At this year’s Sydney Festival, pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska will join five other pianists – Bernadette Harvey, Elena Kats-Chernin, Stephanie McCallum, Natalia Ricci and Sonya Lifschitz – in a concert curated by Sydney International Piano Competition’s Artistic Director Piers Lane that will see the six pianists perform duos, trios, quartets and a sextet on six grand pianos in the Sydney Town Hall. Cislowska tells us about the challenges and pleasures of multi-piano ensembles and reveals some of the music in store.

12 Hands 6 Grands12 Hands 6 Grands. Photo courtesy of Sydney Festival

For you personally, what is most exciting about the 12 Hands 6 Grands concert?

Six grand pianos together is an exciting event in itself! I’ve directed a number of such concerts before with up to eight pianos on stage at one time. The thrill is in the fullness of the sound and the terrific opportunity for doubling, tripling individual lines, bringing out the contrapuntal nature of the music to its maximum. It’s a remarkably satisfying sound – rich, detailed and bright. Very intoxicating indeed!

You’ve performed four hands duets with Elena Kats-Chernin, of course, but have you performed much in ensembles or duets with the other pianists in the group?

The first pianist I worked with in the group was Stephanie McCallum – we performed Brahms and Schubert at a Mostly Mozart festival at the Sydney Opera House, then later Boulez’s Structures and a number of other works and concerts. A terrific experience and Stephenie will bring her passionate musicianship, strength and honesty to the ensemble. Elena, Stephanie and I have done this before – we performed for the Sydney Spring Festival several times on two pianos, three, four, and five with works by Feldman, Andrew Ford and Elena herself. We’re dab hands at the world of multi! I’m looking forward to playing with all the pianists, in fact, Bernadette Harvey was my childhood idol so I’m especially pumped up to see her on stage. I’ll probably have flashbacks to watching her win the ABC Young Performers Award, as I was there!

How did the unusual instrumentation influence the repertoire in this concert?

Piers Lane has constructed a very interesting mix of the court, the drawing room and the dance floor! Bach and Grainger are perfect for the medium, Kats-Chernin sounds good on anything, and Robert Keane’s Suite adds a very celebratory flourish to the later part of the concert. Bach in particular comes completely alive under 12 hands.

Tamara-Anna Cislowska. Photo courtesy of Sydney Festival

What do you imagine the challenges of performing on six grand pianos will be in that space?

If you think about the logistics of setting up six pianos, you soon realise that vision and sound could very easily be impaired! The pianos need to be in a circular shape which is very convivial to good communication and allows eye contact with all the players. We may swap pianos at some stage, we haven’t decided, but that would be exciting for the audience.

The program opens with Bach – what is it about his music that lends itself to this line up?

Bach prevails over all. If you attempted a Toccata with spoons and some dental floss you could still make an impression. His music is 100 percent bang-on for an ensemble of pianos, the depths of it – many different voices spotlit and carved out by different personalities, the myriad of moods and ideas. I’m particularly excited about the four keyboard Concerto that we’ll play – it’s actually a transcription from Vivaldi and retains a lot of his vibrance and originality in the transcription.

You’ve performed Elena Kats-Chernin’s Third Piano Concerto with orchestra on a number of occasions, what’s special about hearing this movement in a version for two pianos?

It’s important to say first that this Concerto is a tribute to Bach’s first wife Maria Barbara. Lebewohl is a very special piece, meant to pierce the protective wall of Bach’s mindset at his emotional nadir, when his first wife Maria Barbara died very suddenly. The concerto surveys his reaction from bewilderment to regret to acceptance. The movement we will focus on is where Bach looks back at the moments that brought them together – it’s a hypnotic catharsis.

What can we expect from the world premiere on the program, Robert Keane’s Suite for Two Pianos?

In Robert Keane’s Suite there are three separate movements, each focusing on a different character. Piers Lane has divided us into groups of two for this. I’ve been working on my movement which is guaranteed to have the toes tapping, I’m waiting to hear the other two, I’ll be as surprised as anyone.

Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba has gone through several iterations – what do you think the sound of six pianos will bring to the work?

A six piano orchestra brings a wonderful amplification to this work. The cross-rhythms in particular will never be more finely etched than with all those extra hands. It’s one of the most famous Australian pieces ever penned. Even violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter plays it and loves it!

12 Hands 6 Grands is at the Sydney Town Hall on 19 January as part of Sydney Festival


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