In his note announcing the 2022 Musica Viva Australia program, Artistic Director Paul Kildea wrote, “Chamber music remains my great love, and in 2022 we are presenting the broadest possible definition of the art form.”
In real terms, that broad definition has yielded seven individual programs including an Antipodean Winterreise, a double serve of the Goldberg Variations and a pan-Mediterranean feast from Avi Avital and Giovanni Sollima. But far from being a useful catch-all for whatever programming flights of fancy might seize him, for Kildea a broad definition of chamber music is essential to safeguarding, and advancing, the artform.
“I feel as though I have a huge responsibility as a curator of an existing repertory that goes back 400 years, 500 years,” Kildea says. “Finding the new and most interesting performers for that repertory – whether they be international, or a combination of international and Australian – is a huge responsibility.”
Kildea’s 2022 program doesn’t have a tagline or all-encompassing marketing slogan, but as we talk through the various programs the themes that emerge are of ideas that reach across cultures, across genres and across borders. It’s a very music festival mindset – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Kildea’s years spent programming for Aldeburgh, Perth and Four Winds festivals. And it isn’t limited to the shows that he programs for Musica Viva, Kildea also sees it as part of his responsibility to export ideas and projects back to the world.
“My line has been from the beginning – and COVID has slightly accelerated it, but not really – is that we should be exporting stuff to the world as well,” he says. “And if we are going to bring in people to create really wonderful projects, we must be able to stand proudly on the international stage, and take that stuff back. And if ideas originate with me, or with the organisation, and we grow them here, well we get to proudly send that to the world.”
One such idea is A Winter’s Journey, a staged performance of Schubert’s Winterreise transplanted to Australia through the artwork of the late Fred Williams, animated by videographer David Bergman, fresh from his triumphs in the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Directed by Lindy Hume and performed by tenor Allan Clayton (who played Hamlet in Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet) with pianist Kate Golla, the production will explore what happens when Schubert’s music, and Wilhelm Müller’s text, is divorced from its bleak German landscape and into a wildly different Australian one.
“I got really interested in the idea of what the landscape means in Australia,” explains Kildea. “In the way that Müller and Schubert defined it in the 19th century, how do we view ourselves in Australia in the 21st, and what possible correlation is there between that work and this country?”
“Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did us all an amazing favour, but also a huge disservice, by claiming it! He just absolutely claimed it for his nation, and his culture, and his interpretation, and his very dour view of what it is. I have a less dour view of the protagonist of Winterreise, I don’t find it the miserable work that it has become known as.”
“The more that I thought about it, I thought… it’s Fred Williams who is the person who defined how Australians view each other. So we found 24 images that either overlap with, to show the mutual identity between the cycle and Fred’s view of Australia, or conflict with it. Either way, the work speaks to the way that we have learnt to see Australia. So it’s not just this very prim, dour, Germanic totem of Romanticism, it actually has a resonance. You should come and see how this does speak to us, but also where it doesn’t, where we are just so different as a culture, and still so developing in Australia in our western art.”
This production is full of personal resonance for Kildea, as well: Kildea cast tenor Allan Clayton in his first mainstage opera – Albert Herring, directed by Lindy Hume, nearly 20 years ago. “Allan and I have done a lot together,” Kildea says. “There’s a lot of history there, and a very long friendship. So he was always going to be part of my planning. And Lindy was free, and Lyn Williams got on board with the project. And I got to know Dave Bergman before he did Picture of Dorian Grey, and just loved his work, so he was the obvious person to animate these images.”
“I remember writing a profile of Allan for Opera magazine once, and I asked Neil Armfield for a quote, and Neil just said, ‘Oh, he has to be one of the best actors I have ever directed.’ And not just singing actors, but actors. So I just thought this is a lovely opportunity to do something unique, Australian and rather beautiful involving some great talent.”
Speaking of great talent, September will see Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital join forces with Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima, in a newly-developed program that explores the rich cultural heritage of the Mediterranean from two very different perspectives.
“We started talking about the idea of the Mediterranean, and what it meant to Giovanni growing up in Sicily, and what it meant to Avi, growing up in Israel,” says Kildea. “And they are both looking at this same patch of the earth, with its different traditions, and different maritime activities, and culture, and food.”
It promises to be a fascinating melting pot of sounds and styles, drawing on traditional Salento, Bulgarian, Turkish, Sephardic and Macedonian works.
“If you are growing up in Sicily, playing Bach suites but at the same time hearing this particular tradition,” says Kildea, “Or if you are in Israel with the Sephardic tradition, you’re not sitting there going, ‘Oh no, I can only play Bach lute transcriptions’. It’s us, it’s people like me that inflict those strict borders on the definition of classical music. And I don’t think we should.”
Audiences will get to hear the breaking down of barriers in real-time in another of the season’s highlights, a double-bill of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. In the first half of the concert, Andrea Lam will perform these works as classical audiences known and love them; in the second half, jazz icon Paul Grabowsky will take Bach’s blueprint and use it as the platform for his own improvisations. Kildea is especially excited to bring the jazz crowd together with the classical audience, and to demonstrate just how much crossover there really is between the two.
“People who say that they are not really into jazz – which I used to,” admits Kildea, “it’s usually because we are focussed for most of our lives in a very narrow trough, which is the beautiful art music with which we grew up and specialised in, and haven’t had space for a completely different discipline. So I want them to have that experience of a master virtuoso improviser taking that beautiful aria and turning it into something equally startling as the Bach original.”
As someone who dearly loves both disciplines, this is music to my ears. So much of jazz – particularly in keyboard music – is fundamentally so similar to so much solo piano music. What are the Goldberg Variations if not improvising on a theme, which is the core of jazz?
