About this Recording
8.554368 - EASTON: Concerto on Australian Themes / An Australian in Paris

Michael Easton (b.1954)
Concerto on Australian Themes
An Australian in Paris
Beasts of the Bush
Concerto for Piano Accordion, Piano and Strings
Overture to an Italianate Comedy

Michael Easton was born in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, in 1954. He received his musical training at the Royal Academy of Music where the help and encouragement of Sir Lennox Berkeley confirmed his ambition to be a composer. On leaving the Royal Academy he found work in the music-publishing world, first with J&W Chester and then with Novello & Company. As an ambassador for their publications he was required to travel widely in Europe, America, and the Far East. This brought him to Australia where, in 1982, he was head-hunted by Allans Music and decided to make Melbourne his home.

Once in Australia Michael Easton quickly established himself as a practical composer able to respond to commissions of all kinds, as a brilliant arranger of other people’s music and as an all-round musician of wide abilities. By 1986 he felt able to retire from music publishing and devote himself entirely to work as a free-lance composer. This, however, did not prevent him from forming a notable piano-duo partnership with Len Vorster and contributing many stimulating pre-concert talks to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Music Viva series. He also became known as a provocative music critic for the Melbourne Age and Sunday Herald and frequent contributor to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1990, in partnership with Len Vorster, he founded the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, a concentrated long-weekend that embraces opera, ballet orchestral and chamber music, jazz, talks and exhibitions, and involves musicians of international status. It is now firmly established as one of the most innovative events in the Australian music calendar.

Among the many commissions that have come Michael Easton's way is a series of children’s operas, beginning in 1986 with The Snow Queen and including The Musicians of Bremen (1990). The Emperor's New Clothes (1993), and The Selfish Giant (1995). These have proved immensely popular and have been toured widely in Australia as a means of introducing young audiences to the pleasures of opera. Orchestral commissions include two symphonies and a number of concertos especially written for distinguished soloist friends – for example the Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra (1990) for Frederick Shade, and the Concertino for Trumpet and Orchestra (1991) for Geoffrey Payne. He has also composed scores for numerous film and television productions, and a musical. Petrov, which was first performed in 1992 as part of the Melbourne Summer Music Festival.

Michael Easton’s music reflects his own ebullience, energy and good humour. It is entirely accessible, reliant upon ear-catching melodies, piquant harmonies, and brilliant orchestration. The influence of French music (particularly that of Milhaud, Poulenc, and Ravel) and jazz is strong, the former a matter both of natural sympathy and the stimulation of his studies with Berkeley (himself a French-trained composer), and the latter an outcome of his own skills as a jazz pianist. Wickedly witty, and beautifully crafted, it is music with a capacity to please at first hearing that conceals a depth and seriousness that may only gradually become apparent.

Michael Easton composed Concerto on Australian Themes in answer to a commission from the Chamber Orchestra of Geelong which, with the pianist Len Vorster, gave the first performance on 14th June, 1996. Having conceived the happy idea of using well-known Australian songs as a thematic basis for a virtuoso piano concerto, Easton projects his chosen melodies through as series of continuous variations, while at the same time employing traditional methods of contrast and repetition. At least three of the tunes will be known outside Australia: Botany Bay (Farewell to old England for ever), which provides the thematic content for the first movement; and Click go the Shear, and Waltzing Matilda, which provide material for a rollicking Finale. Throughout the work sly references are made to the fulsome mannerisms of the great romantic concertos of the nineteenth century. Not least of its many inspired moments occurs at the end of the third movement when a phrase from Click go the Shears suddenly metamorphoses into the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, a neat demonstration of the fact that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin.

Taking as his cue George Gershwin's 1928 tone poem An American in Paris, Michael Easton's four-movement suite, An Australian in Paris, outlines the impressions that famous city may be supposed to have made on another visitor. A dreamy, somewhat melancholy waltz suggests memories of a love affair On the Boulevard St Michel, while jaunty, off-centre rhythms catch the bustle and nervous energy of a journey On the Metro. Echoes of Erik Satie herald the plaintive dialogue between oboe and flute which opens the third movement, Alone and Lonely. The music, a freely unfolding melody in waltz time, rises to a passionate climax, only to subside again in preparation for the last movement's rumbustious free-for-all, which will be only too familiar to anyone who has driven in that most lively of cities. The work was commissioned by the Malvern Symphony Orchestra, conductor Christopher Martin, and first performed on 13th March, 1995.

Following in the footsteps of Saint-Saëns and Prokofiev, Beasts of the Bush is a tale unfolded against the background of illustrative music. Devised by Rosslyn Beeby, and inspired by aboriginal legends, it is a witty ecological sermon in which the willy-wagtail, the quoll, the blue-tongued lizard, the possum, the cockatoo, and the wallaby use their magic powers to teach two pretentious yuppies a humbling lesson. Most of the Aussie expressions will either be familiar to outsiders or easily guessed at, but it may be helpful to know that 'snags' are sausages. Beasts of the Bush was composed in 1995 and first performed on 15th October by the Academy of Melbourne under Brett Kelly, as part of the sixth Port Fairy Spring Music Festival. The narrator on that occasion was the actor/director George Fairfax.

Despite the endeavours of several Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, the accordion has not appealed greatly to composers as a concert instrument. Though this may be partly because, in addition to its positive virtues, it has a number of limiting features, it must also be because there have been so few virtuoso soloists. Therefore when Michael Easton was approached by the young Australian accordionist Bernadette Conlon with a request for a full-scale concerto he was eager to accept the challenge because he knew that, despite being blind and still in her teens, she was a musician to her finger-­tips. Completed in 1996, and commissioned with funds supplied by the Music Fund of the Australia Council, the three movements of the Concerto for Piano Accordion, Piano and String, explore the instrument's melodic and harmonic capabilities to the full, offsetting its plaintive voice against the suave sound of the string orchestra and the percussive contribution of the orchestral piano. The very 'French' associations of the accordion has prompted the composer into another salute to the tender sophistications of Les Six.

The Overture to an Italianate Comedy is a light-hearted piece constructed along traditional, classical lines. Accordingly, a sparkling opening theme is passed from instrument to instrument before giving way to a more lyrical idea. Further explorations lead to a slower central section the romantic mood of which is violently interrupted before a return can be made to the opening themes and the work brought to its sprightly conclusion. The composer has said that the overture was inspired by E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View in which during a visit to Italy, a sheltered English lady gradually becomes aware of her passionate nature. The violent interruption which heralds the return of the main themes admirably pinpoints the moment when she realises that her world has been turned upside down and, for better or worse, will never be the same again.

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