Island Songs – Australian Music for Piano and Didgeridoo
On October 5th, M. Steinert & Sons and guests were thrilled by a unique performance by pianists Bonnie Brown and Louisa Breen, along with Aboriginal didgeridoo player Russell Smith, who will bring “Island Songs” and other rarely-performed works by Australian composers to Boston for the first time.
About the Program
The group will be performing Peter Sculthorpe’s last composition, “Island Songs,” for the first time in the U.S., along with works by Percy Grainger, Elena Kats-Chermin, and Miriam Hyde. This program forms the basis for Brown and Breen’s forthcoming album, also titled Island Songs.
Formed in 2011, the Brown and Breen Piano Duo has mastered an extremely wide range of music for piano duo and piano four-hands, spanning the greatest composers of the classical canon. However, their collaboration has also been a vehicle for acclaimed Australian pianists Bonnie Brown and Louisa Breen to champion the music of their country, especially the works of contemporary composers. These are the works that Brown and Breen have chosen to share with American audiences on their first tour of the United States.
The duo has already begun to make their mark on the repertoire for two pianos, thanks to their 2012 commissioning of a new work for piano duo and didgeridoo from Peter Sculthorpe, known then as Australia’s greatest living composer. The finished product, the two-movement “Island Songs,” acquired even more poignancy after Sculthorpe passed away in 2014, making this his final composition. Out of his more than 350 compositions, this is Sculthorpe’s only work for two pianos and didgeridoo.
The inspiration for “Island Songs” came from two traditional indigenous songs from the Thursday Island area. In discussions with Smith, it was decided that a special didgeridoo would need to be created specifically for this work, so Brown and Breen commissioned one to be made at Ramingining in Arnhem Land in the far north of Australia. Smith, along with indigenous didgeridoo builder Roy Burnyila, cut down and shaped multiple trees before finding one that would play in the proper key. The finished product is a gorgeous instrument that, when combined with the powerful music of “Island Songs,” will serve as a fitting memorial to Sculthorpe’s achievements.
In addition to the Sculthorpe piece, Brown and Breen’s program will feature other two piano works by Australian composers, many of whom are still living and working today. These include Nigel Westlake’s thrilling and rarely performed “Oscillations,” Percy Grainger’s energetic Fantasy on Themes from Porgy and Bess, and Ross Edwards’ “A Flight of Sunbirds.” Brown and Breen’s support of women composers comes through in selections by Miriam Hyde and Elena Kats-Chernin. “I’ve seen great interest in this music whenever I perform abroad,” says Bonnie Brown of the music of her homeland. “I never do it because I’m Australian and I feel I have an obligation to play it. I only play music that I think is wonderful.”
About the Brown and Breen Piano Duo
Bonnie and Louisa are both highly acclaimed pianists in their native Australia and internationally.
As a concert artist, Bonnie Brown has performed to critical acclaim across Europe, Asia and Australia, in prominent music festivals and performance venues, as well as with Australia’s leading orchestras and on Australian radio. She received no less than 17 internationally competitive scholarships from France and Australia to support her performance research in Paris, including the highly prestigious Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, the international Fondation Nadia et Lili Boulanger Prize, and the honor of an artist residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.
Among her many formal qualifications she holds a Master Degree in Music Performance as well as the Diplôme Supérieur d’Enseignement (6ème niveau) from the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris.
Louisa Breen, too, has been the recipient of a vast number of accolades, including the Chappell Gold Medal in 1999 at the Royal College of Music in London, their highest prize for piano. She has toured Asia and Australasia as a member of the RCM Premiere ensemble and performed regularly as a soloist and as a chamber musician in concerts throughout London and the UK, including such venues as Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields and Winchester Cathedral.
About Russell Smith
Russell Smith is a multi-talented musician, who not only plays didgeridoo but also acoustic and electric guitar. Russell is a Pitjantjatjarra man from the Central Desert region of Australia. He was born and raised in Port Augusta, South Australia.
Russell was a founding member of MANTA trio, nearly fifteen years ago, which also features acoustic guitar and classical cello in the line up. Manta is in constant demand for concerts, festivals, corporate events and film and television soundtrack recordings, for which they have won numerous awards.