“Oh yes, it is,” agrees Kildea. “I love Chopin’s music, and have spent the last few years with Chopin, and looking at him as an improviser, and Bach as the most astonishing improviser that probably ever lived. So yes, to be able to show how close these two disciplines are, and how exact they are, even if their harmonic language necessarily diverges because of what happened in the 20th century in jazz – it is still an amazing opportunity to test that.”
Also probing the boundaries between classical and jazz are the Signum Saxophone Quartet, who embark upon their debut Australian tour in November, alongside violinist Kristian Winther. They will be performing a range of works spanning Bach to Gershwin, but the centrepiece of the program is a new arrangement of Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto, arranged for saxophone quartet and violin by arranger/composer extraordinaire Jessica Wells.
One gets the sense that Kildea is pretty excited about this program – I don’t think I even finished saying the group’s name before he was waxing lyrical about them.
“They are really something,” Kildea enthuses. “They are just charisma on sticks, and just amazing musicians – and now recording for Deutsche Grammophon, and really taking off. So I am really pleased we have got them.”
“I have really had a thing about the Kurt Weill Violin Concerto for ages. I have always loved it, and because it is a woodwind sonority, the orchestra part is so woodwindy, I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s going to transfer to saxophone quartet so well’. So I asked them if they would take on this commissioned arrangement of it, and they agreed.”
“That is where the definition of chamber music does get really stretched – because it is a concerto, which would normally be done with a conductor. But if you are taking the sonority over to a saxophone quartet and a really stunning soloist, then you don’t need a conductor, you will play it as chamber music. And it is a chamber music version of what is normally a big orchestral concerto.”
For perfectly understandable reasons, the first half of the year is devoted to local musicians, in the hope that state borders will be easier to navigate than international ones (although, honestly, who can predict even that?).
The season begins in February with Karin Schaupp & Flinders Quartet, who will perform works for guitar and string quartet by Imogen Holst, Andrew Charlton and – of course – Boccherini’s Fandango, as well as a newly commissioned work by former Musica Viva Artistic Director Carl Vine. When designing this program Schaupp mentioned to Kildea that she had been trying to get Vine to write a piece for her for 20 years without success, but with some extra persuading from Kildea the stars have aligned for it to happen now.
“It was just one of those very happy series of events that has ended up in a new work,” says Kildea. “And I wanted to do it as a gesture from one artistic director to a former artistic director, as well as it being a lovely opportunity to get a lovely piece by Carl. I like to be able to tip the cap to my predecessor, that seems only appropriate.”
Another of the newly-commissioned works in the 2022 season is a new work by Matt Laing, Musica Viva’s FutureMaker for 2022-23. Laing will write a piece for the Z.E.N. Trio, a group of star individual performers who are equally passionate about chamber music.
“They are the most beautiful, generous, self-effacing people,” says Kildea. “Gorgeous soloists in their own right, and now each of them are getting a pretty interesting solo career, but they carve out time to get together to play chamber music because they just love it, and it really does give them this opportunity to give of themselves and make everyone equal.”
Z.E.N. will perform Laing’s work as well as the only piano trio by Armenian composer and pianist Arno Babajanian, plus either Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ or Brahms’ Romantic trio, depending on the city.
“That’s for people that think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see jazz'”, says Kildea. “There is such amazing standard rep for piano trio, but I am so excited about the Matt Laing [work]. I think he is such an original and interesting compositional voice. We did the match-making between him and Z.E.N., and sent Z.E.N. all these scores, and sent Matt recordings of Z.E.N., and then they both said yes. And those are really joyous conversations to be able to have, as it was with Matt, because mostly we have been having disappointing conversations [of late].”
The final tour to mention is the one that perhaps represents this 2022 season the best. In April and May, Van Diemen’s Band and violinist Julia Fredersdorff will present a program of works traversing the borderlands of Europe, diving headlong into that swirling, cross-cultural milieu mentioned earlier. Like the Avital and Sollima program, these pieces show the unique works and traditions created by the constant tension between two different traditions living cheek by jowl.
“We are looking at that very idea of what borderlines mean,” Kildea says, “And what that means for art music over a couple of centuries. But still it is that idea that if you are living and working in a border town as a musician, the influences are going both ways, and you are not simply saying, ‘Today I am going to write in the style that I grew up with,’ you are going to be completely influenced.”
“It is right in Julia’s wheelhouse. And talking to her on this program was a joy, because of where her mind is – a seemingly never-ending resource that powers that astonishing musician.”
Kildea is obviously enthusiastic about the 2022 season, but more than anything I get the sense that he is excited to see the reaction of Musica Viva’s audiences to these genre-bending programs.
“I think we do underestimate audiences, and I am not interested in that,” he says. “I’m just not.”
“I have been looking at some of the seasons unfolding slowly now for next year, and just going, ‘Ah, you’ve gone the cautious route – “please come back to the concert hall”. Or you have gone the more audacious route.’ I have gone for a mix. I want people talking about works – it makes me happy when someone says, ‘I really didn’t like that for these reasons’, as much as when somebody says, ‘I loved that for these reasons’.”
“I find our audiences – the closest I have encountered in the UK is with the Aldeburgh Festival audience. And that is an audience that goes, ‘You know what? I am interested in adventure, I am interested in being taken by the hand, I am interested in taking risks’. So that interests me, that festival mindset is really attractive for everyone. It’s far more attractive for musicians, it is far more attractive for the way audiences receive and respond to performance. They are just in a different mindset, and that is what I love about this organisation.”
Read more about the 2022 Musica Viva Australia program on their website.