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Australian classical pianist on feeling the hand of God, rare instruments and the first piano to arrive Down Under

Gift of music I was born in Sydney in 1954. My adoptive parents flew from Dubbo, a little country town in the middle of New South Wales, picked me up and took me home. I have a country heart and a city mind. My parents weren't musical but they realised they had a child with a musical gift. When I was five, they bought a piano from an estate auction. It was an upright American-made piano from 1927 and my whole world changed. They found me a piano teacher in a convent. I've been blessed with good teachers all my life.

When I was nine, we moved to Canberra. I thought we'd moved to paradise because in those days it was utterly green. Even now it's like living in a botanical garden. Eventually I found another piano teacher who was brilliant. I stayed with him until I left home to study at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Instrument of God I had an amazing conversion experience in 1976. A girl at university was a Pentecostal Christian. She got a message from God to track me down. Her parents held a prayer group meeting at the time I visited. I confessed that I had been manic depressive - at times incredibly elated and at other times rather depressed. She said, "I think we should pray."

I thought, "Oh no, she's a religious nut, I'll go through the motions and then I'll run screaming into the night." Then I felt a hand on the back of my neck, pressing my head forward. By the time this had finished, my head was between my knees. I said to God, "If this is anything to do with you, I've got to know now." In that instant, I experienced something that felt as though I were a glass of water being filled up from the bottom to the top.

The girl stood up and prayed in tongues. She was given a translation afterwards and she'd said, "My son, my son, I will hold you in my grace and favour forever. I will never leave you or forsake you." This is what happened on Pentecost to 5,000 people at the same time. It was quite common in the 1970s. It was one of God's strategies for the renewal of the church.

Keys to the past Not long afterwards, I had another life-changing moment, walking down a street in Sydney. I walked past an antiques shop and saw an old piano in the window. It turned out the antiques dealer had a private collection of 50 early pianos, from the 1790s through to about 1850. I had wanted to study harpsichord at the conservatorium, but I knew at that moment that my life's calling was to play music from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The antiques dealer said I could come back and play whenever I wanted. He specialised in antique clocks, which meant that every 15 minutes the entire workshop erupted in this cacophony of cuckooing and clanging and dinging, so much so that I couldn't hear myself play.

All the right notes The so-called early music move­ment - music from the past played on instruments for which it was originally composed - had begun in the early 1960s. When I said I wanted to take up early piano, it was laughed at. It took a long time for the movement and its musical and aesthetic values to filter through the main­stream musical community. Little by little it was under­stood that what I was doing was artistically, if not finan­cially, viable. I had to put my desires on hold, complete an undergraduate degree in modern piano and then a master's degree to successfully apply for an Australia Council scholarship that would send me to Europe to study early piano at a graduate level.

The First Fleet Piano.

In 1985, I studied fortepiano at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Then I went back to Australia, to a job in a conservatorium. In 1986, I entered the Festival of Flanders International Mozart Fortepiano Competition, in Belgium. It was a thrill to win. I returned motivated by the aspiration to enrich and stimulate the development of Australian music culture.

For the recordIn 1996, I became associate professor of music at the Royal College of Music, in London. In 1997, I moved to Perth to teach at the University of Western Australia. Then I was headhunted by the Australian National University in Canberra, so I went back to my alma mater.

After that I moved to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), at Edith Cowan University, Perth, and the following year was made a research professor. Apart from performing, teaching and making recordings, it meant I was required to write a book each year. I get up at 3am and write until about 9am or 10am, and then I get on with teaching and recording and practising for recordings, so it's a very full, challenging, tiring but inspiring life.

A commemorative stamp showing the HMS Sirius, the flagship of the first 11 ships to sail from England to Australia in 1787.

Master plan The first book I wrote was on the First Fleet piano. It was the first instrument to come to Australia, brought in 1788 by the surgeon George Worgan on board the Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet (the first 11 ships to set sail from England to Australia, in 1787).

After his three-year tour of duty, Worgan gave the piano as a gift to Elizabeth Macarthur (a British pastoralist who Worgan taught music to in New South Wales). It came into a collection of pianos whose owner had passed away but who was then resuscitated in hospital. The apotheosis that followed meant that he decided he didn't want his collec­tion to be disbursed when he shuffled off his mortal coil and he was looking for an institution he could trust to undertake a process of restoration, conservation and maintenance of his instruments in perpetuity.

I was perfectly positioned to say yes, our university can do this. So Edith Cowan University acquired 140 historical keyboards, including the First Fleet piano, in 2016. An interesting connection is that many of the pianos in that collection came from the antiques dealer I had met in the 1970s - wheels within wheels. It's one of those instances where I look back and think, "Yes, there was a plan for my life."

The piano collector The second book was about an instrument I have in my own collection, from 1796 - one of five of the same make in the world. When I acquired it, I didn't know it was that rare. I wrote a book on the firm that made it in London and then travelled the world and found the others.

It is the definitive book on these pianos, Culliford, Rolfe and Barrow: A Tale of Ten Pianos (2017). My third book is about a piece written for keyboard solo by Joseph Haydn called The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. No one has worked out how he structured the piece and I have.

Calling the tune WAAPA has more than 140 historical pianos because people give them to us. In terms of taking WAAPA to the world, we conceive it as a hub that will enrich cultural life, especially that of our Asian neigh­bours. Perth is a blink away from Hong Kong, Singapore and China. And China has 40 million children learning to play the piano, so when China opens its formidable eyes to the beauty of historically informed performance, watch out world!

Professor Geoffrey Lancaster was in Hong Kong with the First Fleet piano to play at the Australian consul general's residence, in Deep Water Bay, and at Tai Kwun, in Central.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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