Looking behind the curtain

On Saturday, 6 November, pianist Sonya Lifschitz recorded her forthcoming online recital at Musica Viva Australia's Janette Hamilton Studio. The performance - part of our Discover Musica Viva concert series - was photographically documented by Annelise Maurer, who has taken us behind the curtain on the digital concert experience.

In this blog, we show you the many steps of the digital concert process; steps that might otherwise go unnoticed. We also gathered reflections from those involved on the day, from the musician herself to the videographer, to hear from them on their experience bringing this concert to life.

Enjoy the blog below, and see the concert unfold on Thursday, 18 November. Book your tickets here.

Katherine Kemp, Director of Concerts & Communities Musica Viva Australia

"It was extraordinary how Sonya managed to summon so much atmosphere in a tiny empty studio. We lurked at the tech desk outside the door (along with my daughter, perhaps Sonya’s number one fan, who’d asked to come along to listen). After the Janácek, Sonya left the piano to come and see why we were all so silent, and it was because we were a bit stunned by the intensity she had conjured into this extraordinary piece.

It was a privilege to be the smallest part of this recording. It was a bit of a weird brief for Sonya: neither the exact control of a studio recording, with the luxury of almost note-by-note perfecting in multiple takes, nor the exhilaration of playing for a live audience. We hope we found a sweet spot in the middle, enough rawness of the ‘live’ experience, with a tiny safety net for the artist (which she didn’t really need, in the end).

Such a great program – Crumb’s delicate harp-like strumming of the strings and bell-like elements, with echoes of Christmas carols; Brahms’ beloved masterpieces and the virtuoso magnificence of his take on a Bach classic; and then this Janácek, so dark, so moving."

Johan Delin, Technical Director AV1

"When I arrive the piano tuner is just finishing tuning the piano, arriving a little bit earlier gives me the time to get the bearings of the venue we're using today. And to have a little bit of time for myself to make a plan of where to set-up the recording gear and also the cameras.

Once everyone has arrived we start with moving the piano into position to make sure we can get the angles we want. While my camera operator starts assembling the three cameras, I get all the recording gear and switcher in order.  During this time our lighting and sound engineers have brought their gear in and are setting up as well. When the cameras are wired in and the lights are in place we start looking at how the angles we've planned on using actually work. This is usually based on guidance from Musica Viva.

This time around we have to reposition the piano a little and pull some of the black drapes around too. Once it's darker in the room we double-check that there's no ugly or bad reflections in the finish of the piano, tidying up cables so that it looks neat in all the camera shots and reflections. We reposition some cameras too and do some adjustments. It's roughly at this point the performer arrives, once again we check our camera positions. One from the end looking at the piano player capturing facial expressions, one up high behind the shoulder to capture more of the inside and one focused more on the keys.

While this is happening we also do a soundcheck to make sure we're all in sync. Lighting has to be adjusted to give the talent more light on the keys. Due to the first piece being recorded having elements of plucking on the strings in the piano, the consideration of the camera positions are a little bit different. We make sure we can capture those elements of the performance. Once we're satisfied we have what we need, we can begin the recording. Olly at Musica Viva has kindly provided us with the score to follow along so that we know when certain features of the piece are coming up, more left hand, right hand or slower parts. I change my transition speed between the camera shots depending on how fast or slow the piece is. We try to capture facial expression and hand movements, lingering but not too long on any shot. It's a decision of the moment with which camera angle that looks best at any point in time, which is the exciting part.

When the piece with plucking of the inside of the piano is over we decide to reposition one of the cameras to give us more options. We continued shortly after to record. I change the transition time again to match the tempo of the pieces being performed. Once all the pieces are recorded we start packing everything down so that everyone can get home, being a Saturday after all."

Sonya Lifschitz, pianist

"Keeping music-making pulsing through our imaginations, hearts and bodies has been my primary driver the past two years as Covid forced venues to close, concerts to be cancelled and projects to be suspended. In putting together this program for Musica Viva, I wanted to create a musical tapestry in which to take refuge and shelter our spirits as we emerge into a changed world and into a larger conversation with our lives.

Spanning four centuries of Western musical canon, this program traverses the earthly and the celestial, rapture and anguish, birth and death. I’ve always had great affinity with late Brahms and starting this program with pieces from his op.118, the surging, tumultuous energy of the first Intermezzo and the intoxicating bitter-sweet tenderness of the second Intermezzo, felt like a perfect opener to reflect the emotional landscape of recent times. Bach’s Chaconne, arranged by Brahms for pianist’s left hand, was the next inevitable choice. This piece has always occupied the prime position in the inner pantheon of my musical soul, its sheer emotional amplitude and power staggering. Brahms himself wrote to Clara Schumann of this piece: “The Chaconne is, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and most incomprehensible pieces of music…the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad”. I have studied this work with my late teacher, the great Leon Fleisher, whose recording of the Chaconne remains the absolute ideal for me, and this is a tribute and homage to this indomitable man, artist, and teacher. They say an audience needs a change of pace two thirds into the performance – that is where the magical, otherworldly universe of George Crumb enters this program. Crumb’s imaginative use of the instrument transports one into a mythical world echoing with ancient sounds of minstrels’ lutes, Coventry carols, bells, and gentle, mysterious nursery tunes. Just before the pandemic engulfed the world, I was in Padua (Italy) looking at Giotto’s Nativity frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel which inspired Crumb’s Little suite for Christmas. Performing it in this program made me relive these precious, indelible memories… To close off this program, I wanted something intensely moving – something that would speak profoundly to the collective human experience of the past two years. I couldn’t think of a more fitting work than Janacek’s Sonata, a brand-new piece for me which I have wanted to learn for many years. Few musical works achieve the emotional potency of Janacek’s masterpiece, and few conjure the anguish and the rapture heard in this astonishing composition.

The mixture of excitement and trepidation I felt on the day of the filmed performance was palpable. Because of the extended lockdown in Sydney and the interstate border closures, which led to the cancellation of all my concerts, I have not performed in front of an audience, live or digital, for nearly 6 months! Adrenaline pulsing and excitement rising, I entered a beautifully lit studio and an intimately set up space with a gorgeous 6-foot piano, 4 cameras and lots of mics for company. Was this a live performance? Yes. But without an audience. Was this a recording? Yes. But done in one continuous take. Whatever it was, and however unusual a setting, I had to leap in, and to leap wholeheartedly, courageously, and unreservedly. How lucky I was that two of my favourite people in the world – Katherine Kemp (Director of Concerts & Communities at Musica Viva) and her beautiful daughter Maggie – came along to listen and to support, even if from a tech desk outside the studio. So while solitary in the performance space, with just the music and the composers to commune with, Katherine’s and Maggie’s presence made my heart so full and joyful, the music poured, performance instincts developed over decades of performing kicked in, and off I went, grateful for the opportunity to make music again, to transmit a living moment in time through the beautiful sounds imagined by the great composers all these years and centuries past."

Join us from the comfort of your home on Thursday, 18 November for Sonya Lifschitz's spellbinding performance. Tickets start from just $5. Book yours here