Composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s favourite landscape is the Australian bush with its contrasting textures of grass and trees. She has vivid memories of her impressions of the Blue Mountains shortly after arriving in New South Wales as a teenage Russian migrant.
‘The mountains were scary; they were so high and I closed my eyes as we were driving because the walls seemed so close.’
The ‘sunburnt country’ has since become her beloved home and it is fitting Kats-Chernin has been commissioned to set to music the iconic Dorothea MacKellar poem My Country.
‘I love the poem and I’m touched that I was asked as I wasn’t born here. But I feel at home here and it is part of my heart to be in this country.’
The a capella piece will be premiered by the Vienna Boys Choir on their national tour which visits Western Australia on September 22nd. The choristers – aged between 10 and 14 – may not be able to identify with the ‘sapphire-misted mountains/ The hot gold hush of noon’ in MacKellar’s poem, but Kats-Chernin found plenty in common when she visited Vienna earlier this year.
‘The boys are great, they are so fun and alive. They have a big range and they sing wonderfully in tune. Their sound is more silvery than girls, it feels like they have a thickness to the timbre. We workshopped some ideas together and they are smart, they learn so fast.’
Initially it seemed impossible to add music to words already so powerfully and beautifully conceived. Instead of attempting to evoke landscape in the music (‘Other composers write bird and insect sounds but that is not what I do, it would sound contrived’), she chose an irregular time-signature with five beats in a bar and opted for a non-sentimental tribute.
Within a few weeks she had written Core of My Heart layering favourite phrases from the poem to create contrasting textures much like the bush landscape she loves. ‘I love a sunburnt country’ and ‘opal-hearted country’ are repeated by altos and then sopranos and ‘core of my heart, my country!’ is declared with a sweeping melody line.
The composer says Core of My Heart’s combination of an ancient landscape and new music is well-suited to the Vienna Boys Choir, who will also sing Viennese classics by Schubert, Mozart and Strauss on their Australian tour.
‘This is a world class choir, an unbelievably great choir. It is a very old tradition but very young voices, I think it is amazing. They make a special sound; it is so pure, so angelic and very direct, it moves you to tears.’
Kats-Chernin’s music typically bubbles with enthusiasm, driven by buoyant rhythms and colourful melodies. It is also intensely autobiographical and mostly written in minor keys gently laced with melancholy. Core of My Heart is one of the few works Kats-Chernin has set in a major key signature.
‘This is not a piece for a minor key, it is too positive, too optimistic. I chose F major and G major which are keys of fun for me, sunny yellow and orange colours.’
Kats-Chernin’s effervescent music has won her fans around the world. She is superstar of Australian composers and the subject of multiple television documentaries, with an exclusive photographer and several personal copyists. She is regularly commissioned by the world’s leading orchestras and the song Eliza’s Aria from her Wild Swans ballet made it to number one on the UK Classical Charts and has been remixed by several DJ’s.
Most recently Kats-Chernin has been residing in Berlin working on a commission from the Komische Opera to arrange Monteverdi’s operas Orpheus, Odysseus and Poppea. The complete trilogy will be premiered on September 16th to mark the beginning of Australian director Barrie Kosky at the helm of the Komishe Opera. The twelve hour performance will feature Kats-Chernin’s unique instrumentation of Monteverdi’s orchestral sketches and will involve 200 performers.
Travel is becoming increasingly difficult for the composer who is suffering from a slipped disk. When possible she prefers to be composing at her piano in the Sydney suburb of Coogee. Not far from her house is the ‘jewel –sea’ described in MacKellar’s poem. ‘Her beauty and her terror -/ The wide brown land for me!’
Vienna Boys Choir Perth Concert Hall Saturday 8pm, Mandurah Performing Arts Centre September Sunday 2pm.