As you may recall, a few weeks ago I went back to Sydney University for the first time in decades. Well, last Wednesday night, I found myself back at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music doing the time warp again. This time, I was attending concert pianist, Gerard Willems’ Twilight Recital, which marked his retirement from full-time teaching at the Con.
While it only seems like yesterday, I haven’t been back to the Con since my grandmother’s Twilight Recital around 30 years ago. At the time, I was in the throws of leaving school, but now I’m married with two kids and our eldest isn’t terribly far off leaving school himself. So, clearly a lot of water’s flowed under the bridge, and even much of the landscape has been swept away by the tide. Yet, I still felt remarkably at home.
Gerard Willems and his former teacher, Nada Brissenden.
By the way, I wasn’t just attending this concert out of interest. Gerard is almost an extended member of the family via one of my mother’s “secret societies”. Mum and Gerard both attended Wollongong Selective High School and learned the piano from Nada Brissenden who, along with her husband Harold, introduced Suzuki Music to Australia. Mum was a year ahead of Gerard, and their paths have crossed over the years, which included studying piano at the Con. There was also a rather significant-to-me soiree which my grandmother Eunice Gardiner put on to give Gerard further performance experience. Not that Gerard was one of her pupils. Rather, he was studying under Gordon Watson. This soiree was also interesting because Australian authors Ruth Park and her husband D’Arcy Niland were there. Knowing Mum knew Gerard and possibly also because she had some single sons, my grandmother also invited my mother to the soiree. So, it was actually Gerard who first introduced my parents at Lindfield Station for the very first time on Sunday 26th March, 1967. That’s a connection you never forget and was brought up again recently at my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary. There’s still is a group of Mrs Brissenden’s former students who get together, forming an extended musical family of sorts. After all, you have your genetic family but as a musician you also have your musical family.
However, I also had an ulterior motive for going back to the Con. I wanted to revisit my grandmother’s old studio. See if I could find my way through the old rabbit warren and back to her door. I remember going in there as a young child after visiting my grandfather who had a dental practice in nearby Macquarie Street. The Con itself was stark white back then and I remember some weird story about how they cleaned it using Coca Cola. I remember going up some stairs and along a longish corridoor and there was a grand piano in the room. Dad told me that it overlooked the Botanical Gardens. So, that narrowed things down quite a lot. So, I planned to arrive quite early for the concert to ensure no regrets.
A Sign Promoting one of my grandmother’s concerts at the Con around 1960.
By the way, the Conservatorium building is famous in its own right. In 1815, Governor Lachlan Macquarie commissioned ex-convict Francis Greenway to design the government stables. Macquarie had a grand architectural vision for the fledgling colony and what emerged was more of a “Palace for Horses” in the Old Colonial Gothick style. Indeed, it reminds me of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria’s architectural extravagance. The cost and apparent extravagance was one of the reasons Governor Macquarie was recalled to England. In 1916, the building was extensively renovated and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music was established under directorship of Belgian conductor and violinist, Henri Verbrugghen, with the aim of ‘providing tuition of a standard at least equal to that of the leading European Conservatoriums’.
As I said, it’s been 30 years since I was last at the Con. For better or worse, a massive extension has been built and the original building has had an extensive facelift. Of course, it’s been tastefully done and if I didn’t have an intense personal attachment to the original, I’d only be impressed.
However, as much as I know we couldn’t let the old girl fall apart and that the building itself is representing Australian classical music on the world stage, a facelift is still a facelift. I miss the white paint. The cracks, wrinkles and crooked appearance. Indeed, I’d love to wipe all the beige away and bring her back out of her glamorous shell…even if only long enough to take a photo and then send her back to sleep.
The ticket office is in the new part of the Con and I noticed a sign saying “No Public Admittance” where I’m needing to access my grandmother’s studio. However, as soon as I explained the situation, I was granted access and off I hopped with my camera. I was so excited, even though I was warned that it had changed and the “rabbit’s warren was gone”. Dad had also told me that her studio looked out onto the Botanic Gardens, which narrowed things down quite a lot. I climbed up the stairs and slowly walked along the corridoor. I could hear piano music on my right and saw a grand piano through the window. Her room was further along from memory but very soon I was distracted by the sound of a violin tuning up downstairs. I found it rather strange than when I, the closet violinist come back retracing my grandmother’s footsteps, a violinist was playing. (As it turned out this was Evgeny Sorkin who played Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in D Major Op. 12 No. 1. with Gerard during the concert.
Yet, the main reason I was at the Con was to attend this concert. So, we’d better head upstairs into the gallery where I had an absolutely fabulous seat with a bird’s eye view. Verbruggen Hall seats around 550 people and as far as I could tell, everyone there loved Gerard, not just as a pianist but as a person. He exudes such warmth and embraces the audience. Gerard introduced each piece himself, usually with an extensive preamble and I was hanging onto each and every word. Indeed, I was voraciously taking notes up in my seat. Among so many other things, Gerard is a teacher and I felt like this concert was also his last hurrah in that department as well trying to share as much of his knowledge and somehow try to encourage the spirit of music which lives in each of us to soar.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. However, here are a few snapshots.
Firstly, I was struck by how Gerard would play that solitary, perfect note in a way that transcended our earthly realm and entered the heavens. Indeed, I was reminded of when you look up into the night sky and see the planet Venus twinkling almost like a star yet in its solitude. One of my great frustrations as a beginner violinist, was the difficulty of even being able to play one perfect note. I kept practicing and practicing and I’d play two strings instead of one. My bow would glide diagonally across the strings and screech like a flock of cockatoos. It was so incredibly frustrating and yet I was determined to succeed. Gerard made me appreciate the enormity of playing that one perfect note. That it’s nowhere near as easy as you think.
Secondly, I was completely blown away by his unbelievable physicality playing Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1 in B minor Op. 20. Remember the man is retiring and this piece of music, is very physically demanding. Incredible.
However, while the other pieces were far more complex, I couldn’t go past Moonlight Sonata, which was followed by the Brahm’s Lullaby. He played these because these are the pieces he played for his baby daughter, Clara, and grandchildren. Indeed, as he played the Brahms, his wife appeared on stage hold Clara’s hands and helping her to walk across the stage to her Dad. She is only one year old and beyond cute. I noticed when I later looked at the photos that she was wearing a black jacket which looked a bit like a conductor’s jacket. As I said, she was extraordinarily cute and it was so touching to see how much Gerard loves his wife and baby girl. That was another time when you could feel all the stars twinkling in the sky and a sense of magic.
After the concert, I stayed the night at my parents’ place and had been so overstimulated by the concert, that I couldn’t sleep for hours. All my matches had been lit at once and I was firing on too many cylinders I suspect.