Gigs at Grainger 1: Now Meets Now - Q&A With Curator Ross McHenry

Published in Arts  
Ross McHenry Ross McHenry

In a first, composer and bassist Ross McHenry will joins forces with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for a specially-curated concert.

It's a celebration of the ever-changing landscape of music in Australia, featuring two world premieres.

Here, Ross McHenry answers some questions about the event.

You are born and bred Adelaidian, how does it feel to be performing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra?

It’s an incredible honour. To have the opportunity to write for and perform with one of Australia’s flagship orchestras is just tremendous. I have always wanted to write for orchestra and so I’m really excited.

What’s your earliest recollection of seeing the orchestra perform?

My mother was a professional ballet dancer when she was younger and my family on my mother’s side are big classical music fans and we always listened to classical repertoire at home. For this reason, my experience of the orchestra in performance was a very early one, so early that I can’t really remember what age but I remember going many times to what was then the family concerts series when I was quite young. We lived in the Adelaide hills and didn’t go to the city a lot as a family, so I remember it was always an exciting adventure and we loved sitting in the balconies of the Festival Theatre in particular, as it was a thrill to be up high!

Growing up in Adelaide what and who were your musical influences?

I was fortunate, through my parents, to be engaged in Adelaide’s many wonderful festivals and musical institutions from a young age. In particular WOMADelaide had a major impact on me as a young person. It introduced me to a range of musical styles that I wouldn’t have engaged with if it wasn’t for that festival. I have also been fortunate to have come up as an artist surrounded by, and being a part of, the Adelaide Jazz community. I have been influenced by many of the key artists within that community including people like Mark Ferguson and Adam Page who have a history with the ASO.

Your gig at Grainger features two world class premieres for improvising piano, how much will be improvised on the night compared to fully composed?

The concert is split into two distinct halves. The first half features two world premieres. The first is my Concerto for improvising piano and orchestra. The concept for this work is that the piano feature elements of the concerto are for the most part improvised, but they are improvised within harmonic and rhythmic frameworks that fits structurally within the concurrent parts that are completely notated. For the most part, the work is fully composed, but I feel that the freedom that the improvised elements adds creates an interesting point of difference for this work. The second premiere is Matthew Sheens' new work and that work is completely notated with no improvisation at all, even though Matt is one of the world's pre-eminent improvisors! I’ve heard some excerpts from the score writing software audio and I can honestly say, even with the terrible sounds of computer orchestras, that it’s a remarkable and exciting piece that I can’t wait for the world to hear!
The second half of the concert features my trio with the orchestra featuring Matthew Sheens and NZ based drummer Myele Manzanza as well of course myself on electric bass. In this part of the concert there is a lot of improvisation from the trio in between orchestral sections. It’s a nice contrast from the first part of the programme.

You strive to make genuine music, describe your soundscape for 'Now Meets Now' and your connection to the work?

It’s always very difficult to describe music in text. What I would say though is that both Matt and I, and also Adam who has done much of the orchestration for the trio repertoire we will be performing, are artists who have always had a profound love of orchestral music and so even though we are jazz musicians, this is not a typical jazz meets orchestra concert. It is a concert of new music and new orchestrations that aims to bring our experiences of creating original music in a variety of contexts into an orchestral setting that also honours our commitment and love of classical music. I have always been influenced by a wide range of composers in my writing and I think this comes from my exposure to this music as a young person through my mother and grandparents. For me Stravinsky, Bartok, Reich, Glass, Hindemith, Schoenberg and many others are important touchstones. I’ve not tried directly to realise anything musically with respect to these influences in this concert but what I’m getting at I suppose, is that because this is not a traditional jazz meets the orchestra concert I think what you will hear is a perspective that incorporates many things and one that hopefully also realises these things in a way that understands the orchestra rather than imposing the orchestra on a specific style, or a specific style onto the orchestra.

Tell us about your relationship with Adelaide born New York based pianist Matthew Sheens?

Matthew and I were in the same year at the Elder Conservatorium. We played a lot together when we were studying and although we stayed in contact when Matt moved to the US we didn’t play together for many years after he left Australia. Around 2015 we started playing again regularly and since that time have been involved in many performances, tours and recordings together. Matt is a remarkable musician – an inspired improvisor and in my mind one of the most important composers operating in the world today. I strongly suggest that anyone interested in his work listens to his most recent album 'American Counterpoint'. It’s written for string quartet and jazz trio and I personally think it’s a masterpiece. I value my musical relationship with Matthew and our friendship very highly. In considering the makeup of this concert I really wanted for audiences to hear Matt’s remarkable playing as well as his compositions and so that is why I decided on writing a concerto for him and to also have one of his new works as a feature in the concert.  

How many instruments do you play? Do you have a favourite and why?
I am a bass player. I write music at the piano but I am not a piano player! Really I just play bass. For me, and this is just a personal thing, I don’t consider any instrument I don’t perform on an instrument that I 'play'!

As a father how important do you feel music education is and why?

Music education is of profound importance to a happy, healthy society. I cannot begin to quantify the incredibly positive impact musical education has had on my life and my capacity to be a happy functional member of society, and so as a father I obviously feel very strongly that music will be a part of my children’s lives. To me music is a gift, and I’m so thankful that gift was given to me and I plan to also give it to my children. I also believe that music provides a framework for a deeper understanding of self and also provides a context for an emotional understanding of many aspects of the human condition. I understand also that music can be an incredible tool for developing other areas of cognition, but for me first and foremost it is the joy that one is able to experience playing music, coupled with the joy of sharing this experience with others that is the most important thing and I think that all children should have the opportunity to learn an instrument and participate in the arts. For me access to the arts, or perhaps simply access to a means through which children can express themselves in a creative way is a fundamental human right.

Finish these two sentences:

Music to me is…the most important thing in my life outside of my family

Adelaide’s music scene is…one of the most generous and high-achieving scenes in the world

'Gigs at Grainger 1: Now Meets Now' plays Grainger Studio on 22 February.

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