In Conversation: Bernadette Harvey

In Conversation: Bernadette Harvey

The pianist on sonata form, championing Australian composers and the joys of multi-sensory art.

Bernadette Harvey
Sydney, Australia

In Conversation: Bernadette Harvey

The pianist on sonata form, championing Australian composers and the joys of multi-sensory art.

Your newest work, The Sonata Project, looks at your love for the solo piano recital and your passion for Australian composers. How did the concept come to you and what are you hoping to achieve through its performance?

My love of the sonata is both an ongoing a research project and a collaboration. By offering contemporary composers my skills as an interpreter and partner in the creation of new, substantial solo works for piano, I feel really immersed in the rebirth and continued evolution of the form!

My is it important that all instrumentalists champion local composers? When did this become part of your practice and what have some of your commissioning highlights been so far in the development of The Sonata Project?

I’m passionate on this point! My role is to choose composers who I think would be prepared to take on the challenge, those early on in their careers who have the ambition and can use it as a springboard of sorts, especially women composers who are under-represented. I really feel that for Australian artists playing on the world stage, engaging with and enriching our own musical life is both an obligation and a privilege.

How important are the non-musical aspects of your performances: the space, the clothes you wear, the lighting, etc.? Where in the process do you begin to think about these things: is it from the beginning, or once the music has already been planned?

The ‘multi-sensory’ aspect has been integral to the project’s concept from the beginning! In endeavouring to forge new ways to engage 21st century classical music audiences, the Sonata Project’s staging has incorporated fashion, art and interior design to recreate the frisson and opulence that once surrounded the performances of legendary Romantic musicians inside 19th century salons. Celebrating a departure from the more rigid style of traditional performances of recent decades, I’ll be dressed in whimsical designs by cult Australian fashion label, Romance Was Born, with a sensory utopia interior designed by Lynne Bradley (a former fellow student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music). Her decadent stage décor is very deliberately calculated to provoke emotive responses that evolve with each of the sonatas. Uniquely crafted furniture and innovative props, compelling floral arrangements and immersive abstract paintings by Lara Merrett will also adorn the stage. Franz Liszt: eat your heart out!

Performing new works and collaborating with exciting composers and designers seems to be a priority of yours - can you tell me about where this interest came from and what about working with other artists sparks your imagination?

The project is built on the triangulation of form, composer and performer. The form offers to the project the gravitas of its identity, its history and longevity, its restrictions and its freedoms. Its narrative nature is built on conflict and resolution, contrast and unity. But the Romantics went much further in their salons: it wasn’t just about passive audience members in the dark. There was much to thrill the senses. To truly create an immersive experience involves collaboration across art-forms: to absorb and reflect many layers of sensory and aesthetic stimuli. I’m very excited about the result!

Tell me about your rehearsal style - what does an average day look like for you in the lead up to a new project opening? How do you find the motivation to keep practising when you’re busy with all the other tasks that are required to put on a performance?

Having a support team upon whom you can rely for emotional and practical support is the most important element in pulling off a successful performance. I couldn't stage a performance like this, with four new contemporary works in the one program, without this help. I have a routine of exercise, diet and practice which I follow pretty much all year, but it becomes even more tightly regulated a couple of weeks out from the concert. I try to shed all other commitments as much as I can and talk less. I like quiet, and I can come across to some as a little aloof. I do a lot of slow and thoughtful work at the keyboard and a lot of inner listening away from it.

What do you wish you’d known about practising when you were starting out as a piano student?

Developing a practice routine is a very personal thing. It's a long and continuing process of self-awareness. There is an over-supply of advice on the issue in my opinion. There's nothing I wish I'd known or wish I'd been told at any  particular point in my life about practising and I'm still discovering for myself new ways of doing things. I've been blessed with remarkable teachers and surrounded by the most gifted of performers, all of whom have taught me something but really, the buck stops with me!

It is coming up to examination time around Australia and students are now busily preparing for recitals, concertos and technical exams. Do you have any words of advice for young musicians getting ready for this often nerve-wracking time?

Slow practice!  Have a firm idea of what you want to achieve musically, and don't listen too much to the advice of friends. Stay focused.

Creating a career in the music industry is no easy task and often takes a lot of skills outside of performance and technique. What have been some of the most important tools you’ve picked up that have been valuable in developing, staging and performing this project?

Staging my own performance is very difficult and not something I do often. It requires enormous amounts of time, money and energy which the artistic goal must transcend. For me, there has to be a strong reason why. If this is firmly in my mind, then other things fall into place relatively easily.

The Sonata Project - featuring Bernadette Harvey performing her newly commissioned works by Aristea Mellos, Melody Eotvos, Jane Stanley and Ross Edwards - takes place on Saturday 11th November from 6pm (pre-concert entertainment) in the Verbrugghen Hall of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Full details and bookings here. Photo © Craig Wall, styling by Lynne Bradley.