out to sit in the background as a scaffolding to Gyger’s distinctive crystalline harmonies and sparkling colours. In a tribute to Butterley’s importance as a pioneering pianist, which included performing the Australian Premiere of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, Gyger ‘prepares’ many of the notes that are not found in Uttering Joyous Leaves, using paperclips, binder-clips, paper, pencils and clothing pegs on the strings. Elliott here built upon our previous collaborations using preparations and extended techniques, honing these sounds with me as I tested them across multiple pianos. The result is an otherworldly percussion section within the piano, like tiny gongs, drums, woodblocks and harps, that gradually becomes more and more prominent as the concerto progresses, melding with the celeste, percussion and woodwinds in the orchestra to create strange new colours. All these diverse elements combine to form a major new Australian concerto that creates a dialogue between the styles of Butterley and Gyger. It expands and magnifies the wit, exuberance, joy and virtuosic pianism of Butterley’s piano miniature but also contains typically Gyger-esque moments of effervescent fantasy, mysterious introspection, and luminescent beauty. From Joyous Leaves is a heartfelt homage by one of Australia’s great composers of today, to one of Australian music’s founding fathers.

Zubin Kanga will be performing From Joyous Leaves, concerto for piano and chamber orchestra by Elliot Gyger, and Uttering Joyous Leaves for solo piano by Nigel Butterley at “From Sorrowing Earth”, the 80th Birthday Concert for Nigel Butterley by Arcko Symphonic Ensemble.

Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Melbourne
Saturday 31st October, 7:30pm, Free Entry