Did a career in music seem like an inevitability to you? You come from a remarkably musical family after all.
I do, especially the family on my mum’s side. Mum [Neta Maughan] has been a piano teacher for 50 years, and many of those years were spent at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I spent a lot of time running up and down the halls there as a delinquent toddler, rounding corners and hearing the most amazing ensembles and orchestras and every piano piece you could imagine. I suppose there was an inevitability about it because music accompanied everything I did.
Tamara-Anna Cislowska. Photo © Steven Godbee
Does your mother remain a strong musical influence, and did you have any other important teachers growing up?
She does. She rang me the other day to criticise something I’d played on the radio so there you are, it never stops [laughs]. She’s a woman with incredibly high standards and she assisted Alexander Sverjensky as a very young woman – he’s one of the founding fathers of music in this country. He brought the music of Prokofiev and Rachmaninov to Australia in the 1920s and 30s, so she feels that legacy very strongly and has passed it on through her teaching.
When I was very, very little, we’re talking two and I think even earlier, one of my great mentors was Nancy Salas, the legendary piano teacher. She taught people like Paul Dyer and Kathy Selby and a host of other musicians who’ve gone on to make wonderful careers. My mother and I lived with her for a time and she was fanatical about Bach and Bartók. So she schooled me in the entire Mikrokosmos and much of the Bach Preludes and pieces for children, all before I was three. She used to play through them and sing them to me, so I grew up thinking all music had that kind of counterpoint and polyphonic magic to it. When you’re learning the piano at 10 you might think Bartók is a little strange but when you’re two, it seems just as natural as Mary Had a Little Lamb.
You obviously had this whirlwind, accelerated start to your career. Does it seem that way to you as well?
Yes, it seems unbelievable now. I’m told it’s true and there are photos to prove it, but I actually gave my first public performance at the age of three. Nancy was part of a Bartók symposium at the Sydney Town Hall and she announced that I was going to perform. Roger Woodward was there to help me on to the chair, and then I sat up and played these Bartók pieces and some Schumann, God knows why I was playing him at a Bartók symposium. There’s lots of pictures of me in frills with my feet dangling. I do remember being terribly serious about music and that when the ABC recorded me around that age I was very perplexed by the recording process. “Shouldn’t we go on, why would we repeat these pieces I’ve already played?” I had a little attitude at that age.
Things did progress very quickly but it did all seem quite normal. Like a lot of kids I did singing and acting so performing was just a part of life. Looking back I suppose I do think it was a whirlwind but I wouldn’t swap it because I realise more and more how much I learnt in that time. You can absorb so much music as a child that it’s seldom that I hear things that I’ve not heard or played. It’s like if you studied the whole of Grove’s [Dictionary of Music and Musicians] without knowing it. What more of a gift can you be given?
You’ve got this wonderful working relationship with Elena Kats-Chernin. What accounts for your warm rapport?
I just find her delightful. I remember thinking when I first met her, “isn’t it wonderful that women exist in this world who are full of creativity and at the same time full of sunshine and generosity and gutsiness?” She seems quite gentle at first but you just need to read a tenth of her biography to know that the woman has sweated for her art and life. I have tremendous admiration for her so whenever the opportunity has arisen to work with her, I always jump at it.
You’ve got the world premiere of her Third Piano Concerto coming up. Was it written especially for you?
Yes, it was commissioned and written for me. It actually popped up out of the blue because the commissioner asked for me personally – I’d have loved to suggest the idea but haven’t dared because Elena’s always so busy. But I did have a hand in suggesting to Elena that with this she make some connection to her idol, Bach. A lot of people know how successful she’s been with reinventions, and with this she’s taken Bach and refreshed it in a way that no one would ever expect. Somehow it’s completely her own but you hear his melodies, and she completely overrides any talk of crossover or re-imagining. But she also decided partway through writing it that she also wanted to make some ghoulishly difficult parts for me because she heard me playing the Prokofiev Second and she said, “but my God, you can play a thousand notes at once, I’m just going to write some more!”
Can you talk a little bit more about the inspiration behind it?
It’s called Lebewohl and there’s a focus on JS Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara. The story is that while Bach was away, not only did his wife die without his knowledge but she was buried as well. He returned as the sole parent of several children, and I just thought that was a great starting point, to imagine that incredible grief and how he got through it. I like pairings words with music so I wanted to have some of the beautiful quotes from his correspondence and writing as the starting point for five different movements, and that’s how it’s turned out. There’s one about his grief and one about their love and one about anguish and one about hope and the future. It’s quite ambitious in its scope even though I think it’s only 22 minutes. I only just received my part a few weeks ago, but I’m so excited about how it’s going to sound with orchestra. I have played some with Elena playing on the second piano, and yes, I can report sweat was sweated, tears were shed.
Coming up for you is the Newcastle Music Festival. Is the festival atmosphere something you enjoy?
They can be the most wonderful things. For pianists they’re often somewhat fraught because you find that you’re due in about eight different places at once, but with Newcastle I have the luxury of only performing my own full-length recital, so it’s great. I’ll be performing selections from my latest album [Unsent Love Letters on ABC Classics] and Brahms’ major F Minor Piano Sonata. I’m also playing a lovely transcription of Bach and the Liszt Paraphrase from Faust which strikes fear into the hearts of both the Steinway and the pianist. There’s going to be a lot of pyrotechnics but it’s a work I’ve loved for a long time so I thought it would be nice for it to have an outing again.
You’ve also been a champion of contemporary classical music. Is that a conscious choice?
What, like whoops, I fell asleep and recorded the entire works of Peter Sculthorpe? [Laughs] I grew up learning all the major Australian works and composers, so there was never really a distinction. There’s many elements of Australian music that seem very natural to me, there’s such richness and it goes back further than we think.
Cislowska gives the world premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Third Piano Concerto with the QSO, September 6, and plays it for TSO, November 9. She plays a solo recital at the Newcastle Music Festival, August 11
Correction: In the What’s On section of the August 2018 issue of Limelight Magazine, the prices listed for the Newcastle Music Festival, $100 – $140, were for Festival Passes only. Individual tickets for this concert are $25 for concession tickets, $35 for adult tickets and $80 for families