Today, I'm having another one of those 'pinch-yourself-to-check-you're-not-dreaming' days. Tonight, Song Company perform alongside the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the Metropolis New Music Festival. We just had our sound check with Robert Spano, long time director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Amongst the town cries of Gibbons and Janequin, we're performing Luciano Berio's extraordinary (and difficult) Cries of London, written in 1975.
In performing this masterwork of the 20th Century, I've been reminded of someone from my past. Just over ten years ago, when I was still at high school, I starting taking piano lessons with a woman in Palmyra. Her name was Mrs Thompson. She had been a promising concert pianist in the U.S (very much knocking on the glass ceiling) before she was hit by a car (the driver ran a red light) crossing the street, suffering major injuries. She survived, but needed extensive rehabilitation, and slowly learnt to walk and regain fine motor skills again. Her back would never truly heal. The pain of standing would be so great that she would be mostly wheelchair bound for the rest of her life. Hopes of a concert career vanished. But, slowly, she learnt to play the piano again, and began teaching. She was an exquisite musician, a great teacher, and had the most amazing hands. I remember her laying her hands over mine and playing 'through' them to show me what pianistic 'touch' really meant.
She has been on my mind because I can point to her being one of the first people to expose me to contemporary classical music. In our lessons we of course played beautiful keyboard music by the likes of Bach, Scarlatti, and Mozart, but we also explored some little known early keyboard music, including the likes of Domenico Zipoli, the 16th Century Italian Jesuit missionary who moved halfway across the world to Argentina before dying very young of a mystery illness. But more importantly we played lots of contemporary music. We played the Bartok Mikrokosmos, serial music by American, Canadian, European, and Japanese composers, and a number of Australian works. After my lessons (which usual included at least half an hour of her time for free) we'd sit in her lounge and she'd play tapes (yes, real cassette tapes) of Copland, Cage, Stockhausen, Berg, Schoenberg etc. over a cup of tea. It was here, at the age of 16 that I first learnt to listen to contemporary music, how to get past 'the noise' and find the music. I will forever be grateful to her for that gift.
Now, some ten years later, my life is full of contemporary music. Last year I premiered two new Australian song cycles at the Sydney Opera House, and premiered seventeen new vocal works with Song Company. Tonight, I perform one of the most famous works of Luciano Berio, and the next day give six world premiere performances of Australian works, specifically written by Melbourne composers for a project in the Melbourne Recital Centre.
I have no idea if Mrs Thompson is still teaching (or still living in Australia) but I am making it my mission this evening to find her phone number and call her. It may be difficult as she was a notorious technophobe (see above re: cassette tapes) but I wonder how she'll react when I tell her that I've just sung / am about to sing Berio with the MSO.
Thank you, Mrs Thompson, and all the other teachers who aren't afraid to show their students that the teaching and performing classical music doesn't have to be limited to the distant past.