Hard at the top: Fraser Beath McEwing meets composer Elena Kats-Chernin

June 12, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Composing classical music is a fraught occupation and Elena Kats-Chernin is not exempt from feeling its pressure.

Elena Kats-Chernin

As an Australian composer, she is at the top of her game. During the past year, two of her orchestral compositions were premiered by the Australian World Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra while other works from her prodigious output are performed regularly around Australia and overseas. Yet she lives in a world of self-doubt and financial insecurity that is typically the lot of the artist. Success is no antidote.

“When I see players in a symphony orchestra rehearsal looking at my score I have to reassure myself they are not wasting their time,” she says as we sit at her table awash with pages of manuscripts, the evidence of many projects begging for attention like baby birds in a nest. She thrives on the apparent chaos, even reveling in the chance that her spasmodic income could suddenly go up or dry up. “I was more worried about earning enough when my three kids were still living at home,” she recalls, “but not so much now. I don’t need a lot to keep me going. I didn’t choose to be a composer,” she adds. “For me, there is no alternative. In any case, I couldn’t hold down a job. I’m too unsettled, nervous, thin-skinned. I get bored easily. I would be a terrible employee.”

Probably her greatest worry is not having too much to do. She swims ever upwards towards the light with the intention of reaching tranquility, but fears getting there. Then, in the next breath she’ll say that, in order to compose, she needs a free head and uncluttered time – her most precious commodity.

Elena Kats-Chernin arrived penniless in Australia from Russia with her family in 1975. Then aged 18, she’d already been studying music for four years in Moscow but was still keen to learn more. She spent the next four years at the Sydney Conservatorium, emerging with diplomas in teaching, composition and piano performance – and funding herself with anything that came along, including playing piano for a ballet school and mixing drinks in a milk bar. Just when she might have put down roots in Australia she took up an offer in Germany where she stayed for the next 13 years, composing for leading theatre and ballet productions in Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna and Bochum. She returned to Australia in 1994 with an impressive array of compositions to her credit. The best known was Clocks, an experimental piece for its era, which placed her firmly on the crowded map of contemporary composers.

Kats-Chernin’s music is very much the stuff of her personality: varied almost beyond comprehension. Her musical genres range over orchestral – with many subdivisions – piano, film, ballet, opera, small ensembles, chorale, instrumental – to name a few. She wrote a segment of the background music for the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony. There have been many other publicly performed commissions, the most recent being the premier of Big Rhap played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in May. She has been honoured, awarded and interviewed probably more than any other Australian composer – and that is not just because of her music. She’s a bubbly talker, vulnerable, self-effacing, frank: all qualities that make for what television and radio call good talent. She is a striking looking woman too, with strewn black hair and the face of a patrician you might find in an old oil painting.

She regards her big Australian breakthrough in composition as the music for Wild Swans, a ballet commissioned by the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Opera House. It premiered in 2003. She later turned the score into a 12-movement concert suite as well as another version for piano. It is still regularly performed and part of it was lifted out to become the theme music behind a long running commercial for Lloyds bank. Excerpts from other pieces have also found their way serendipitously into the advertising world where, for a while, they can free up her otherwise tight budget. Her publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, looks after commercial deals like this. She finds self-promotion impossible.

Composing has always been a mysterious process, both to observer and composer. Kats-Chernin has a favourite creative time and method that she must fit in to the more defined demands of editing, arranging and performing. She begins every piece at the piano, armed with a black marker pen and manuscript paper propped up on the music stand. The birth is always a piano version. From there she constructs orchestration, sweating over which instrumental voices should be heard in each bar. Like many of her fellow composers, she often returns to a score to make changes – sometimes well after a work has been premiered and performed. A piece is never irrevocably finished.

While there are some outstanding Jewish classical composers like Mahler, Offenbach and Gershwin, the percentage is tiny in the all-time mix. They don’t compare with Jewish numbers and achievements among writers, scientists or business builders. As a Jewish female composer, this makes Elena Kats-Chernin a rarity – although, to her, it is only of passing significance. She’d much rather think about whether a clarinet or a cello should enter at bar 32 of the piece she’s working on. However, she does acknowledge that her Jewish-Russian heritage undoubtedly plays an influential role in her music with its generic drama and melancholy.

“But then a wild dance can suddenly pop up because that’s part of the culture too. It goes with the old Jewish saying: ‘cry with one eye and laugh with the other’.”

Kats-Chernin’s current projects include a piano concerto for her close friend and sometimes co-performer Tamara-Anna Cislowska, one of Australia’s finest pianists. There are other projects too, but they, like unwritten music, need time as their midwife.


2 Responses to “Hard at the top: Fraser Beath McEwing meets composer Elena Kats-Chernin”
  1. Frederick R. Hill says:

    Not enough Jewish composers -bobbameises! Since the Enlightenment around 1800, Jews have contributed to the composition of music in ever greater numbers generation by generation.In roughly chronological order – and these are only the ones whose music I have actually heard – excluding the ones you have listed: Salomone de’ Rossi, Meyerbeer,Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny, Moscheles, Halevy, Goldmark, Joachim, Wienawski,Gottschalk,Dukas,Isaac Nathan (Australia’s first)Schoenberg, Bloch,Milhaud,Finzi,Copland,Weill,Bernstein (Leonard and Elmer) Vynberg,Castelnuovo- Tedesco,Schulhoff, Gideon Klein,Haas, Krasa, Ullmann (the last 5 all perished in the Holocaust)Korngold, Goehr (father and son)Wilfred Josephs,George Dreyfus, Lalo Schifrin,Arthur and George Benjamin (unrelated)Diamond, Foss, Samuel Adler, Mark Isaacs … not counting the stellar Broadway and Hollywood composers and the jazz musicians.And I may as well count myself!

  2. Victor grynberg says:

    We were fortunate enough to be at the premiere of both Elena Kats-Chernin’s Concerto for 8 Double Basses and last months MSO performance of Big Rhap. Both were outstanding and the audiences were very enthusiastic in their response . The imaginative use of the double basses surely will make this a piece that top orchestras around the world will want to play. Big Rhap was a 10 minute melodic extravaganza and really had the audience in rapture. Recently we bought Elena’s 2 recebrbCDs Butterfly ING and Unsent Love Letters. Both outstanding and played often on Classic FM and Fine Music. So our Jewish Community should be very proud that this composing jewel is one of ours. We look forward to Elena’s next pieces.

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