Alan Hicks is one of Australia’s foremost vocal coaches and accompanists. He currently works in the Vocal and Opera Studies and Piano Accompaniment Areas at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. In the course of eight years as a freelance pianist in London, Alan appeared at major recital venues including the Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square. As pianist with the London-based Australian contemporary music group the Bennelong Ensemble, he toured to Italy and the UK. Returning to Australia, he was appointed Head of Voice at the School of Music in Canberra, 2008-12 and was Musical Director of the University of Canberra Chorale, 2013-16. As well as being an accomplished recital and concert accompanist, Alan’s operatic credits include : Albert Herring, Dido and Aeneas, Grimm and the Blue Crown Owl, Die Zauberflöte, Suor Angelica/Gianni Schicchi and Die Fledermaus and chorus master for Tosca, The Barber of Seville, La Traviata and the ARIA-nominated From a Black Sky.
THE STREET TALKED TO ALAN HICKS BEFORE THE WORLD PREMIERE OF THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT.
DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC?
I’ve been surrounded by music since before I was born. My mum played the piano and my dad sang. My mum accompanied singers and instrumentalists and played chamber music too. I’m sure I picked up on the pleasure it gave her even before I was born. I’m a bit shy by nature so music has been a great way to meet and share with people. Spending a couple of hours a week with adults teaching me piano and flute, then joining bands as a teenager (playing flute) and travelling to competitions was a big part of my teenage years. I love working with other musicians and being an educator. However long the list of essentials for life is, music is up there with air, water, food and love for me.
OUTLINE THE ART OF BEING A PIANO ACCOMPANIST?
I quite like the term “accompanist” though there are many who don’t, preferring “Collaborative Pianist” or “Associate Artist”. Whatever the terminology, for me it’s many things – becoming one with the music and your fellow performer(s), supporting them in the rehearsal and preparation processes, being positive, calm, competent, as well as free to express myself through the music and in some cases to lead and guide the performance. There’s a balance to be found between freedom of expression, fantasy and security that is different with every person I work with. It makes for a very interesting work life.
THE TEAM BEHIND THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT IS IMPRESSIVE AND COVERS A LOT OF TERRITORY. HOW DID YOU COME TO BE A PART OF THIS NEW WORK?
I’ve been involved with productions at the Street Theatre for many years, collaboration initially with Director Caroline Stacey in School of Music productions, then developing and performing Chrissie Shaw’s Bijou at the Street Theatre, and as Chorus Master for From the Black Sky. Caroline approached me to be the pianist for The Weight of Light a couple of years ago. We’d been talking about staged song cycles for many years and this was a wonderful opportunity to approach that art form from a dramatic perspective.
HOW DO YOU FEEL THE SONG CYCLE AS A FORM IS HARNESSED IN THIS WORK?
This is something we’ve been discussing constantly through our rehearsal period. What we often think of as a song cycle can have a huge variety of origins. Sometimes poetry cycles were set in their entirety by a composer, other times only parts of the cycle, sometimes the poetry was in translation from the original and other times the composer carefully selected a variety of poems to tell a story that perhaps wasn’t intended by the poet or poets. Sitting in a concert hall listening to a “song cycle” we’re not always aware of that. I think the way James and Nigel have collaborated on this gives it a compelling integrity. I hope we’re able to convey that and tell the story as they intended.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR YOU PERFORMING IN THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT?
Organising all the extended techniques that happen inside the piano: paper on strings, bows made of fishing line that need to be made, sanded, rosined and inserted, playing harmonics on the strings of the piano, plucking strings with a plectrum, striking the frame of the piano with mallets and the strings with other mallets, all of this within a sense of the drama of the work.
HOW HAVE YOU AND SINGER MICHAEL LAMPARD ESTABLISHED YOUR RELATIONSHIP?
I knew of Michael by reputation as an art song artist but we hadn’t met until December last year when we met to explore the work together with James, Nigel and Caroline in Sydney. We’ve had another day of rehearsal in Melbourne but primarily it’s been through these two weeks of production that we’ve built our relationship. The process of preparing for performance has been very collaborative and often in rehearsal I’m able to listen and observe as Michael and Caroline discuss dramatic aspects of the work. That allows me to reflect on my musical interpretation and hopefully leads to a richer performance. Michael was also kind enough to turn pages for my Art Song Canberra recital with Ayse Göknur Shanal last Sunday (on his day off!).
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO SUCCESS?
Preparation, persistence, passion, collaboration and courage.
IS THERE SOMEONE YOU HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO ACCOMPANY?
Some of my most memorable musical experiences have been to do with the intensity of the moment, rather than the fame or stature of the performer, so no, I don’t have anyone that springs to mind. It’s a wonderful thing about performing that those moments can appear in the most unlikely circumstances.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR ASPIRING MUSICIANS?
Work hard, keep an open mind, work hard, get to know yourself, word hard, don’t be afraid.
WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Working with others and teaching.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?
I’ve been reading short stories in Italian. I’ve just finished watching Stranger Things with my family – we loved the first series but I haven’t quite got into the second yet.