Stalin’s Piano review by Sue-Anne Hess

****.5 stars

I really wasn’t sure if there would be much to enjoy in Stalin’s Piano. I was told to expect a woman playing the piano while video footage of various political leaders and other public figures played on a screen behind her. I was afraid that this might be a little dry for my taste. I didn’t know much about contemporary Australian composers like Robert Davidson, or political figures such as Stalin, or many of the other names in the program, but I was intrigued to see how this was constructed. The result was a pleasant and thought-provoking surprise.

Before the performance even began, the venue choice of the Melbourne Recital Centre was absolutely ideal. Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, as the showpiece of this award-winning building, is a 1000-seat auditorium that boasts “superbly organic acoustics” designed to “bring musicians and music lovers closer”. With its’ Hoop Pine timber-lined walls and simple décor, it feels comfortably like the interior of a log cabin. On the stage, there is only the piano, bathed in gentle blue lights, and the screen.

Composer Robert Davidson gives a brief introduction as the show begins, and I can’t help a slight eye-roll as he shares his belief that “we are all composers in our own way, creating new and unique patterns of speech every day”. Yet, as the performance unfolds, we see his genius at work, demonstrating precisely this point.  As the show commences, we are invited to consider a network or “web” of ideas, reading our own interpretations into the content. Though non-linear in the narrative, each of the voices presented has something to say about power, society, and expression. Quotes from Bertolt Brecht, to Percy Grainger, to Donald Trump and Michelle Obama, challenged us to consider the overlap between art and politics, and it is here that we find the intelligence and the appeal of Stalin’s Piano.

Over the space of an hour, we hear twenty voices speaking in a range of languages, and in a range of contexts, and Davidson’s composition remarkably brings each one to musical light. Sometimes poignant, sometimes comical, and sometimes downright offensive, it is Davidson’s captivating score that gives emotional colour and intensity to these moments of social and political importance.

Davidson’s music comes to brilliant life through the talent of pianist Sonya Lifschitz. As an accomplished performer, there is a passion and intensity about the way that she performs that draws the audience in to the story that she’s telling. In this case, she includes spoken words and storytelling with warm-hearted humility that almost makes you wonder if she knows the characters personally! Lifschitz owns the music, and she humanises the story.

It was inspiring to consider the bold, irreverent and prophetic voices of those who didn’t know what was to come, or how their ideas might be viewed in the future. These few short clips, with their stunning soundtrack, emphasised the importance of connection and the many ways we try to make sense of ourselves and our circumstances through public discourse. I couldn’t help but wonder, whether our ability to consider issues at a social level isn’t today being drowned out by the white noise that is social media and other power influences.

I would not hesitate to recommend Stalin’s Piano as a marvellous example of contemporary creativity and musicianship. My only critique was that the presentation of some of the multimedia seemed awkwardly-presented and fell short of such a rich performance. However, this detail cannot detract from a moving and memorable event.

“Every totalitarian Regime is frightened of the artist..” Brueggemann

costumes: 4/5

Sound: 5/5

lighting: 5/5

performances: 5/5

stage management: 5/5

direction:4.5/5

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