Timelight. Julian Bliss and NZTrio. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Tuesday, August 28 at 8pm. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.
British clarinettist Julian Bliss seems uncomfortable with being described as a prodigy. But it's a label that's hard to avoid when discussing the 29-year-old musician.
Bliss began lessons at the age of four, using a special clarinet made for children. He had first televised performance at the age of five and was invited to play at Buckingham Palace when he was six. In 1997 he enrolled at the Purcell School for Young Musician. He then went to the US, where he earned a postgraduate artist's diploma at Indiana University by the age of 12, though it was granted when he completed high school. And his success continued unabated: the award-winning musician has had an international career as a concert and chamber music recital performerr and recording artist.
He's in Australia with New Zealand piano trio NZTrio - currently Ashley Brown (cellist and founding member), Stephen De Pledge (pianist) and Wilma Smith (violinist) - to perform Twilight, a program of chamber music featuring what Bliss calls "probably one of the most powerful pieces of chamber music ever written," French composer Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.
Bliss says Messiaen wrote the piece while in a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. It premiered on January 15, 1941 outdoors on a rainy day with Messiaen on the piano and three other musicians on clarinet, violin and cello. It was an unusual combination of instruments at the time but they were playing on what they could find, in front of an audience of other prisoners and their guards.
"It's quite a powerful piece to perform," Bliss says.
It's also a challenging one, both mentally and technically he says, with some difficult solos - the third movement, Abyss of birds, is for the clarinet alone- and imitations of birdsong: in the opening movement, Crystal liturgy, for example, the clarinet imitates a blackbird and the violin a nightingale.
Also on the program is New Zealand composer Ross Harris’s There May Be Light, which the composer wrote for this ensemble when they were on tour across the Tasman a couple of years ago.
Bliss says it has a lot of multiphonics and unconventional frequencies that often give it quite an eerie sound.
Finally, there's Australian composer John Psathas’s Island Songs, inspired by different kinds of Greek dance music.
"It's quite an extraordinary piece," Bliss says.
"The trio have played it but this is the first time I've played it."
Bliss says he doesn't know why he chose the clarinet as his instrument at such an early age. His parents took him to a music shop to try different instruments and see if there was one he liked.
"The clarinet was it."
At that time and during his childhood, he says, he wasn't thinking of making the clarinet his career but played for "pure enjoyment".
But, he says, "I was very lucky to have the opportunities I did when I was young."
There were multiple television appearances besides his debut at four and when the right person saw him there it led to his Buckingham Palace performance before the royal family who are, he says, very interested in music and were very supportive.
"It was absolutely amazing," he says.
"They said they liked me. Prince Philip is probably the least stiff-upper-lip of them all, a very honest man - that sometimes gets him in a little bit of trouble."
And that performance wasn't a one-off: the Queen also asked him to perform during her golden jubilee celebration in 2002.
During his time in the US he enjoyed being exposed to new kinds of music making and other teachers and meeting other performers. He's also involved in the design of a new line of clarinets there made by Leblanc.
As for Australia, he's been here several times and enjoyed his visits. While here he hopes to catch up with the violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julien Quentin, who are also on tour in this country.
Bliss' repertoire in performance and on CD ranges from Mozart to Benny Goodman and he says, "To me, all music is equal: it comes from the same thing. If you like it and enjoy it and can play it, why not? I enjoy myself."