Stalin’s Piano

Riverside Archives

This event has occurred in the past

Stalin’s Piano

Venue Lennox Theatre
Dates 29 July 2018
Category Live Event

Riverside Theatres presents


Composed by Robert Davidson 
Performed by Sonya Lifschitz

A composer, a piano, a virtuoso, historical footage and a wildly chilling, at times very funny, meeting of Goebbels, Ai Weiwei, Bertholt Brecht, JFK, Stalin, Maria Yudina, Whitlam, Jackson Pollock, Robert Helpmann, Gillard, Trump and more…

In 1953 Joseph Stalin died in his bed. Found spinning on his record player was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, a recording of the often banned and exiled Russian pianist Maria Yudina. A formidable, outspoken champion of new music and artistic freedom Yudina was famed for her vehement defiance of Stalin’s tyranny. Whilst so many of her fellow artists ‘disappeared’ or were purged by the KGB, Yudina outlasted Stalin and lived to tell her story.

Join the equally fearless and fierce pianist Sonya Lifschitz, as she fires up Australian composer Robert Davidson’s electrifying new work Stalin’s Piano. Conceived with and for the Ukranian-born virtuoso, Lifschitz deftly syncs Davidson’s collection of rousing compositions with the pulsing texts from history-shaping speeches and interviews, taking us into the heart of the ever-simmering conflict between state and individual with contributions from people as diverse as Goebbels, Ai Wei Wei, Jackson Pollock, Whitlam, Judith Wright, Frank Lloyd-Wright, Stalin and Yudina herself.

Set in twenty vignettes, this 65 minute audio-visual epic, weaves together virtuoso piano music, the recorded voices of iconic creative and political figures, archival video footage and Sonya’s spoken voice. Starting with Bertholt Brecht as he faces the House of Un-American Activities Commission and continuing through a diverse range of artists and politicians, Stalin’s Piano creates a devastating and captivating exploration of the big themes of modern history.

“If you think piano recitals are dead, go and see ‘Stalin’s Piano’: Robert Davidson’s audio-visual epic of ten fingers against the inexorable sweep of history.”
Roland Peelman – Artistic Director Canberra International Music Festival

‘Stalin’s Piano’ is a riveting multi-media show. It delivers a punchy blend of satire, tragicomedy and profundity. The live, virtuosic piano playing by Sonya Lifschitz is deftly synced to rhythmic text in historical film excerpts, with original music by Robert Davidson. From Mozart to jazzy Cuban dance, the music covers a versatile range of styles – accompanying the words of artistic and political figures… Davidson and Lifschitz wrap the episodes into an attention-grabbing, fresh and entertaining 70-minute tour de force.”
Lisa Moore  – New York-based Australian concert pianist


Date & Time:
Sunday 29 July at 3pm

Sonya Lifschitz Praised by the New York Times and The Age for her “dynamic” and “powerful” performances, and by the Woodstock Times for her “miraculous keyboard technique and musicianship”, Ukrainian-born pianist Sonya Lifschitz is internationally recognised as one of Australia’s most innovative, fearless and fiercely creative musical voices. In 2015-2017 seasons, Sonya made a critically-acclaimed solo debut in one of New York’s most prestigious concert series, the BargeMusic, with other highlights including a piano duo tour of the USA with renowned pianist Lisa Moore; solo and chamber music performances at the Banff Centre (Canada), the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon: Solo, Local Heroes and Spotlight series, and the Melbourne (MIAF), Canberra (CIMF), Darwin, Port Fairy, Metropolis, St. John’s Feast of Music and Australian Piano Duo Festivals. Her recent performance of the world premiere “Stalin’s Piano” by Robert Davidson at the Canberra International Music Festival received a 4.5 stars review in the Limelight Magazine, and a recent performance of Larry Sitsky’s piano trio, Sandakan, commissioned by her ensemble Press, Play, received the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Contemporary Masters Award for the best performance of new work. Sonya’s performances are regularly broadcast by ABC Classic FM, ABC Radio National, and 3MBS and she has appeared on radio in interviews with Andrew Ford and Margaret Throsby. Sonya is increasingly active as a music curator and director, pushing to expand the existing parameters of performance culture and concert experience in Australia. In 2015 she curated, directed, and performed in a critically-acclaimed multi-disciplinary project (Canzone) for the Melbourne Festival, working at the intersection of visual art, music, and animated projections. Last year, as a Fellow at the Australian National Academy of Music, Sonya directed and performed a large-scale multimedia project featuring all four books of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, reflecting her commitment to innovative and creative concert presentation and community engagement. A fierce advocate for new music, Sonya has commissioned and premiered numerous large-scale works by composers such as Larry Sitsky, Kate Neal, Robert Davidson, Damian Barbeler, Steve Adams, and Anthony Lyons. A passionate collaborator, she has worked with some of Australia’s top performers, including Lisa Moore, Stephen Emmerson, Joe Chindamo, Miwako Abe, Caroline Henbest, Vanessa Tomlinson, Topology, the Kransky Sisters, Christine Johnston, and members of the Flinders Quartet, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony and Queensland Symphony Orchestras. Sonya debuted with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at age 18, performing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, broadcast on ABC Classic FM and SBS television. She has been a soloist with the Melbourne Symphony, Israel Symphony, John Hopkins Symphony, Western Australia Youth Symphony, Melbourne Symphonia, and Marroondah Symphony orchestras and has performed extensively in Australia, United States, Israel, Switzerland, Italy and England. A Fulbright Scholar, Sonya studied under the legendary pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music (John Hopkins University, USA) and holds a PhD in performance from the University of Melbourne. In 2017, Sonya was Lecturer in Piano (Performance) at the ANU School of Music. Sonya is currently Head of Piano at UNSW.

