Classic collaboration

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Published: 14th July, 2014

Award-winning pianist Hoang Pham the now internationally acclaimed concert pianist and winner of last year’s ABC Young Performer’s Award, is giving a recital at Melba Hall on July 18. This concert showcases recently composed music by Noel Fidge, a Melbourne based composer. Classic Melbourne asked the two musicians how this collaboration came about, and presents this unique insight into the relationship between composer and performer.

Appropriately, the composer speaks first …

Music lovers, though drawn to Hoang Pham’s dazzling playing, may not be so enthusiastic about a program of new music written by a composer they don’t recognise. And that begs the question: why would a performer risk doing that? It’s not that he lacks the opportunity to play new music; well-known composers continuously make requests of top performers for such opportunities and Hoang often participates in such programs. Perhaps the answer lies in the strength of the music which he finds challenging, surprisingly “lyrical” and easily accessible to people who now distance themselves from much contemporary music whose abstractions eludes them?

The music chosen for this concert is quite diverse and includes premiere performances of 24 Preludes for piano, Capriccios and Romances for violin and piano and Art songs for Soprano and Baritone. Hoang will relish the sonority of these new Preludes which amply demonstrates his skill and virtuosity, while his participation in the vocal and violin works demonstrates his skills as a robust but sympathetic accompanist.

Composing as a young man could be intimidating in the 1970s. From my experience in composition classes at Julliard and thereafter one faced opprobrium at worst, a raised eyebrow at best if one did not adopt the “modern” or experimental postmodern approach to writing music. So one did that to avoid scorn and please panels who awarded grants. (It may please some readers to learn that fashions have changed and a more liberated school of composing has emerged in recent years.)

But now I write what I hear in my mind, regardless of the rules and I’m confident that my mind has sufficiently absorbed a vast experience and evolution of music that enables me to create new challenging sounds that resonate well with me of course and hopefully the listener. The music is not “way out” or excessively experimental but the musicians say the harmonic development is different, challenging and exciting.

As a pianist I wrote the 24 Preludes to please the advanced piano player, some facile, others more technically challenging but with the intention that each one of them sounds compelling to the listener as well as the performer. And of course a prelude to what has potential for development. Similarly, I hope the Capriccios and Romances for the violin are rich in both Romantic and Classical form but beautiful to the ear and challenging to the artist. Of course I can write ugly/tragic if required (such as in several of my orchestral works) but not for this chamber recital.

The Art style song – some people lean towards the lied style – is a much-undervalued genre in my opinion. To my mind it is hard to beat the combination of voice with piano whether in the room of a house or the larger recital hall. The interaction between them is magic, varying between the demure to the bravado, a palpable robust interaction or perceived flirtation between the vocalist and the accompanist. So in my context the word accompanist is misleading because the piano part is equal to the vocal part. In this performance the songs are tuneful and vary between drama and humour. And possibly that sums up all my composing. Enjoy it!

About the composer

A man in his seventies, Noel Fidge resumed composing full time after retirement as a Professor of Biochemistry and a long career in basic medical research which started in the Department of Medicine, Columbia University. But Fidge did have considerable visibility as a composer when a younger man. One of his operas was chosen to open a Composers Conference in Canberra in the mid 1970’s, not long after his return from New York where he studied composition and contemporary music at the Julliard School of music. He was President of The New Music Society in Canberra, wrote much chamber music, some of which was performed on the ABC, and in recent years has had orchestral music performed by the Elder Conservatorium Wind orchestra (Adelaide), the Melbourne Players Orchestra and the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble in Melbourne.
He wrote and directed the musical play A Garden of Money, a new type of theatre that featured Art – or lied style – song in 2012. Fidge says he is “back in business and age has not wearied him!”

About the pianist (pictured)

Featured in Limelight’s “30 Brilliant Musicians Under 30”, Vietnamese-born Australian pianist Hoang Pham is one of our country’s finest concert pianists. He has won top awards in Australia including Best Australian Pianist at the Sydney International Competition, First Prize at the Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition and was the ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year in 2013. Pham’s entrepreneurial work has seen him become a top presenter of fundraising events for charity organisations. He is the founding member and pianist of Trio Bresciani and a former member of the acclaimed Melbourne Piano Trio. Pham is Chief Patron of The Divas of Sunbury, a major sponsor of the Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition and an ambassador for numerous Vietnamese charity organisations in Australia.


The pianist’s perspective …

I met Noel Fidge a few years back when I first encountered his work in A Garden of Money. Noel had asked me to be involved but at the time, I was caught up with far too many concerts on different sides of the globe in order to commit.

Nonetheless, over an hour or so of exchanging musical thoughts at the piano, I got a sense that here was a composer who wrote music from the heart. Noel was softly-spoken but his music was at times passionate, playful, exhilarating, virtuosic and dramatic. I always believe that the very best composers are extreme Romantics in a certain way. And Noel even writes his own poetry to most of his songs and I have attempted to flatter him on numerous occasions by comparing him to Wagner but assuring him still that he is a much nicer guy!

What fascinates me is how can a man who runs his own business and farm have the time to be so creative and to write so much music of decent quality? I really admire this about Noel and that is why I agreed to help present a concert of his music. Opportunities to play new music are not rare for me and I am asked to do it quite often. I turn down more than I accept but I only play music that I love or music that I fall in love with. (By the way, I should mention that the music of Paul Dean and Ian Munro I particular love also).

But music that you fall in love with can occur right away or it takes time. With Noel’s music, it was a bit of both. Noel and I kept in touch after our initial meeting a few years back and I would request to have copies of his music from time to time. As I got to know his music more and more, I started to notice a personal style, a voice in his compositions.
What is that saying, “old wine in new bottles” or “new wine in old bottles”? Well, Noel’s music is slightly different wine to the old one, but still in a lovely old bottle! It reminds me very much of Ravel’s music, not necessarily in sound but in the way it’s constructed. The form is simple but the language just dazzling enough, just bitter-sweet here and there, harmonically ambiguous with a mixture of jazz, French and American sounds, and beautiful melodies all over the place. It is very generous music to perform and study.

I love everything that is on the concert program but I should give particular mention to the 24 Preludes for piano. This is a monumental work in which every prelude has a lifeblood of its own. Noel gives life to every prelude with a musical idea and then surrounds it with his own personal touches. I know it sounds strange but when I play these pieces, I can see some of the similarities between Noel’s work and Chopin’s or Bach’s works. Is there anything wrong with this? Absolutely not, it’s the beauty and magic of composition. I am reminded of my own composition professor when I was studying overseas, who once told me that to be creative, the first step is to copy really well. (His favourite composer was Stravinsky!)

The violin pieces on the program are stunning and could have been written by Kreisler. Shane Chen and I have had such a good time rehearsing the pieces and we look forward to ripping through them at the concert. The songs for soprano Barbara Zavros and baritone Matt Thomas to sing with me at the piano are gorgeous too, from tangos to Schubert-like moments with lingering melodies that go on forever, it is music that has everything. And we have a surprise for the audience, a sort of ensemble moment like that in Donizetti’s Lucia where all the singers (in our case, all the singers, violinist and pianist) come together for one big finish.
Noel has written everything for this concert and I look forward to sharing his music with the audience at Melba Hall.

This is music written from the heart and will be played from the heart.