– an article by Nigel Westlake published in the Financial Review on the eve of the premiere of the piano concerto in Melbourne in November 2000.

1974 was my last year at school. I had no interest in staying on for another two years to complete my higher school certificate & yearned to be free of the shackles of homework & the daily grind of the school routine & just get on with playing my clarinet.
My father, who was at that time the principal clarinettist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, approved my scheme to finish school early, but only on the condition that I work under his strict supervision, practising hard for hours each day with the goal of procuring a job in an orchestra – like he had done for most of his life.
Yet despite my general apathy towards it, the N.S.W. Conservatorium of Music High School was a stimulating musical environment & something of a slightly eccentric stomping ground for us “would be” musicians. It was to be the catalyst for many future collaborations & relationships of a personal & professional nature.

On the first day back after the summer holidays that year, at about ten minutes before first bell, in amongst the hubbub of post holiday reunions & slamming lockers, the sounds of some very impressive piano playing could be heard emanating from the room down the corridor where the new year seven kids had just arrived for the start of the school year.
Like the children of Hamelin, the students stopped in their tracks & were all drawn towards the source of the music like moths to light. The entrance to the room was now packed with kids, all jostling to get a glimpse of the mystery performer. I manoeuvred myself into position where I could see at the piano in the corner, a small boy with red hair & freckles playing a Beethoven sonata at lightning speed from memory. He appeared to be all of 10 years old, his feet could hardly reach the piano pedals. He performed like a “demon possessed” & one could not help but wonder at the great things in store for such a promising young musician, already so accomplished. At the conclusion of this impromptu recital, the students picked up their jaws off the floor & erupted into spontaneous rapturous applause.
This was my first encounter with Michael Kieran Harvey.
I was never sure whether he was just practising for his next piano lesson or making a concerted effort to establish his position in the hierarchy of the schools musical “food chain”, however he had unwittingly generated a degree of awe amongst the students & was the envy of many of them. Once his wicked sense of humour & mischievous disposition began to take a hold, he was soon embraced by everyone & regarded as something of a legend.

It would be a normal progression, even an expectation for a talent such as this to be lured overseas at the earliest opportunity & consumed by the European & U.S. classical music markets. Yet, despite numerous international accolades, including Grand Prix in the inaugural Ivo Pogorelich International solo piano competition in Pasadena in 1993 (the world’s richest piano competition), the Debussy medal in Paris in 1995 & grand finalist in the inaugural Franz Liszt Competition in Holland in 1986, he has consequently chosen to base himself in Melbourne & spend a great deal of his energies championing the cause of contemporary piano music, Australian in particular.
About 3 years ago Michael commissioned a piano sonata from me. I resisted at first, finding the idea incredibly intimidating. Why even attempt to add to the already overburdened stockpile of piano repertoire? No other form of music making has been so well catered for by so many great composers. Yet Michael was adamant. He thrust an armful of his favourite piano scores onto me so I could get a feel for the genre & I made a start.

The Sonata took about 8 weeks to write & during that time, Michael visited me about once a week to check up on progress. His excitement for the project & general encouragement was completely infectious & as I became consumed with the joy of the process, my initial reluctance was soon forgotten.

One of the techniques I employ to kick start the creative process when commencing a new piece is to imagine the performer on the concert platform,poised ready to play, then if I listen really carefully I can actually hear the piece I am about to write, or at least bits of it. Being familiar with the musical strengths of the musician for whom you are writing is a key factor in this strange and esoteric process and ideas evolve from focussing on the musical identity and trademark sounds of the player, their personalities somehow permeating the phrases and textures of the work. The piano sonata is my attempt to match Michaels passion & commitment for ,music. Its a fairly muscular work, highly virtuosic with a powerful rhythmic impetuous. He has since performed & recorded it numerous times, on each occasion with an extraordinary energy & sense of spontaneity. Its the sort of performance that composers dream of & possibly one that is rarely experienced in a composers lifetime.

The power & passion of Michael’s playing has long been the inspiration for numerous additions to the contemporary piano repertoire by both local & overseas composers. This week he premieres my piano concerto at the Melbourne Concert Hall with the MSO under Yaron Traub, which was commissioned by Symphony Australia at his instigation.

Some weeks ago, while I was in the final stages of completing the concerto, a colleague asked me if I ever felt overwhelmed at the prospect of tackling such a grand gesture in the light of such a wealth of existing repertoire.
It would be easy to feel that way about it, however once I began work the ideas started to flow, & again I found myself absorbed by the process, my inner ear awash with the infinite possibilities of the task at hand.

I have written a free form piano cadenza at the beginning of the first movement. This establishes the piano as the primary voice & as the ideas unfold, the orchestra becomes an extension of the piano colour, the piano retaining the central focus for virtually the whole work. In two self contained sections (or movements) the piece is a product of an intuitive, “stream of conciousness” compositional process. Its like someone standing behind you telling you what note comes next. At the forefront of my mind was the desire to exploit the percussive nature of the instrument & like the sonata, the musical language ranges in character from introspective reflection to aggressive & rhythmically driven motoric music, the virtuosic capabilities of the soloist being tested to the outer limits.

Over the last few years I have been blessed with some fantastic performances by wonderful musicians & even though a premiere of this sort is an overwhelming & confronting experience for the composer I look forward to the performances in Melbourne this week with a strange mixture of fear & elation.

The Westlake piano concerto is being performed at the Melbourne Concert Hall on the 9th,10th & 11th of November at 8pm by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra , conducted by Yaron Traub with Michael Kieran Harvey as soloist.
The programme includes Bernsteins “Chichester Psalms” with the Melbourne Chorale & “Symphonia domestica” by R. Strauss.