Robert Davidson Robert Davidson (b. 1965) is a prolific composer, bassist, lecturer and founder and artistic director of Topology. He is the Head of Composition and Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland, in the top 50 universities worldwide. Davidson studied composition with Terry Riley in California before completing a composition PhD at the University of Queensland. He previously studied South Indian vocal music in Kerala, India. Davidson’s compositions are regularly performed, recorded and broadcast around the world. All of Australia’s professional orchestras and many leading soloists and ensembles have commissioned and performed his works. With Topology he has released twelve albums and a DVD, and has directed numerous artistic collaborations with such artists as The Brodsky Quartet, Katie Noonan, TaikOz, The Kransky Sisters and Kate Miller Heidke. The ensemble has won numerous awards for excellence in music performance, composition, music education and recording, including APRA Art Music awards, Sydney Opera House, and ARIA awards.

It has been a fascinating journey creating Stalin’s Piano, kicking off from a fascination with the courage of Maria Yudina in her artistic resistance to tyranny. Sonya and I first really started talking about it on our long bus trips while touring with Topology in North Queensland, so the piece will forever be associated with the image of looking out the window at canefields, glorious mountains, and giant sculptures of cane toads. It’s been a genuine composer-performer collaboration, with Sonya’s creative vision very much tied to my own in selecting what stories to weave together. It’s a complex interplay between the roles of creative artist and politician – roles that seem often to overlap and mingle in diverse ways, from artists informing public policy, to politicians getting involved in artistic projects, to artists being subjugated to political agendas, to politicians seeing themselves as artists working with populations as modelling clay. There’s no set meaning to the piece, but there are many linkages between the works. The hope is that audience members find dense layers of meaning for themselves in considering these striking slices of history. Part of the project is also about finding empathy. When we focus on words, as our thinking brains are so much in the habit of doing, we sometimes miss the deeper, emotional communication that is going on behind the words in the intonation of speech – the melodies, rhythms, timbres that communicate a lot more than just the dictionary meanings of words (as Oliver Sacks so eloquently described in “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”). I find that hearing the speeches as music assists me in hearing these meanings, and hearing the person rather than just their words, or the category they represent. How does speech become music? It’s not through editing the speech, forcing it into a pre-conceived musical mould – rather, it’s done here through carefully attending to the speech, finding the music that is there, and using the piano as a frame in which to place the music I find – creating an accompaniment that primes perception to hear the music that was always there. Such an approach builds on those of predecessors such as Janáček (who was fond of collecting speech melodies in his notebook (starting in the 1870s) and letting them inform his operatic writing), Mussorgsky, Harry Partch, Hermeto Pascoal, and most importantly Scott Johnson, whose 1978 “John Somebody” had an important influence on me, and on other composers such as Steve Reich, whose “Different Trains” is one of the better known speech-melody works. In Australia, Sherre Delys is a great example. To me, it’s a kind of portrait making – careful observation of a person’s voice (rather than their face) and a kind of extraction of the essential, distinctive musical style they project into the world. It’s treating everyone as a composer – they create melodies spontaneously, unconsciously, with their spoken utterances. Sonya’s piano helps the rest of us hear those melodies.

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60min (no interval)

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