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FANFARE (USA) - Feature Article - Sep/Oct 2016 Issue
When Love Speaks : Composer and Pianist Grant Foster in Interview
A couple of years ago, 2013 to be precise, I interviewed pianist Mira Yevtich for this magazine (Fanfare 36:4). The disc in question featured the music of Grant Foster—now it is his turn, an event brought about by a new disc of his music on the Melba label (see review below). The opportunity gave us an opportunity to examine not only the music on the disc, but to dig into Foster’s history, to look at the music on the disc in real close-up, and finally to look forward to what’s to look forward to from this composer.
First, I ask about Foster’s early musical life. As a composer, didn’t he finish his first opera at age 15? “Yes I did. It was called Dark Love but never got off the ground. I managed to have it rehearsed in a church hall with some students from the Conservatorium of Music. I did use one of the themes in a later work, my Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra: War; Peace; Love. I recorded this for EMI Records.”
Later Foster studied with Marcel Ciampi in Paris via Alexander Sverjensky at the Sydney Conservatorium. How did these teachers shape his development? “Sverjensky was a good teacher and I graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music after my studies with him. Marcel Ciampi was a master. He insisted on going back to the basics and developing a very strong technique. For the first twelve months I only worked on exercises and then Czerny Studies followed by Bach Preludes and Fugues. I almost went mad but appreciated how it developed my technique. Ciampi was an expert at developing tone control and emphasizing the importance of phrasing and balance. I found him excellent with all styles of music and once my technique was established to his liking we explored a vast amount of repertoire. During my time with Ciampi I had to put the composing on hold as he expected a great deal from his students.”
Certainly in the booklet notes to the present release Foster acknowledges that the great pianists of Vladimir Horowitz and Richter are influences. And he was nearly a concert pianist himself, before injury unfortunately cut that short … “I think Horowitz was a pianist that many students attempted to be like. It was his ease of technique that impressed and of course his octave work. I endeavored to work on the same principles of being relaxed when performing and making it all look easy, this was the Ciampi way, his octave exercises amazing. Richter was a great musician who looked into the soul of the music. He was true to the score and this approach is essential with so much music. I also like touches of originality and this is where I think Horowitz excelled.
“Concerts were being arranged for me throughout France, a program of Bach, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, but several months before I fell down a flight of stairs and damaged my left shoulder. This meant I had to stop practicing for six months. I took this resting period as an opportunity to return to composing.”
In my 2013 interview with Yevtich, which focused on a disc of Foster’s music, she stated that, “Grant Foster for Australia is like the time before Tchaikovsky in Russia” and that there are no influences of Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev in your music. Would you agree with that? “My music is my own. It is very easy to listen to one of my works or part of one and say I am influenced by this composer or that composer. That of course is not the case. I have an individual style that on increased listening becomes recognizable immediately. There is drama to my music as well as lyricism; there is rhythmic intensity and strong form. Melody is a strong point in my music. I need to be inspired by a melody. For me, all of the above elements need to come together to create a successful composition.”
Well, there is certainly a great lyrical quality here: one need only listen to the Romances that open the disc to appreciate that. And to expand on that last point, Foster himself has stated that melody is the “backbone” of his music. Does he feel that’s an element of music that has been lost in much contemporary composition? “Yes, I feel contemporary classical composers seem embarrassed to write a melody and this I don’t understand. Much of the music being composed today is simply academic and could easily be written by mathematicians. Of course, some is very interesting but you don’t really want to hear it again. You may appreciate what the composer has done and think it clever, but it is difficult to be moved by the music. Because of such music our audiences have been lost and orchestras are struggling to stay solvent. Audiences stay away when they know a new work is being premiered. This is sad. Maybe there will be a reversal if classical music once again started to sound like music. I feel composers need to return to melody and explore the emotions, the highs and lows of humanity. These are strong views I hold and of course many will disagree. But if classical music is to stay into the future we need to be moved by the music not annoyed by the cacophonous and experimental sounds that we often hear. It is easy to make noise, not so easy to engage and move the listener.”
