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Michael Kieran Harvey talks Australian music

Features - Classical Music

Michael Kieran Harvey talks Australian music

by Michael Kieran Harvey on July 17, 2013 (July 17, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
Australian pianist Michael Kieran Harvey on tackling the music of neglected genius Raymond Hanson and fighting cultural cringe.

In my view, Raymond Hanson has the distinction of being Australia's greatest neglected composer. Completely disinterested in fame and self-promotion, Hanson wrote over 100 opuses, but those of you reading this would probably be hard-pressed to name any. Because, statistically, you are most likely well-heeled and Eurocentric, and probably only really interested in a band of music written by dead white men from about 1700 to 1900.

I will be doing my best to alleviate this neglectful situation on July 19 in a recital at Eveleigh Carriageworks in Sydney where I will perform Hanson's piano sonata opus 12, along with the premiere of Elliott Gyger’s Inferno and my own Psychosonata. Come along if you dare – I might have the heating on, you never know, just to enhance the sulphurous atmosphere.

The Hanson sonata is a masterpiece of mid-20th century Australian composition, but is rarely heard live because it's extremely difficult to play. It's also not part of the repertoire of most Australian pianists as many of them, in my view, seem to inexplicably desregard the quality of Australian composition in favour of foreign fare. This also seems to be true of Australian audiences.

Hanson sketched the sonata in 1938 but didn't complete it until 1963. It was ignored until the 1970s, when it received fierce advocacy by pianist and teacher Igor Hmelnitsky at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It was then only printed in 1976, with the score delivered to Hanson on the day he died. 

The struggle Hanson faced throughout his life in finding an audience for his music is typical of the difficulties many Australian composers face in the light of our country's regrettable and ongoing cultural cringe. The neglect of such a towering genius such as Hansen is a deeply embarrassing symptom of this.

Hanson taught at the Sydney Conservatorium from 1948 up until his death in 1976, with his students including Nigel Butterley, Richard Meale, Barry Conyngham, and leading jazz musicians such as Don Burrows. He was deeply committed to workers' rights, and strove to set up the Sydney Civic Symphony Orchestra – an ensemble to give concerts at cheap prices to Sydney’s working class. The proposal was in reaction to the price of tickets to see orchestras like the Sydney Symphony and the accompanying bourgeois snobbishness of their concert audiences. Hanson would also give free recitals for the workers at the Eveleigh train works, now Carriageworks, in exactly the spot where I will be performing on July 19.

I will also be performing the formidable and uncompromising masterpiece Inferno by Australian Elliott Gyger. It is a massive piece that explores the nine circles of Dante's Hell. 

In amongst these two works is my own Psychosonata, which was commissioned by the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists for their 2012 conference in Hobart. I wrote it in homage to one of the greatest living psychiatrists and director of the conference, Dr Saxby Pridmore.

Michael Kieran Harvey will perform his program of contemporary Australian music at Eveleigh Carriageworks, July 19