Anna Goldsworthy’s autobiographical stage work is so simple and appealing that you would think the basic idea must surely have been used many times. It is hard to think of one, certainly in Melbourne. An acclaimed performance of Helen Noonan’s Souvenir saw a wonderfully urbane Stephen McIntyre as Florence Foster Jenkins’ accompanist acting both as a narrator and pianist. There have been a couple of exceptionally fine performances of Master Class, a portrait of Maria Callas. But Piano Lessons is something else again and considerably more personal. Perhaps nobody has experienced Goldsworthy’s musical trajectory coupled with the multi talents needed to present it in quite the way she has.
Above all, what Piano Lessons offers is the ring of emotional truth. Although Goldsworthy can be amusingly self-deprecating, she has the literary and musical skill to convey a passion for music that developed over the years she was with her much loved and admired teacher, Eleonora Sivan. Of course, the success story is an alluring one. Everybody loves the happy transformations of Cinderella and The Ugly Duckling, but Goldsworthy’s story is much more complex than that. Her success is founded on talent, intelligence, an astonishing capacity for hard work and devotion to the pursuit of her art.
Using a platform at one end of the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon with a couple of drapes at the back, the grand piano took centre stage. A large armchair performed various functions on one side, while on the other the imagined figure of her father, Peter, took assiduous notes that he would use as a basis for his own popular work Maestro. In this simple but functional setting and aided by effective lighting Goldsworthy took us on her journey.
As Eleanora Sivan a rather youthful-looking Helen Howard gave a convincing performance. Her accented voice was well projected and colourfully characterised while never hinting of caricature. Howard also provided a variety of off-stage voices, including members of Anna’s family as they commented on her progress and others’ lack of judgment.
Seventeen piano pieces, or fragments of them, interspersed the narrative as Goldsworthy developed from a naïve, rather clueless child to a mature artist. Many of the piano pieces were interspersed with cries of “Stop! Not!” as the long-suffering teacher tried to explain the essence of a piece of music and its composer. Conversely, the pleasure of the reward of “Exactly!” was palpable. Any reader of Goldsworthy’s book would have been delighted to hear that some of the choicest words of Sivan wisdom have been included.
The play began and ended with that quintessential pianist composer, Chopin. In between were most of the usual suspects: Mozart, Bach, Debussy, Schubert, Beethoven and, naturally, Liszt – the composer who is the beginning of a direct line to Goldsworthy via Sivan and others. Khachaturian (“Not Russian, Armenian!”) too was given his due as Goldsworthy prepared his piano concerto for the ABC Young Performer Award. The use of a recorded orchestral accompaniment for the performance of this musical selection was tremendously effective; you could feel the nervous anticipation as Goldsworthy sat at the piano during the orchestral introduction. A memory lapse in rehearsal, being trumped by a young prodigy, but playing well enough to please her mercilessly exacting teacher were all put into pragmatic perspective with healthy priorities.
This is as much a play about growing up as about music, perhaps more so. There are insights into what it takes to become a mature adult as well as an artist. Even the perils of how to write a Christmas card that goes beyond banal formula are addressed in a way that encapsulates what it is to have a generous, grateful heart that informs musical imagination and the recreation of a composer’s intentions. The notion that hands can feel into the life of the music endlessly was a striking feature of this exploration.
Piano Lessons is an absorbing and inspiring book that has made a highly successful transition into a performance work. Just as her father drew upon her experiences for a novel that thousands of secondary schools have studied with greater enthusiasm than is afforded many set texts, Anna Goldsworthy has devised a play that is certain to have enormous appeal. It is a work that deserves an international stage, as it will resonate with anybody who loves music or has an appreciation of what it takes to become a mature artist. Nobody could tell this story more eloquently or joyously than Anna Goldsworthy.
Heather Leviston saw a performance of Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons at the Melbourne Recital Centre on June 18.