Genevieve Lacey wears her accolade, “recorder virtuoso”, with softly spoken humility.
“It’s a strange combination of words, isn’t it?” she laughs. “Most unexpected.”
With ARIA, Helpmann and Green Room awards, and Churchill, Freedman and Australia Council fellowships to her name, she puts her success down to “many years of practice”.
“I just love it, it’s my instrument, I think. I’ve played other instruments, too, but it feels just as natural to me as breathing,” she says.
“It’s a great joy to spend my life in its company, really.”
Most of us have heard recorder played in school, but Lacey says there’s much more to the story.
“Like any instrument, the longer you spend with it, the more you become attuned to what it’s able to do,” she says.
“I suppose the other thing I love about the instrument is that in every culture in every age, someone has played a wooden pipe. It has cousin instruments all around the world and there’s something really fundamental about that act of making music that way that has been part of our human story since time immemorial.
“It’s beautiful to tap into the resonances of that, and that also makes the instrument an incredibly good traveller or chameleon because it can sit alongside many different instruments in many different contexts and sound quite at home.”
She also likes the “humility of the instrument”.
“Like, it is just a simple wooden pipe and there’s something very honest and beautiful about the purity and simplicity of that,” Lacey says.
On tour this month and next with the Australian String Quartet, she’s playing two pieces by Australian composers: Elena Kats-Chernin’s Re-inventions, and a world premiere of Quintet for Bass Recorder and Strings by WA’s own Lachlan Skipworth.
“It’s written for bass recorder, one of the lower instruments, rather than the little instrument that people are used to seeing in a child’s hand,” Lacey says. “This is considerably longer, which means it’s deeper and more resonant, which gives it more expressive capability.
“And Lachlan is someone who has many influences but has a really strong connection with Japan and an instrument called the shakuhachi, which is an incredibly breathy, evocative, quietly powerful instrument, so it feels to me like he’s calling on that in this work.
“It’s called Cavern and it’s as mysterious and evocative as it sounds, submerged deep into the earth, and it’s very lyrical and beautiful.”
Lacey worked with Skipworth during the composition of the piece, and describes him as a “beautiful collaborator”.
“He’s a composer who likes to really get inside the technicalities of an instrument, but also really develop a rapport with the players he’s writing for,” she says.
“He’s very generous and respectful and we’ve had a lovely time working on this.
“We know one another from pre-corona times but this collaboration has all been done remotely, actually.
“It works through the magic of Zoom, and also me making recordings of things here at home in Melbourne and sending them to him, so he can listen to the sound colours and textures.
“For me there’s no substitute for being in a room with someone, there’s so much that can’t really translate across the flat screen. But musicians, like everyone last year, became incredibly adept and adaptable.”
It’s her first time with ASQ, though she has worked with violist Stephen King and the new cellist, Michael Dahlenberg, who joins the quartet for the first time on national tour – one of very few national tours since the COVID era began.
The program includes works by Felix Mendelssohn and Pavel Fischer, and excerpts from Kats-Chernin’s Re-inventions, a work Lacey also premiered 17 years ago.
“It’s an incredibly effervescent, joyful work, it’s infectiously spirit-lifting, beautiful,” she says.
“We’re playing three of six each quite short works, inspired by Bach. Elena’s an amazing pianist, and grew up in Russia, in that great Russian piano tradition. So many piano traditions grew up on the music of JS Bach. So she’s taken his two-part inventions as inspiration for this work and reinvented those works for recorder and string quartet.”
Lacey worked with Kats-Chernin on the premiere in 2004 and the collaboration continues.
“Too often pieces are premiered and might have a short life after the premiere but then quite often sit unplayed for a long time,” she says. “But this piece is just so … audiences just fall for it in such an understandable way that I’ve played it a lot over the years, and that’s so exciting to actually be able to give a piece many lives like that, it’s a wonderful thing.”
ASQ and Lacey appear on May 4 at the Heath Ledger Theatre, and the same day at UWA in an open rehearsal for composition students; another of Lacey’s passions.
“Composers are rare and beautiful creatures,” she says. “It’s the great passion of my life, collaborating with other creative people and bringing the instrument to life in this century.
“The recorder has a very beautiful Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, which I love dearly, but if it’s going to have a future it needs music from this time and place. So I spend a lot of my life commissioning new, particularly Australian works.
“Working alongside a composer is magnificent. You feel as though you become a science laboratory. Someone asks you to do a whole lot of things on the instrument that quite often you would have thought were not possible, or might have thought were, in your conception, ‘Oh I’m not sure that’s what the instrument is about’.
“You’re put through all these amazing challenges that give your playing and yourself as breadth and a depth that you never would have found on your own. It’s completely enlightening.”
ASQ and Genevieve Lacey are at Heath Ledger Theatre on May 4, at 7pm.
ASQ (without Lacey) are at Kidogo Arthouse, Bathers Beach, Fremantle, on May 5, at 5.30pm and 7.30pm.
Tickets from www.asq.com.au.