Emeritus Professor Larry Sitsky AO. Photo by Lannon Harley.
Moscow is organising a special tribute to an ANU academic. Evana Ho reports.
At first, Emeritus Professor Larry Sitsky AO thought the email was a hoax.
He has received high honours for his contribution to music, has had no fewer than five portraits painted of him and has been feted with numerous dedicated events.
But even after all that, he couldn’t believe the message from Russia.
“I thought it was either someone having some fun or that I'd read on and they'd ask for my bank number,” he says.
It turns out a researcher at the Tchiakovsky Conservatory – formerly the Moscow Conservatory – was writing his PhD on Sitsky's work.
He said the conservatory was planning to hold a five-day celebration of the academic’s contribution to music.
It took a couple of weeks of email exchanges for Sitsky to be convinced that this wasn't a joke.
He relates this story at the ANU School of Music, which he helped establish more than 50 years ago. His office is modest in size and wallpapered with the faces of famous composers.
“They remind me of where I've come from,” he explains. “We build on to the past.”
He shows a framed photograph of Russian composer Anton Rubenstein, whose younger brother Nikolai founded the Moscow Conservatory. Anton Rubenstein is the subject of just one of the books Sitsky has written on Russian music. Across his professional career, he has played and recorded a lot of Russian music and set his translations of Russian poetry for voice.
The Russians can claim him as a kind of descendant of Russian culture, he says. His connection to the motherland is through his grandparents on both sides, Russian Jews who fled to China immediately following the October Revolution.
Sitsky was born in Tianjin and describes his upbringing as a ‘cultural salad’.
He grew up speaking Russian, Chinese, English and Hebrew. During the occupation in World War II, Japanese became a compulsory subject in school, so he learned that too. Their exit from China was involuntary, the result of Mao Zedong wanting all Europeans to leave the country.
“This is very tricky because where do Russians go? Well, they go back to Russia,” Sitsky says. “But the Russians that ran away from Soviet Russia were regarded as traitors. So going back probably meant going straight into a labour camp.”
The family ended up in Australia and Sitsky is grateful this country took them in. “The options were very difficult otherwise,” he says.
Once in Australia, he set about trying to forget the past – including casting aside his ambitions of being a poet in Russian – and become an Australian ‘in whatever sense I understood that’.
“But of course, one's past is one's past – and there are certain things ingrained that you never get rid of.”
In 1977, 11 years after Sitsky became the foundational Head of Keyboard Studies at the ANU School of Music, he was invited to be Australia's first cultural ambassador to Russia.
“The Soviets were still in power, my mother was still alive, and she begged me not to go,” he recalls. “She said: ‘They'll never let you out’.”
Sitsky didn't share her reservations and proceeded with the visit. And while walking through Gorky Park in Moscow, his interpreter complimented him on his Russian. “She joked, 'You know, you'd make a perfect spy. You speak Russian and English fluently with no accent’.” He laughs. “I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had said yes.”
Since then, he has returned to Russia to give guest lectures and has been a guest of the Ministry of Culture on several occasions.
He returns there in September. During the five-day celebration, coinciding with the year of his 85th birthday, he will give a lecture on his music and Australian music. There will be a recital of his piano music, a full concert of his chamber music and perhaps concerts of his vocal and orchestral music.
“It still feels a bit unreal to me, but I'll go along and I'll enjoy it, I'm sure,” Sitsky says. “The Russians are very good hosts.”