Quadrant Music

Larry Sitsky at Ninety

In the Chinese zodiac, 2024 marks the year of the Dragon. So too is it an Olympic year; Paris is scheduled to hold the games from late July. Were I to nominate one Australian composer as a fire-breathing colossus of artistically-athletic proportions, I should immediately think of Lazar “Larry” Sitsky. This September, Emeritus Professor Larry Sitsky, Officer of the Order of Australia and Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, celebrates his ninetieth birthday. Let trumpets sound!—such as those throughout the composer’s Concerto for Orchestra (1984), embedded below.

This issue of Quadrant Music is dedicated as a tribute to Sitsky: the man, his music, and his contribution to Australian society and culture. Four friends, experts and interpreters of Sitsky have united in the successive pages to this editorial, each with their own unique approach to the Canberran’s craft, oeuvre and pedagogy. Emeritus Professor Malcolm Gillies AM concentrates largely on Sitsky’s affinity for the music and philosophies of Ferruccio Busoni. Indeed, the aforementioned Concerto for Orchestra’s subtitle is “A Completion and Realization of Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica”. Raymond Shon and Stephanie Shon jointly explore genres of Sitsky’s catalogue, including his sizeable impact on the worlds of Australian opera and piano music, and with a particular emphasis on the composer’s three series of Late Piano Pieces (2021 to 2023). Dr Edward Neeman concludes with an analysis of Sitsky’s recent “concerto for piano (without orchestra)”, Apocryphon of Initiation (2021), and reflects on his experiences collaborating with the composer. So as not to detract from—or, indeed, compete with—the scholarship inherent to these three articles, I have confined my musings in this editorial to those of a broader nature.

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I was delighted to learn that Larry Sitsky has previously, albeit decades back, contributed to Quadrant. His earliest offerings date to the twilight years of James McAuley’s editorial reign: both “Busoni and the New Music” and “Debunking Stockhausen & Co” were printed in 1965, with “Transcriptions and the Eunuch” following the next year. Dr Gillies quotes from “Transcriptions” overleaf, and not only do I agree totally with Sitsky’s perspective in this pointed article, I think it is more relevant than ever.

The arts in Australia abound with frauds and hypocrites; Sitsky has proved a pioneer in recognising how abundant these “eunuchs” truly are. In November 2023, for instance, the Queensland University of Technology removed all references to “merit” from its hiring policy. The vice-chancellor, Professor Margaret Sheil, told ABC Radio Brisbane, “When people say things like ‘We do this on merit’, they’re actually reflecting the bias of their own experience. There’s so much data on this around selection,” she continued, “whether it’s recruitment into orchestras or into universities.” How might the indomitable Sitsky respond to this attack on talent and hard work? Orchestras can only be comprised of merit; that is, the technique and musicianship of their players. Anything less is not an orchestra—it is a social experiment involving instruments. Or, how might Sitsky feel when, also in November, the Musicological Society of Australia invited Marcia Langton to give the keynote address at its conference in Adelaide? I was unaware that Professor Langton had any musical training, let alone the knowledge and skill required to address this country’s peak assembly of musicologists.

All this is very disturbing. I cannot help but feel an immense sorrow for someone of Sitsky’s years. Here is a man who tasted what could have been a golden age of culture in this country; that age never properly took shape, and since the 1990s it has declined into non-existence, vanishing from both sight and memory.

As a nonagenarian-to-be, in September Sitsky will join a venerable club of Australian composers. Fellow inductees include George Dreyfus (born 1928), John Carmichael (1930), David Lumsdaine (1931), Betty Beath (1932) and Don Kay (1933). Dreyfus is best known for his television scores, particularly Rush (1974), and, as the father of Mark Dreyfus, is a popular name among Australian Labor Party circles. Both Carmichael and Lumsdaine migrated to England; the former led the establishment of music therapy as a field, while the latter, an admirer of ornithology, enthusiastically exported the Australian soundscape to London. Beath adopted a more local posture for her career, relocating permanently from Bundaberg to Brisbane in the 1950s—though she did at one point serve as an executive of the International League of Women Composers. Kay, who turned ninety in 2023 and is equally deserving of a large-form print tribute, has done much for the cultural fabric of Tasmania. And yet, for all his service, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra could not bring itself to perform even one of Kay’s four symphonies in 2023. Nor did the Canberra Symphony Orchestra feel it appropriate to program a work by Sitsky. And it is not just the nonagenarians that are missing out. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra did nothing to mark Brenton Broadstock’s seventieth birthday in 2022; perhaps the orchestra’s attentions are fixed upon Barry Conyngham, who turns eighty in August. Roger Smalley and, more recently, Nigel Butterley both died neglected by the establishment. Dreyfus is, perhaps, doing the best of the lot; his one-act The Gilt-Edged Kid, which Opera Australia commissioned in 1969 but then never actually bothered to perform, premiered in 2022 in a production by Peter Tregear’s IOpera.

