The Canberra Sandakan Commemoration Organising Committee 2015, assisted by the National Malaya and Borneo Veterans Association, has planned a number of significant events on 28 and 29 May to commemorate a series of forced marches in Borneo from Sandakan (formerly British North Borneo, and now Sabah, East Malaysia) to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of 2,345 Allied prisoners of war, including over 2,000 Australians. The POWs were used as slave labour to build a military airfield in a very strategic location. The living conditions were so bad and atrocities so terrible, that towards the end of the war, the Japanese organised death marches to destroy the evidence. By the end of the war, only six Australians survived, all of whom had escaped. It is widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during the Second World War.
The Chair of the Canberra organising committee, Eric McDonald, said two years ago he approached Emeritus Professor Larry Sitsky at the Australian National University (ANU) School of Music to compose a work for piano trio that reflected the Sandakan tragedy. “Larry Sitsky is one of the foremost composers for piano in Australia”. He is, as Heide Smith has said of him, a national and international figure who has been a powerful force in Australia’s contemporary cultural life. Sitsky has composed for a wide range of musical forms.
Late last year, at the reception following a premiere of Sitsky’s latest trio for piano, violin and clarinet, Press, Play’s pianist Sonya Lifschitz approached Larry about the possibility of commissioning a new composition for ‘Press, Play’. The conversation soon unfolded to reveal that both musicians shared much in common – both come from a Russian-Jewish background, both speak fluent Russian, both have grappled with integrating a European sensibility with Australian culture. Sitsky got excited about Press, Play’s unusual piano/flute/percussion combination and the ensemble’s commitment to developing new repertoire for this unique grouping of instruments, and thought that this was a perfect opportunity to combine his Sandakan commission with his desire to write a trio for ‘Press, Play’. Additionally, Lina Andonovska is a graduate of the ANU School of Music and was supervised by Sitsky in her Honours year. “So this project was born,” said McDonald.