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Richard Bonyge says "I love his music.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016 - 11:03am

Grant Foster has a rare ability to compose melodic and imaginative works demonstrating a high level of sophistication.”



Having just turned 71, Grant Foster may well be on the verge of being discovered. And not for the first time. In a career that began long before he was into his teens, the Sydney-born composer-pianist has had several brushes with fame at home and abroad. And yet a large and enduring audience has stubbornly eluded him. 

But with the release of When Love Speaks, his debut recording for Melba Recordings, all that looks set to change and Foster – who may well be Australia’s best-kept musical secret – is about to be discovered again.   

The new disc combines his two talents as composer and pianist and sees him performing six of his more recent compositions for solo piano together with the Elegy paying tribute to Robert Helpmann, which dates from 1986. Arguably, When Love Speaks takes Foster back to his beginning when he showed a prodigious talent at the keyboard and a precocious gift for composing.

Aged eight, he set his mind on becoming a concert pianist. “The technical giant Horowitz and, from a musical point of view, Richter” were early influences, he recalls. His early studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music were with Alexander Sverjensky (whose other notable pupils included Roger Woodward, Richard Farrell and the former Master of the Queen’s Music, Malcolm Williamson).

In 1966, on a recommendation from Yehudi Menuhin, he went to Paris to begin seven years of study with Marcel Ciampi, after which Foster seemed to be on the verge of fame for the first time. So enamoured of his pupil was Ciampi that he planned a recital tour of France for him in early 1971, only for it to fall through when Foster himself fell and injured an arm. “It was New Year’s Eve,” he remembers with a laugh, “and I’d maybe had a few too many drinks.”

But the accident proved, he says with hindsight, “to be a turning point. Not being able to perform meant that I could get back into composing. I thought it was something that was meant to happen.”

Composing had been a feature of Foster’s musical life from the age of 14 when he wrote the first movement (“it was ghastly”) of an intended symphony. Two years later, he produced Dark Love, his first opera re-telling the Romeo and Juliet fable.

Picking up his pen again during his convalescence, he wrote Children of the Sun, a musical with operatic overtones prompted by the student riots he had witnessed in Paris in 1968. Although never performed, it brought him to the attention of Australian theatre legend Robert Helpmann.

Helpmann duly commissioned Foster to write a score for his 1971 production of Peter Pan at the London Coliseum starring Dorothy Tutin in the title role. So successful was it, that it was revived for seven consecutive years.

 “Dealing with theatre people was wonderful. They were warm and interesting and it was a delight working with Robert Helpmann. But I knew instinctively that it wasn’t the area I really wanted to go into.” 

Returning to Sydney, he recorded his Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra: War; Peace; Love for EMI, which brought him to the attention of the prestigious London store Harrods, for whom he made four recordings playing repertoire cornerstones and his own compositions in the early 1990s. If Foster seemed on the verge of being discovered for the second time, it didn’t happen.

Until interest in his music was sparked again by the championing of the Russian pianist Mira Yevtich in the middle of the last decade, the intervening period was marked by silence.

“I suppose I was my own worst enemy,” Foster candidly confesses. “I had no manager and no agent. I just went from one thing to the other, mixing with interesting people and not doing things in a disciplined enough way that could have made things happen.”

While continuing to compose “the occasional work”, Foster turned his energies towards teaching (he is an examiner with the Australian Music Examinations Board) and other interests, including novel writing – eight in all, six of them for children. In 2007, he launched the bi-annual Southern Highlands International Piano Competition in Bowral, New South Wales, where he now lives.

Recordings of his music on small independent labels in recent years have helped bring Foster back into the limelight, prompting an enamoured Gramophone magazine to declare of one: “This is amazing! Where has Grant Foster been all these years?”

The imminent release of When Love Speaks on Melba Recordings provides an eloquent answer to that query with six new pieces (all but one composed between 2009-2015) that show Foster has never gone away, continuing to write in a style, brimming with melody, that is distinctively his own.

“I could have changed my style a long time ago but I didn’t because I’m a firm believer in harmonic structure, in good form and in melody. I’m not trying to challenge the system in any way; if anything, it’s the other way around.”

If the surface of Foster’s music appears traditional at first glance – a facet accented by the titles of works on the new disc: ‘Ballade’, ‘Romance’, ‘Sonata’, ‘Prelude’, Elegy – on closer inspection it forges its own richly evoked path.

“If you look at the Piano Sonata, there are definite first and second subjects but a very tiny development section and not a complete recapitulation, yet it does work. The second movement isn’t in strict sonata form and the third has a very lush melody towards the end that has nothing to do with what’s come before.”

Whatever the alterations, variations and innovations, Foster is guided by one principle: “A piece of music must make musical sense, and that all comes down to form and how you shape it”.

All of the music on When Love Speaks carries the imprint of a uniquely personal signature that seems simultaneously fragile and intense, with the urge to compose prompted by both direct and indirect experience.

Evidence of the former can be heard in the affectionate portraits of close friends that make up the intimately characterised six Preludes, and in the Elegy, a moving memorial tribute to his compatriot and one-time colleague, Robert Helpmann.

At one step removed, Foster communicates with just as much moving immediacy. As in the wistful Romance in C-sharp minor – the starting point for which was Oscar Wilde’s poem The Silence of Love (previously set by Foster as a song): “A very touching piece about his search for a love that he could never find” – and, not least, in the heartfelt Piano Sonata, a compassionate cri de cœur against the dreadful human cost of war.

And even at further distance – the tumbling menace of Bydlo takes its inspiration from a painting by the Dutch artist Geraldine van Heemstra who was herself prompted by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – Foster brings to bear a cultivated response that combines head and heart with enormous subtlety and finely etched craftsmanship.

Perhaps the most distinctive work on When Love Speaks is the tremulous Ballade, a lyrical paean to the all-consuming contrariness of love dedicated to Terry Lewis (the instigator of the Harrods and EMI recordings) that Foster confesses “is my favourite work” on the album.

“It’s a big work with some very lyrical tunes interspersed with tortuous moments,” he says of a piece that originally began life in a two-piano version and which he succinctly sums up as depicting “whispers, passion, anger”.

The other draw of this new Melba Recordings release is Foster the pianist and the opportunity to hear the promise that Menuhin and Ciampi glimpsed half a lifetime ago. Even if taking his seat at the keyboard again posed its own challenges.

“I had to get back to some hard practise. They’re not easy pieces and there were times rehearsing when the pianist swore at the composer for making the music so demanding. It took me a while to get the fingers working again.”

Happily, they seem to be in perfect order and the experience of working with Melba Recordings provided its own boost to the composer-pianist: “I was thrilled by them. Everything in the recording studio went so well and the sound quality is excellent. It’s a good place to be at my age”.

Although now into his eighth decade, Grant Foster shows no signs of slowing down. “Touch wood,” he says, “the health seems good and I have plenty of energy, determination and spirit. And plenty of ideas.”

Perhaps, at last, it will be third time lucky for a composer of immediately accessible, melody-rich music deserving of a much wider audience. If anything can deliver that to him, surely it will be When Love Speaks.

Grant Foster