Paul Grabowsky tours Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Perth Concert Hall with Musica Viva

David CusworthThe West Australian
Paul Grabowsky brings Bach’s Goldberg Variations back to Perth with Musica Viva in June.
Camera IconPaul Grabowsky brings Bach’s Goldberg Variations back to Perth with Musica Viva in June. Credit: Alice Healy

AussiejJazz legend Paul Grabowsky AO is turning full circle with a Music Viva tour of Bach’s Goldberg Variations coming to Perth in June.

The multi-award winner’s first outing with the Baroque-era favourite came two decades ago, and it all happened by chance.

“This all started in Perth, in 2007, I was playing for the Festival of Perth with my quintet and we’d played and I’d flown back to the east,” he says.

“At the time I was the artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival, so I had an office in Brisbane. I’d just got back and the phone rang and it was Paul Kildea, who’s now the artistic director of Musica Viva but at the time he was working for the (Perth) Festival.

“He said, ‘Look, we’ve got a situation here. We had a gig where a Russian concert pianist is playing the Goldberg Variations, and a Finnish jazz pianist is going to play an improvised response to it and he has had to return at very short notice for personal reasons to Finland. So how would you feel about stepping in?’

“I said, ‘When is it?’ And he said, ‘It’s actually the day after tomorrow’.”

Grabowsky says that was good, because he didn’t have time to think too much about it.

“I threw myself into it and just allowed whatever was going to happen to happen. I didn’t have much of a plan,” he says.

Fast forward to 2021 and Kildea, planning the current season at Musica Viva, called Grabowsky about reprising the Goldberg gig on tour.

Andrea Lam.
Camera IconAndrea Lam. Credit: Jacquie Manning

“I’ve never really considered that that was going to be a thing, so I’m delighted of course, and the pianist who’s playing the actual variations is Andrea Lam, who’s a Sydney-based pianist, a really wonderful pianist, so I’m looking forward to it very much,” he says.

The national tour — only the second Musica Viva has been able to stage since borders reopened this year — starts on June 11 in Brisbane, with Perth the second stop on June 13.

And for Grabowsky, it’s more than a coincidence that he’s going back to Bach.

“For me it’s kind of a tribute, or a homage to Bach,” he says. “He was a great improviser himself, famously so, probably the greatest improviser of his era, probably one of the greatest improvisers of all time, I would imagine.

“No one of course was able to record him, unfortunately, but there are many, many reports of what an amazing improviser he was.

“He was able to do all sorts of extraordinary contrapuntal things, fugues and canons, in mirror, reverse, all sorts of stuff. He had just an extraordinary ability like that.”

Other jazz pianists have presented their response to the piece but Grabowsky is planning something different.

For a start he’s not going to attempt each individual variation — there are 32 of them in all.

“That’s not really what I’m interested in doing. I’ve been spending a lot of time with them, particularly with the harmonic structure. I’ve learnt to play the aria itself, the theme, as Bach wrote in every key and familiarised myself with how the harmonies move,” he says.

“So rather than play it all in G major or G minor, as the original was written, because I’m doing a completely improvised response to it, on a modern instrument, and the whole idea is to give it a very contemporary flavour, it will very much be an improvised performance.”

Lam, who will play the original version, studied at Yale and was a semifinalist in the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, silver medallist in the 2009 San Antonio Piano Competition, and winner of the ABC’s Young Performer of the Year Award.

“I haven’t actually heard her playing the Goldberg but I’m sure she’ll play with great authority, and I’m very much looking forward to that,” Grabowsky says.

The composer-in-residence with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Monash University professor will be back in Perth later this year with Paul Kelly touring their duet album, and he’s also working with Archie Roache.

Before lockdowns, Grabowsky was a regular at Perth’s Ellington jazz club and could be again.

“I hope so, it’s just a matter of time,” he says.

“I’ve got a lot of stuff which was put on hold and I’m catching up with a lot of those gigs and clearing that backlog.

“But I love playing at the Ellington, it’s a great venue.”

Paul Grabowsky and Andrea Lam are at Perth Concert Hall on June 13 at 7.30pm.

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