Pianist Sally Whitwell isn’t used to doing things solo. A performer, composer and arranger for groups such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir, the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus, and the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus, her debut solo album Mad Rush was a suggestion by the ABC Classics label.

If she ever needed confirmation of her talents away from an ensemble, taking home the ARIA for Best Classical Album at this year’s awards should go a long way.

“It’s funny because I’ve actually been recording for a long time as an orchestral musician and as an accompanist, so I’m a bit of a fixture at the ABC and suddenly they turned around and said ‘Why don’t you make a solo album?’” Whitwell told the Star Observer.

“So I eased into it, so it wasn’t much of a shock at first, but then it became more of a shock when it became successful.”

The transition into Mad Rush, a collection of solo piano music by Philip Glass, may have been comfortable for Whitwell, but she said it was also an interesting insight into how musicians are perceived regarding solo or ensemble status.

Sally Whitwell accepts her ARIA

“I suppose it’s the way people see me that’s the difficult thing,” she said.

“I’m quite happy to play anything in any context, but up until the album came out people would so ‘Oh, Sally, she’s that lovely accompanist, conductor, teacher lady’, but then there was genuine surprise when they discovered I was doing a solo album.

“There’s this whole thing about how accompanists are treated in a way that is not necessarily valuing the skills that it takes to be an ensemble musician, which is much more difficult than solo work because you need to be so aware of what’s going on with everyone else all the time.”

Whitwell’s next album will see her tackle a number of film scores including Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amelie.

“It’s a cinematically inspired album. I came at it not from the point of the music actually. Basically I’ve taken all my favourite characters, ones I admire or detest, and brought the music that represents them into an album,” she explained.

“So with Amelie, I just love her social awkwardness, so I thought that’s my central character and I’ll just build things around that.

Whitwell said the “lovely lesbians” from The Hunger will also feature on the album, as well as some Virginia Woolf in the form of Philip Glass’ soundtrack from The Hours.

“I’m doing more Philip Glass because I couldn’t help myself. The Hours is a fine film — I just couldn’t cope with Nicole Kidman’s dreadful nose.”

INFO: Sally Whitwell will perform at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival in Victoria on January 7 and in conversation with Christopher Lawrence on January 5. Bookings at www.peninsulafestival.com.au

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