And Foster has also re-used music he had previously composed for the Romances? “My first Romance I transcribed from a song, The Silence of Love, words by Oscar Wilde. It is the first song in my song cycle of the same name. My second Romance is from a part of the second movement of my Second Piano Concerto.”
Moving on in the program for the present disc, there is a massive grey weight to the opening of the Piano Sonata, which presumably reflects the quotation that comes with the score; the intensity of the finale is quite remarkable. That quote is: “Without the knowing man’s actions will result in unimaginable suffering and sadness”. This piece is Foster’s response to war, and the melody at the end of the third movement reflects a mother’s prayer. I ask about Foster’s your thoughts on war, and how did he map those on to a musical composition? “I am against all war but of course I can’t imagine a world without war. An awful thought but probably true. The weight of this played heavily on me when I approached the Sonata. I wanted to say something bold and heartfelt about war. I wanted the feelings of anger, passion, sadness and forgiveness to dominate throughout the sonata and I wanted to make a statement that hopefully others could relate to.
“The opening movement is dark, menacing and brooding. It doesn’t let up in intensity and is orchestral in texture and color. There is a pleading quality to the music. With the second movement I wanted to create a rather stark landscape, a feeling of hopelessness; all is lost. There is yearning here and great sadness. Amongst the darkness there is also a sweet song-like melody, an intimate farewell to a world lost; of loved ones lost. This is only fleeting as the over-riding sense of sadness permeates the movement. The third movement is angry and also passionate. It grows into a cascade of notes that lead to a prayer. Here I imagined mothers praying for the loved ones they have lost and also praying for the end of war. It is a heartfelt theme. The final coda of the Sonata says a great deal: fighting and war will continue; no one is listening. It is a big work, both technically and emotionally challenging for the performer.”
It is followed by two shorter pieces, both with dedications: Elegy and Bydlo. The first of these is dedicated to the Australian dancer, choreographer and director Robert Helpmann, with whom Foster collaborated on Peter Pan (which ran in London for seven years). It’s a very tender memorial indeed; is there a musical link as well? “No, the material is all original and on hearing of the death of Robert Helpmann I simply sat down and wrote my own personal tribute to a very talented man who embraced my music.” The second piece is Bydlo, which immediately brings up images of Mussorgsky before one even hears a note of the music. I comment that it is great that the score is available at https://www.dropbox.com/s/o9svhugs3x0hd2g/BYDLO%20-%20Full%20Score.pdf and the image – an aquatint – can be viewed at http://geraldinevanheemstra.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/bydlo.jpg (the image is also replicated in the Melba booklet).
There’s a feeling of relentless movement conveyed in Foster’s music; there’s also a hint of the world of the minimalists there, or is that my imagination? “When I first saw Bydlo at a talk Geraldine was giving in London on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition I immediately transferred the oxen and cart to the Russian Revolution. Here I imagined young lovers hiding under the hay along with an aristocrat escaping from the Red Guards. Feelings of trepidation and fear engulf them. Will they be caught by the guards? They think back to what they left behind, the families, their comforts. As the guards gain on the cart you can hear the wheels rumbling over the uneven road, the oxen trying to go faster. Are they caught or do they escape? That is up to the listener! I didn’t intentionally compose it in a minimalist style but I certainly see that it could be seen as such.”
Another piece that works with loss is the first of the Six Preludes (and is in fact entitled “Loss”)—does this refer to generalized loss or was that with the loss of someone or something in mind? It’s also the longest of the Preludes by far … yet the second Prelude (“Dedicated to Rikki”) seems initially like a prolongation of “Loss” before it blossoms out into new territory. Is that a fair comment? “My first Prelude, ‘Loss’ was composed after hearing of an awful event that took place in Africa. A man and his wife were trying to escape across the desert to another country. They came across a band of men who said they would take them to the border. That night the girl was raped by all the men and her husband through shame killed himself. I could not imagine what this poor girl suffered or if indeed she has survived. How could such an act take place? I tried to represent a very lonely landscape in the music; an emptiness. In the major section there is a touch of hope when the couple think they are being helped but this soon returns to the emptiness and isolation of the vast open spaces, to the emptiness of life for this poor woman.”
