Current Issue #488

Sonya Lifschitz plays Stalin's Piano

Sonya Lifschitz plays Stalin's Piano

A pianist with an earpiece, backed by large-screen projections and clips of artists, dissidents and world leaders, their words and phrases accented by keystrokes with to-the-syllable precision — Stalin’s Piano promises to be anything but a conventional classical recital.

Centred on the story of Stalin and Russian pianist Maria Yudina, and with a wide supporting cast from Goebbels to Brecht, Ai Wei Wei to Trump and even our own Whitlam and Gillard, the work by Australian composer Robert Davidson threads together history, politics and art — and the cycles thereof — in a technically demanding piece conceived for virtuoso pianist Sonya Lifschitz.

Ukraine-born Lifschitz has achieved international recognition since debuting with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at age 18 with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. In addition to her critically acclaimed concerts, Lifschitz is a Fulbright Scholar who studied under pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and also holds a PhD in performance.

Stalin’s Piano began development when Lifschitz stepped in as pianist for Topology, Davidson’s quintet, when they were on a tour of northern Queensland with the Kransky Sisters.

“Rob [Davidson] and I had quite a bit of time, you know just driving endlessly past all this sugarcane,” Lifschitz says. “We really started brainstorming, just making kind of brain maps and thinking about who we could include. We wanted a lot of different artists who represent different art forms, different disciplines, [we also] wanted the politicians.”

It was during these early discussions that the story of Stalin and Yudina presented as an anchor for the work. Lifschitz says she grew up being hugely inspired by the pianist.

“She was kind of a seminal figure during the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, one of the greatest pianists in Russian history — completely defiant, completely unique, huge personality,” Lifschitz says. “She was very controversial in the sense that she really defied the regime. She openly practiced religion, she wore her cross, you know in a completely atheist country where practicing religion was banned.

“She read the poetry… [of]… people that you couldn’t even mention their names at the time, she recited their poetry in concerts. She played all the Western contemporary music, which again was forbidden and banned, that was all seen as basically anti-Communist sort of propaganda and formalism.”

Lifschitz, who has first-hand experience of life under a dictatorship, notes that Yudina’s behaviour at the time would likely have gotten anybody else executed, possibly along with their entire family.

“So many people just perished, you know, killed, murdered, sent to gulags. I mean it was just horrific what was happening,” Lifschitz says. “She came out of it practically unscathed, spoke out openly against the regime, spoke out openly against Stalin… I suggested to Rob, ‘What do you think if we use her sort of as a central figure and everything else kind of flows out of that?’”

A contested story goes that Stalin heard Yudina’s live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 on the radio, and asked for a copy. As none existed, an orchestra was hastily assembled, Yudina was awoken and summoned, and overnight a recording was made and a copy was pressed and delivered to Stalin. It’s also said that Yudina’s recording of the Mozart concerto was playing on a record player near Stalin’s death bed, years later.

Veracity aside, the story underscores the power interplays of politics and art, which Lifschitz describes as a key theme of Davidson’s composition.

“The theme that started emerging very clearly was that fraught relationship between art and politics on the one hand, on the other hand again that sense of conflict between the individual and the state,” Lifschitz says. “The way that art can defy oppression, and also in terms of just how many overlaps there are between art and politics, or artists and politicians.

“The boundaries sometimes tend to blur, you know where politicians see themselves as kind of architects of public life and want to get involved in innovation and creativity, and vice versa, the way artists want to also shape public life and policy, and kind of also dictate the way societies operate.”

In Stalin’s Piano, the notes of the instrument often pair, in precise staccato, with the syllables of the recorded speech, not just rhythmically but also in nuance, inflection and lilt.

Lifschitz performs the work wearing an earphone with a click track, like an in-ear metronome which provides timing cues. Absolute accuracy is essential, and Lifschitz says that even when the work veers into salsa and Cuban jazz, any sense of improvisation is in fact timed to the millisecond, and while the salsa beat sounds free and spontaneous it is perhaps the hardest of all.

Robert Davidson’s composition of Julia Gillard’s ‘Misogyny Speech’ also features in Stalin’s Piano

In rehearsing the work, Lifschitz says she spent many hours practising first with only a metronome, and then with only the recorded speech. She describes the marriage of freedom and the metronome as the biggest challenge of the work.

As well as difficult timings, Lifschitz says the work has required development of intimate familiarity with both the recordings and the speakers themselves, and involved research to grasp the psychology of the words, the character of the speakers, and what they were trying to say.

“I have to absolutely inhabit this,” she says. “It’s like nothing I’ve done before.”

For the audience, Lifschitz says she hopes her performance of the work offers new ways to relate to historical and current world events.

“What is really meaningful for me is just to see the way history repeats itself. Even things like having JFK — so there’s a piece that’s the secret phone conversation between Eisenhower and JFK about the Cuban missile crisis — and just to see the way it’s basically all repeating itself with North Korea and things like that,” Lifschitz says.

“You know, Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech and here we have Trump, and the horror and the tragedy of that… The general sense of the historical evolution and what is going on in the world now, you know the stuff that’s happening with the refugee crisis and the Trump crisis and the North Korean crisis, these massive big things, and I’m hoping that this project, this work, will really stimulate people’s thinking around it.”

Stalin’s Piano
Wednesday, March 14
Grainger Studio

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