Your Rituals of Heartland will be performed by the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra on Mother’s Day. What was the very first idea you had when planning this work?

To write a piano concerto, which I was not allowed to do… This piece was commissioned by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of the Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program. By the way, I cannot recommend this program enough: it’s fantastic! I wanted to use this project as a learning opportunity (as it is intended). At the same time, being a concert pianist myself, I wanted to use one of the strengths of my compositional practice – well-informed piano writing – as the driving force for the piece and its orchestration. As we were not allowed to write any concertos due to limited rehearsal time, I planned to write a piece with a featured piano part that would sit conveniently under the fingers while sounding genuine, bold, involved and at times virtuosic.

How did your childhood in Ukraine influence this music? What are your most vivid memories of that time?

I started working on the concept for this piece in the beginning of the winter of 2017. Having moved to Australia in 2012, that was my fifth snowless winter and the one when I believe I missed snow more than ever before in my life. My mind kept bringing back my childhood memories of snowy winters in Ukraine, and how toboggans were our vehicle of choice as kids. Parents would put a thick blanket over a toboggan, put the child on top, and that’s how we would get around – pulled by our parents to the shops, kindy, school, library, pharmacy, farmers’ market – surrounded by the winter wonderland. It was magical. Unintentionally, I kept thinking about this Ukrainian winter wonderland image when I was conceiving the ideas for the program of Rituals. I realised early on that I wanted to make Rituals a symphonic poem about snowy medieval Ukraine, and I took it from there.

Catherine LikhutaThe mother-daughter creative team behind Rituals of Heartland. Photo courtesy of Catherine Likhuta

I understand you collaborated on the program for this work with your then four-year-old daughter Skylie – how did that creative process work?

It was a bit magical, actually. As I had all these reminiscences about snowy Ukrainian winters at that time, I was sharing these memories with Skylie, while also gradually introducing her to the very rich Ukrainian culture, literature and folklore. She was intrigued and mesmerised. It was also the time when she started drawing and painting things that one could recognise but which were still somewhat out of this world – the products of vivid imagination not yet affected by public opinion of what’s “pretty” and what’s “ugly”. I thought: “How cool would it be to use this project as a time capsule for Skylie’s innocent creativity and wild imagination only a four-year-old can have?” Familiar with my area of work, Skylie was super keen to jump on board. Together, we created the storyline: a fairy-tale about a young girl from medieval Ukraine, who loses her puppy in an enchanted forest and bravely goes to find and rescue it. Skylie was given a task to contribute some interesting characters to the story, which she drew/painted without any assistance. She came up with the following: baby monster in a cape, a family of enchanted trees, a mermaid queen and her army of enchanted fishies, and finally a naughty witch living on a lake of hot lava. Together we incorporated these characters into the storyline, and then I went off to my composing studio to put this story into music.

How does the music reflect the action of the story?

The story Skylie and I created is quite dynamic. You know, parents do everything in their power to keep a four-year-old engaged! There are lots of twists, surprises and mood and tempo changes in the music as we go through the piece. Being very familiar with the story, I can hear it unfolding in the music bar by bar. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that the music would function well on its own – one would not have to know the story in order to appreciate the music. But, if the listener would hear the story after having listened to the piece, I wanted them to go: “Ah, I can totally see that!” I think I managed to achieve just that. Various elements of orchestration were manipulated to create the magical atmosphere: spacious and colourful use of harp and percussion, creepy slides in the strings, ominous mutes in brass, playfulness of the woodwinds, and getting all the various personalities out of the piano.

What elements of Ukrainian music did you draw on in this work?

One of the symbols of Ukrainian folk music is bandura – a plucked instrument, somewhat similar to harp, but with much shorter strings. I used harp to imitate bandura, which resulted in interesting, somewhat unusual harp writing, which sounded like something so close to my heart. I also used elements from Ukrainian folk dances, such as angular rhythms, syncopations and melodic reliance on perfect fifth and tritone. In the climax, there is a feisty duo of viola and djembe, accompanied by the orchestra, which sounds very similar in its spirit to the angular folk dance music of Western Ukraine (the most nationalistic region of the country). Still seems funny to me how an African drum can sound like Ukrainian music when put into the right context.

What were the creative challenges in putting this work together?