I wonder if it is appropriate to ask for details on the names for each Prelude? (I notice the fourth is dedicated to an “angel”, which in itself reminds me of the dedication of the Berg Violin Concerto …):
“Prelude No. 2 is for my dear friend Rikki who lives in London, close to 90 years. He has had a sad life and never achieved what he would have liked to. He is a real romantic and a warm soul.
“Prelude No. 3 is for my dear friend Susan. She is an American author and we met in London and wrote a few songs together. She is someone special who loves the romance of life.
“Prelude No. 4 is for my dearly departed friend Marie. Her final years were spent in Paris. She was an opera singer, teacher and the toast of Paris. She was penniless but still managed to entertain and be the life and soul of a party. She was a marvelous Prima Donna with a heart of gold. Warmth radiated from her, a great beauty and a great loss. I think of her as singing with the angels.
“Prelude 5 is for Felix, the husband of Mira Yevtich. He is a very lovely friend with Middle Eastern heritage. I had a very relaxing vacation with Mira and Felix in Nice where they live.
“Prelude 6 is for Kerri, a special Australian friend who is warm and giving and also nicely eccentric. She certainly loves a glorious drop of wine and I think you can hear this in the music.”
The Preludes, then, seem to exemplify perfectly Foster’s statement that people inspire Foster’s melodic music, from collaborators to romance. This adds a lovely humanitarian slant to his music, enabling it to speak directly to the hearts of others. Finally on the disc, the extended (just shy of a quarter of an hour) Ballade, which sets out the various stages of a love affair, a perfect setting for your poignant mode of expression. Could Foster please expand, for the reader, on how this piece works in terms of setting out a relationship?
“The Ballade is a special work for me. I like to think of it as being warm and nostalgic; passionate and exciting, perhaps as a relationship should be. I certainly reflected on the many elements of such when starting work on my Ballade, with some artistic license along the way! It is an affair that begins gently, with gentle whispers, with suggestions. There is an almost reverent quality to the opening theme, like a hymn. As it expands it leads into two soulful, affectionate melodies. They are sad, a suggestion of loss. These themes build into a passionate statement; at last the fulfillment of desire. There is a period of contentment, of calm, of easy affectionate living before the discovery of something not acceptable, of mistrust, culminating into anger. This is a technically and emotionally difficult work but so rewarding for the performer.”
In the booklet, Foster refers to the “care and attention” of Melba recordings, given the standard of the recording; but also that the piano is, to my ear, superbly prepared. “Melba recordings have been a delight to record for. The producer, Ian Perry, went out of his way to make the process easy and comfortable. His ear for detail is first class and his insistence on good tone and balance for the piano appreciated. I would work with him anytime.”
Foster has garnered a significant amount of critical praise. So obviously I want to know what’s in the pipeline, as I’m sure these recordings so far have been a great success? “I have been very fortunate having received some excellent reviews and I certainly look forward to future recordings. I would very much like to record my Second and Third Piano Concertos and also another piano disc. I would also like to re-record my Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra: “War; Peace; Love”, and “Anastasia”, my piano work from The Pearl of Dubai Suite. Maybe on one recording I would like a Piano Concerto coupled with my First Symphony and my Cello Rhapsody, “Achilles.” I have enjoyed coming back to performing so certainly hope to do more.”
Also, Yevtich referred to the two of you starting up a piano competition under the patronage of Valéry Gergiev, after the two of you worked on the South Highlands International Piano Competition until 2011?. “Unfortunately Mira and I had to retire from the Southern Highlands International Piano Competition after the third competition due to other commitments and it has now closed. Gergiev is now the patron of the Sydney International Piano Competition.”
And in recording and performance terms, what’s next? “I have just finished my Third Piano Concerto and have an opera mapped out. I would love to be travelling the world performing my Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra: “War; Peace; Love.” I think it such an appropriate work for our time and it is always warmly received when I do perform it. I would also like to be performing my other concertos and doing some solo work, however I have no agent or management so it is a matter of waiting patiently and being invited to perform.”