As children, pianists Bonnie Brown and Louisa Breen often performed piano together. In fact, Louisa Breen’s mother was one of Bonnie Brown’s first important piano teachers. Since then they have both gone on to have international careers in their own right and in 2011 they decided to form a piano duo but never imagined it would take them all around the world performing.
In August the duo are travelling to Sydney to perform at The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith to present a concert like audiences have never seen before, and will be joined by didjeridu player Russell Smith.
The program of Elements features some gems of the piano duo repertoire and most importantly two Australian works; the last piece that Peter Sculthorpe composed before he died, Island Songs as well as a world premiere, Bird Morning, by Ross Edwards. The latter two works are composed for piano duo and didjeridu, in a world first combination.
When Brown and Breen commissioned Peter Sculthorpe to compose a work for them it turned into a very special project and friendship. He would often consult with them about writing for two pianos as this was the first time he had composed such a piece.
“Peter is such an important figure of Australian music and I don’t know what I was expecting when I met him,”said Brown.
“He was so down to earth and humble. He asked so many questions about writing for two pianos. Then he presented us with this extraordinary piece.”
She said the composer managed to work the didjeridu into the texture of the piano duo in the most beautiful way.
“It is just the most wonderful blend of homogenous sound when the three instruments are playing together. It’s so stunning,” Brown explains.
Russell is a founding member of the Mantra Trio which fuses Indigenous, classical and folk traditions with didjeridu, acoustic guitar and classical cello.
“When Russell came on board with us he did a huge amount of work learning the music. It’s not notated music… it was very interesting, but I think he also enjoyed the process,” Brown says.
“I think you can hear almost the size of Australia in the music. In Australia the horizon is never ending, there are expanses of incredible space and colour and the Australian landscape is quite brutal, and that comes through, very hot or dry and we all know what that’s like being from this country,” she says.
The performance of Elements will also include the world premiere of Ross Edwards Bird Morning, scored for piano duo and didjeridu.
“For me there is a completely different take on Australia. It’s dancing with these great jerky rhythms that he always puts in and there is a certain ‘freshness’ to it,” said Brown.
“In a lot of Ross’ music there is a youthful kind of music… In short, you can hear this sense of Australian-ess but it’s not the same as Peter’s at all.”
So how do audiences, particularly those overseas, react to Australian music that they may not have heard before? “They love it and that’s why we continue do it,” said Brown.
“They say things like ‘it’s so imaginative, it’s so colourful’ and not really like anything else we have heard.
“Some audiences do have difficulty with ‘modern’ music and they have already pigeon-holed it into a certain category. But, with the Australian music they find it very refreshing and so because of this positive response we thought it would be incredible to tour with a program that was largely Australian music,” says Brown.
As well as the two Australian works their program also includes some iconic pieces from the piano duo repertoire including Ravel’s La Valse, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and selected tangos of Piazzolla.
“We wanted to include the Australian works within the context of a program that reflects the diversity of the music for two pianos but also the kinds of characteristics of it that transcend country or time or whatever it happens to be,” says Brown.
“However, it’s by no means arbitrary. It is music that I love and Louisa and I have always been like this; we love good music that we enjoy playing and we want to share this with audiences.”
– Samuel Cottell