Classical Music

Sonya Lifschitz shines the spotlight on women who have shaped our world


Dr Sonya Lifschitz wants you to listen to women who have changed the world.

She wants you to see their faces, hear their voices. She wants you to be moved by new music that captures their spirits.

Creative Women/So Much Myself: Piano Portraits will celebrate women’s stories through archival footage, spoken word, and original Australian music from composer Robert Davidson. Sonya, a Ukrainian-Australian pianist and ABC Classic FM presenter, will premiere the work on 8 March — International Women’s Day.

It features words from Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Aunty Delmae Barton, Greta Thunberg, and Nina Simone among many others who have shaped history. Then it sets their words to music, following the natural cadence of their speech and reflecting their passion and courage.

In this interview, Sonya tells CutCommon how this project came to be, and what it means to amplify women’s voices.

Sonya, what does International Women’s Day mean to you?

International Women’s Day is many things to me, but most of all it is a day to shine a spotlight and celebrate the astonishing contribution of women to our society, our culture, our history, our way of thinking about the world. It is a day to treasure and cherish the women in our own lives – those who have shaped and continue to shape our own personal stories and histories.

It is a day to reflect on how far we have collectively come — and how much there is still to go to achieve true authentic gender equality, where women around the world are empowered, supported, and encouraged to live their lives not limited or defined by gender.

It is a day to give voice to those silenced by prejudice and inertia. 

You teamed up with Robert Davidson for the creation of this project. How did this collaboration come about?

Creative Women/So Much Myself: Piano Portraits follows on the heels of Stalin’s Piano, my first major collaboration with Robert Davidson. In it, we interwove voices of iconic artists and politicians into a musical tapestry examining big themes in modern history.

The show toured throughout Australia and Europe, and each time I performed it, the audience expressed being deeply moved and affected by the stories in it. Of course, there were many more stories to tell than we could fit into one show, and so we decided to create a sequel of sorts featuring female scientists, artists, and public figures who have been influential in our own lives as well as in our society more broadly.

We wanted to showcase the incredible women who have challenged stereotypes and the status quo, had stood up to the prejudices of convention, and had envisaged and fought for a more just and humane world.

Like Stalin’s Piano, Creative Women/So Much Myself: Piano Portraits melds together virtuoso piano writing, archival footage, recorded speech, and my own speaking voice to assemble these musical portraits into a complex interconnecting weave of stories celebrating discovery and courage.

The work features file footage and recordings of some of the world’s most prominent women. What does music do to amplify their voices?

As Robert often says, we all make music when we speak. Each of us has a unique spoken intonation, pitch, contour, and rhythm of the voice, which we modulate depending on what is being spoken, our mood, our emotional state, who we are speaking to, and what we want to express. So, in essence, we are all composers through the act of speaking.

Creating compositions that derive their musical material from the spoken cadence/intonation — or what Robert calls ‘speech melody’ or ‘voice portraiture’ — heightens the voice, intensifying and amplifying the meaning behind the words, and giving us a deeper insight into the speaker’s inner world. Just like a face portrait is lovingly placed into a frame, a ‘voice portrait’ is framed by the piano and the music I play.

Likewise, the visual elements in the show augment and prime our perception of the stories told, bringing them to life in a three-dimensional vivid and dynamic way.  

Is it not extraordinarily difficult to align your live performance with the natural rhythm and cadence of spoken word? How do you navigate this?

Yes, it is a challenge! But a really fun and rewarding one. You kind of have to get inside the heads of people whose voices you are playing alongside with. Then you have to learn their speeches, analyse the inflection and cadences in their voices, understand the emotional underpinning of their words.

Robert does an extraordinary job with this in his compositions — in his ability to musically capture the very essence of the speaker in all its nuances — and I try to do the same in the playing. It does take many hours of practice and a lot of repetition, but the reward is that in the end you feel like you know these women intimately. I could think of worse things than hanging out with Frida Kahlo, Rachel Carson, or Patti Smith in my ear all day!

A much more challenging aspect of performing this piece is coordinating playing and speaking at the same time. In one of the pieces, I act out an entire scene from a 10th-Century play by Hrotsvitha — a German nun and the first known playwright since antiquity — while playing. That’s a challenge!  

How did you decide who should feature in this project, and what do you feel unites these women?

There were so many incredible and inspiring women we wanted to include! From the initial list of about 30, we gradually narrowed it down to 16: those whose stories moved us profoundly. From Nellie Melba to Frida Kahlo, Patti Smith, Julia Gillard, Greta Thunberg and many others, including my own beloved Ukrainian grandmother, these women spoke to bringing their fullest selves to the challenges of convention, danger, inertia, and prejudice.

Essentially, this work is a five-part musical portrait gallery spanning a millennium of creators whose stories reveal something of our own. As Nina Simone says in her interview, which gives the title to this work:

‘What I hope to do all the time is to be so completely myself […] to be so much myself that my audiences, and even people who meet me, are confronted with what I am, inside and out, as honest as I can be. And this way, they have to see things about themselves, immediately.’

The other connecting thread among these women is the theme of healing, beauty, and refuge to be found in music, art, and science, expressed particularly beautifully by Auntie Delmae Barton.

Beyond your piano playing, I understand your own voice is included in this work. Tell us a little about the story you share.

Robert and I felt it was important to include a narrative voice in this work to create a more immersive and intimate experience for the audience. There are several vignettes in the work where I narrate a story as I am playing. For example, as there is only one short recording of Maria Curie’s voice that we know of, I tell her story before we hear her speaking. And there are moments in the show when I connect with the audience more personally, speaking about Maria Anna Mozart and Clara Schumann, and introducing my grandmother who tells a story of her escape from Kyiv in 1941 as Nazi bombs fell. 

Sonya, what’s a final message you would like to share in light of International Women’s Day?

A message I’d like to share in light of this very special day is that we never get complacent in our commitment and effort to advocate for equality, to respect diversity, and to honour the right of every woman to shape a life fuelled by possibility, freedom, and bold, daring dreams. 

Sonya Lifschitz will premiere Creative Women by Robert Davidson this International Women’s Day, 8 March in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre.

The work will then tour events including Adelaide Festival (17 March) and Canberra International Music Festival (7 May) under the name So Much Myself: Piano Portraits.

Images supplied.

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