Meet Claire Edwardes

Artist profile

Claire Edwardes playing a percussion instrument
Claire Edwardes, Percussion (Image: Nat Cartney)
From the set of Play School to the mainstage at the Sydney Opera House, Claire Edwardes OAM is ‘the sorceress of percussion’ (CityNews, Canberra).

The only Australian to win the ‘APRA Art Music Award for Excellence by an Individual’ three times, Claire leaps between her role as Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring (2019 Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award winners) and concerto performances with all of the Australian and New Zealand orchestras plus numerous European orchestras.

Add her genre-spanning solo concerts, a broad spectrum of collaborations, premiering hundreds of new works by composers, mentoring the next generation of artists and composers to passionately advocating for equity in classical music through projects such as ‘Rhythms of Change’ and Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers and you begin to appreciate her astonishing energy.

Perhaps her most significant contribution, beyond her endless quest for excellence in performance, is in breaking down the barriers between art music and audiences, through her enthusiasm for bringing new music to unexpected place, presented in original ways. Recently described in The Age as a “prodigiously talented Australian…Edwardes’ is an invigorating musical life force”, Claire is a national treasure in the Australian art music scene.

On 22 / 23 March 2023, Claire Edwardes brings Iain Grandage’s Dances with devils percussion concerto to life at Llewellyn Hall for the CSO’s Fire & Shadow program.

Tell us a bit about how Dances with devils came together. What was it like to collaborate with Iain Grandage?

I actually approached Iain and the Melbourne Symphony about getting this piece happening. I love his music and could imagine a grand concerto for symphony orchestra with a really meaty and fun percussion part coming out of such a collaboration. Iain and I are old friends and he knows me really well as both a human being and a musician! And lo and behold, that is exactly what he created!

I work with composers a great deal in my everyday life but getting a concerto commission up with a symphony orchestra is another thing entirely. It’s a big deal raising the funds and getting the commitment from the orchestras but over a period of years we managed to do it and I was super happy with the final result.

Claire Edwardes holding percussion mallets
Claire Edwardes, Percussion (Image: Nat Cartney)

You’ve performed the concerto with three of Australia’s major orchestras over the past eight years. Has your relationship to the piece changed since the 2015 premiere? Are there moments you always look forward to?

For the premiere, the work was still VERY fresh – Iain had handed me the final part about a week or so earlier and tweaks were being made until the moment I walked onto stage. That is often the case with brand-new works so I am used to it – but it does mean that perfomatively it is not necessarily super ingrained in my muscle memory by that stage.

Living on the edge is something I love doing – and indeed the premiere performances were amazing – but it’s always very satisfying getting to know a work better because it means that you can create music without worrying about the nuts and bolts of what sticks you have to pick up or where you have to go next. I love the phase I’m at now with this concerto and it just gets more and more fun to play.

Claire Edwardes holding percussion bells
Claire Edwardes, Percussion (Image: Nat Cartney)

Do you have any tips for orchestral newcomers or things they might listen out for?

The second movement, Conquering Bush, depicts a women in colonial times who is unable to cope with the incessant birds around her bush home and chooses a drowning death for her and her child. It features a series of percussion instruments being transformed in pitch and timbre by water (a.k.a. Claire chained to a contraption dipping tubular bells into buckets). This movement really shines the spotlight on Iain’s stunning capability to create theatre through concert music. He pushes me to ‘be the woman’ as I play (which is quite confronting and touching) and the music itself is so spooky and sad that often I start crying myself.

In complete contrast, the fourth movement is about Lola Montez whose famed spider dance was the talk of the gold fields when she toured in the 1850s. Tarantella rhythms predominate and I get to combine tambourine and temple blocks with marimba – adding in drums now and then for extra impact. It is a huge amount of fun and I am indebted to Iain for creating such effective music for me, the orchestra and the audience!

You’ve performed in Canberra numerous times. What are some of your favourite memories?

I have spent a lot of time performing in unusual venues under Roland Peelman for the Canberra International Music Festival, as well as at the School of Music and the Street Theatre. Indeed, I look forward to returning the week after this concerto to perform with the group I artistically direct, Ensemble Offspring, at the Street Theatre. Our trio program, Techno Folk, is something completely different again!

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