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Elevating the state of play

7 July 2023

When Melissa Fitzgerald went looking for guitar repertoire with a uniquely local flavour, she came up short. Now the quartet she founded is bringing West Australian landscapes to the world.

Melissa Fitzgerald loves the versatility of the guitar. 

“It can assume a harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, or blended musical role. The guitar has all the harmonic possibilities of a piano, but with the flexibility of tone of a string instrument,” she says. 

“Guitar player/composer Leo Brouwer once said that ‘we are millionaires, in terms of repertoire, colour and expressiveness’, and it’s true – it seems like the possibilities are endless.” 

While her guitarist dad sparked her fascination, Fitzgerald became a devotee after seeing a high school performance of Llobet’s arrangement of El Testament d’Amelia. Determined to study music at university, she spent every spare moment practising. 

“During uni, I surrounded myself with incredible musicians, took every masterclass opportunity and went to as many guitar performances as possible to open my ears to a wide range of repertoire,” she says. “I’m the kind of person who goes 110 percent at everything, so naturally I couldn’t just do a BMus, I had to go the whole way and get the PhD!” 

Now Fitzgerald is the one giving lessons, teaching guitar chamber music at the UWA Conservatorium of Music and a host of high school students. 

In demand as a soloist and chamber musician, she founded the Perth Guitar Quartet – which also includes husband Jonathan Fitzgerald, Don Candy and Jameson Feakes – to champion Australian repertoire and new works for guitar in particular.  

The quartet’s latest project, an album entitled West Australian Landscapes, fills a gaping hole in that repertoire. Featuring new work from three composers, it’s a dream made reality thanks to a grant from the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

“Having something out there that is distinctly West Australian is really special and I hope these works form an important part of our Australian guitar canon,” Fitzgerald says.

Julie Hosking caught up with the guitar whizz ahead of the world premiere of the new works.

The Perth Guitar Quartet will launch West Australian Landscapes at the Perth International Classical Guitar Festival. Photo supplied

Julie Hosking: How did the Perth Guitar Quartet come about?  
Melissa Fitzgerald: Saffire: The Australian Guitar Quartet (Slava Grigoryan, Leonard Grigoryan, Karin Schaupp, Gareth Koch) was a huge inspiration to me when I was a teenager, and I always aspired to be a part of a professional quartet. Throughout university, I frequently thought about how the east coast had multiple professional guitar quartets but Perth didn’t even have one.  

As part of my PhD I was performing and recording all of Nigel Westlake’s guitar works. One of them was Six Fish, a guitar quartet originally written for Saffire. So, it seemed like the right time to make things happen. The Perth Guitar Quartet (PGQ) had its debut at my recital in 2014, and since that time we’ve played many concerts. Our line-up has changed over the years as our careers took us in different directions, but our goal to champion Australian repertoire has always remained the same.  

JH: Tell us about the genesis of West Australian Landscapes.
MF: In 2016 we had our first big project, Sound from the Ground, where we worked with the National Trust. Performing site-specific works at the East Perth Cemeteries was really interesting to us, and we felt that exploring this sort of concept down the track again would be a great idea. 

Towards the end of 2020, Jonathan and I were talking about Australian guitar repertoire, and I commented that much of the Australian guitar repertoire is inspired in some way by landscapes, and that these were largely all locations over east. To date, there is no repertoire with a specifically West Australian focus. He suggested that maybe we could change that by commissioning new works for classical guitar quartet that take inspiration from West Australian landscapes. PGQ decided we wanted to involve established composers as well as early-career composers. All the composers have created completely different works from one another, all with different sources of inspiration. It’s made for a really rewarding and exciting project. 

JH: Describe the three separate works and the places they represent. 
MF: Robert Davidson has composed Three Moods, inspired by a trip to Perth that he made as a teenager. The first movement is inspired by a sunset on the Swan River, the second is titled Sunrise, and the third draws its inspiration from Cottesloe. His guitar works are some of my favourites, and to have him write for us is a huge privilege. 

Lydia Gardiner is an early-career West Australian composer, and her work The Town of Wind is inspired by the leaning trees that grow in Greenough, just outside Geraldton. Gardiner takes inspiration from nature and the literal form of the tree and the flat plains where it grows. The movements capture everything from the wind to the roots and branches of the trees, to the imagery of cars zipping along the highway on the drive between Perth and Geraldton.  

Nicholas Bannan has composed a single-movement work, titled Ensemble. It’s inspired by bird life in the West Australian landscape, specifically the movement of birds in a sort of controlled chaos. As the flock departs, we are left with the quiet of the landscape – the flurries of frenzied activity, juxtaposed with silence make for some magical moments. 

Melissa Fitzgerald says her guitarist husband Jonathan has a great ear for the finer details. Photo: Melissa Fitzgerald

JH: You perform with your husband – how do you help (or hinder) each other?
MF: I love working alongside Jonathan in the quartet, and I was thrilled that he joined our line-up in 2016. I love his playing as he has such a beautiful sound and plays so expressively. He also has the most incredible ear for fine details. It’s this attention to detail that really adds a lot to the end result of our performances, and it helps me to listen a lot more critically and strive for the best musical result.  We’ve always worked really well together as a team, and we deliberately set boundaries on the home/work front: on weekends and holidays, the work talk stops. The email goes on snooze, and we get out to enjoy ourselves! 

JH: What is the difference between performing in a quartet versus solo? 
MF: I much prefer performing in a quartet over solo. I find with solo playing that I can get stuck in my own head a little too much, but with the quartet there’s so much more to focus on. There’s something so enjoyable about bringing a piece of music to life with others. Some of my favourite moments in rehearsal and performance have been with PGQ. 

JH: What do you enjoy about working with the next generation of musicians? 
MF: There are some incredible young musicians out there that I get to work with each week, and the way that some of these teenagers can already play is remarkable! I feel so lucky to be able to guide them, hopefully sharing with them the same enthusiasm and love of music that was shared with me. 

West Australian Landscapes will be launched in concert at the Perth International Classical Guitar Festival, Calloway Auditorium, Conservatorium of Music, UWA, on 28 July 2023. 

Pictured top: Melissa Fitzgerald has a passion for guitar and bringing local works to the fore. Photo supplied

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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