I think the main challenge was that it was supposed to be a chamber orchestra piece, while what I really wanted to do was to write for full symphony. We were strongly encouraged by the MSO librarian to think about the setting like a combination of brass quintet, woodwind quintet and string octet, with the addition of percussion and optional piano. But I’m a bit of a rebel… This was my first opportunity in a long time to write a symphony orchestra piece, and that is what I decided to do.

A few months before the MSO premiere, I had been very fortunate to have a reading session for Rituals with the symphony orchestra of Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. Such reading sessions are great fun and are beneficial to both the composer and the students. We did two runs: one in a chamber orchestra setting and another with the full symphony forces. It was priceless for me to be able to compare the two versions right there on the spot, within a 30-minute window. The students sounded fantastic. I remember forgetting to concentrate on my piece several times throughout the session and just being amazed by the reading skills of these young talents, on a brand-new work they had never heard before. Very impressive. They seemed to enjoy the piece, as well, which is very rewarding for a composer.

The work was written in 2017 and premiered in early 2018 – how has your relationship with it changed since then?

The only thing that has changed is that now there exist two versions: full symphony orchestra and chamber orchestra. Other than that, I feel the same way about this piece: I am proud of it and fascinated by it. I feel like I will always perceive it differently from any other person listening to it, as I see a very detailed cartoon animation in my head when listening to it. Several orchestras showed interest in this piece for their educational concerts, which are meant to introduce children to orchestral music. There is a possibility that animation will be added to it in the future in one way or another, to help young listeners connect the story to the music, not just for this piece but in a broader way. Skylie is immensely proud of the piece; she loves listening to the MSO recording of the world premiere and makes me tell her the story while the music plays.

This upcoming performance by Brisbane Philharmonic will be the world premiere of the full symphony orchestra version. I’m very grateful to BPO for choosing to program my work, and excited to be joining them as the pianist for this performance and to be playing under the baton of maestro Nicholas Cleobury.

What did you learn from the premiere?

I learned that this was the first piece of mine that could be put together and ready for performance in just 40 minutes of rehearsal time. This, frankly, made me proud because we were asked to keep in mind the very limited amount of rehearsal time for this project, and I felt that I succeeded in this regard, without having compromised the complexity of the musical material. Also, I had an opportunity to introduce my piece and have a little chat with the audience from the stage, right before the performance, and I learned that very few people had ever heard any Ukrainian music before. I was not surprised. I plan to keep bringing little snippets of my Ukrainian heritage through my music to Australian (and international) audiences in the future. To me, the most interesting compositional languages are the ones that are authentic, and Ukrainian heritage is part of my own authenticity as a composer.

You’ve also got a world premiere coming up at the International Horn Symposium in Ghent.

Yes, I am very fortunate to have a world premiere and several European premieres at this incredible event. With six of my horn pieces being programmed throughout the Symposium, I feel very grateful that my music is so broadly represented at the event.

I absolutely love writing for horn. It is considered to be one of the most difficult instruments to write for and to play, for many, many reasons. I was fortunate to have collaborated with some of the world’s best horn players over the past decade (Adam Unsworth, Peter Luff, Andrew Pelletier and Denise Tryon, to name a few). I have been absorbing every bit of knowledge about the instrument I could get from these collaborations, and I feel empowered writing for horn. Today, I have well over a dozen pieces featuring horn in my catalogue, and sometimes I get requests from composers for lessons specifically about writing for horn.

What can audiences expect from the new work?

This new three-movement piece is entitled Dreams of a Wombat. It was commissioned by the president of the International Horn Society, Andrew Pelletier. Andrew is a world-renowned soloist, orchestral player, educator and Grammy Award-winning chamber musician. He visited Brisbane several times as a recitalist and educator, working with Peter Luff’s horn studio at QCGU. During his most recent visit, he got to spend some time at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, reading a book next to the wombat enclosure, and was fascinated by the behaviour of this wonderful animal. He contacted me afterwards with the request to write a solo piece for him inspired by that creature and its sleeping habits.

The three movements are: Dream Dancing, Awakening, and Dream Big. Andrew does a lot of opera playing and is a big fan of the genre and its lyrical nature. In the first two movements, I wanted to create opportunities for him to showcase his beautiful lyrical playing. Dream Big is an homage to his career in Hollywood: it’s bold, funky and ambitious.

The Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra performs Catherine Likhuta’s Rituals of Heartland at Old Museum Concert Hall, Bowen Hills, on May 12