Excluding Beath, all these composers are among those that ABC Classic’s Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe reprehensibly described during a 2021 episode of Spicks and Specks as “stale, pale males”. A former professor of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music once told me, “Male composers have had their time.” So, if that is the case, why do we never hear in our concert halls the quality music of Australian women like Beath, or Helen Gifford (born 1935), Moya Henderson (1941) or the American émigré Mary Mageau (who died in 2020)? And if little is being done to promote the existing catalogues of these veterans, whether male or female, virtually nothing is being done to conjure from them new works. None of Sitsky, Dreyfus, Carmichael, Lumsdaine, Beath, Kay, Broadstock, Conyngham, Butterley, Gifford or Henderson were commissioned as part of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 50 Fanfares project in 2020, and only Broadstock was commissioned by the Australian National Academy of Music’s landmark The ANAM Set project which, in 2021, called upon sixty-seven Australian composers to each write a new work for the academy’s pupils.

Having just attended Opera Australia’s Brisbane production of The Ring, I cannot help but feel that a far more real twilight of the gods is at hand. The terrific operas of Sitsky are coated in dust, the contemplative symphonies of Broadstock have been stripped from our concert halls, and all now struggle to hear their chamber music played in church annexes or university lecture theatres. This is immensely embarrassing and a national cultural disgrace.

It is true that all the state orchestras make varying degrees of effort to program Australian music—the Tasmanian and Canberra symphonies are, I think, the most committed. But our orchestras, under the direction of bureaucrats largely motivated by ideology and commerce, tend to perform works by a recurring handful of fortunate Australian composers. This would not be a problem if orchestras, companies and ensembles performed more Australian music—and, indeed, just performed more—but since the taxpayer continues to fund performances of The Nutcracker whilst also funding the export of Bushmasters at $2.45 million per unit to wage a de facto war against the Russian Federation, I shall not hold my breath. There is little consistency in the government’s grand fiscal policy, particularly when culture is involved.

Temporarily replacing public, taxpayer-funded performances of Russian music with Australian alternatives could have heaped boons upon Australian artists. Perhaps the unspoken contention by politicians and bureaucrats is that the taxpayer should fund Tchaikovsky ahead of Australian composers, because Tchaikovsky is just better. I respond: “If he is, he doesn’t have to be.” Why insist on believing that in this country there can never be a class of composers whose popular appeal and commercial success are predicated exclusively upon the quality of their art? We must reject needless pessimism, and our cultural cringe must end. I do sense that there is a rumbling hunger among artists across this wide brown land to reassert the values that have propelled Western art historically: craft, style, authenticity and entrepreneurship, as well as a ferocious rejection of dogma for dogma’s sake. It is just a shame that this renaissance, which I am sure shall come, has arrived not thirty years earlier for Larry Sitsky, who would no doubt have seized upon it to enrich us all.

For him, however, it is not a case of one or the other; rather, all music, whether Australian or not, is of relevance to Sitsky. This is best observed in his career as a pianist. The week he won the Albert H. Maggs Composition Award in 1968, then valued at $400 (approximately $7400 today), he also performed two concerts of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. The Australian Jewish Times, almost exactly ten years earlier, remarked of his first public recital, “At no time … was there any doubt about Sitsky’s dexterity of finger and technical prowess, a fact amply demonstrated in the playing of the pieces dedicated to sheer pianistic bravura, and it is felt the artist was happiest in his Bartók and Liszt offerings.” In 1980, the Canberra Times described Sitsky as a pianist possessing “an immense presence and authority … When he hits a note, he hits it decisively and conclusively.” Sitsky understands virtuosity—not just in the sense that he can play it, but also in the sense that he can write it. His own piano sonatas capture a definitive artistry that one tends to find only in the keyboard music of an accomplished pianist-composer. Raymond and Stephanie Shon, as well as Dr Neeman, enunciate this point overleaf.

We cannot know what the future holds for Larry Sitsky. Certainly, I pray that he continues to compose, and that his music receives the performances, recordings and broadcasts it deserves. To all readers, I encourage you to seek out and advance the art of this man. The era of YouTube makes this easier than ever before. Start with the Concerto for Orchestra, if only for the fact that it is a worthy and significant composition of many colours, as well as a work that connects Sitsky to his ever-cherished Busoni. Upon listening to the concerto—and then upon listening to it again, and again—write to your local state orchestra. Impress upon those many administrators in their soundproofed ivory towers that there is a great Australian composer by the name of Sitsky. He is the prolific creator of operas, orchestral works, concerti, chamber music and music for the voice. He was once championed, and can be again. For the immeasurable contribution he has made to his country, we owe him a champion’s legacy.

Larry, all of us at Quadrant wish you the happiest ninetieth birthday that any Australian composer could reasonably conceive of! 

Before you dive more fully into the life and music of Larry Sitsky, permit me a brief announcement. In 2024, Quadrant Music intends to upscale its activities. In particular, I hope to establish a team of critics, reviewing performances and productions first in Sydney and Melbourne and then in Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth. If you are interested in writing for these pages, especially as a reviewer, please contact me via the email address provided below. There is a feeling among the editors of Quadrant that Quadrant Music is a creature of immense potential. You are all invited, whether as contributors or readers, to journey with us as that potential flourishes.

Alexander Voltz is a composer and the founding editor of Quadrant Music, alexander@adkvoltz.com

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