Breaking Bread: Ross Fiddes, lawyer and composer

MUSICAL LIFE: Composer and pianist Ross Fiddes has balanced a legal career and a passion for music. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
MUSICAL LIFE: Composer and pianist Ross Fiddes has balanced a legal career and a passion for music. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

WHEN Ross Fiddes’ song cycle Love Stories is performed at the Newcastle Music Festival on August 18, the composer himself will hear not just rhythm and melody but also the sound of a matrimonial commitment fulfilled.    

Love Stories has been inspired by – actually, requested by – Jill Fiddes, Ross’ wife of 38 years. 

“Jill said to me, ‘You’ve written all this music for other people, and we’ve been married a while. You haven’t written me anything’,” recounts Fiddes. “So I said, ‘Okay, well I better get on with it’.”

For the piece, Fiddes has composed seven songs set to the words of Australian poet John Shaw Nielson. The works for baritone and piano will be performed by Fiddes and Melbourne-based singer Michael Lampard at the festival. 

It will be the first time Jill Fiddes has heard Love Stories being performed. Although she did hear her husband playing the piano part. 

“She said, ‘I don’t know what to think of it’,” Fiddes says.

“Is that a metaphor for the marriage?”

He laughs and replies, “She’s gorgeous.”

Ross Fiddes has selected Paul’s Asian Affair in New Lambton for lunch. He likes the five-spice chicken. What’s more, the restaurant is close to his heart and home.

Ross and Jill Fiddes have lived in the suburb for about 30 years, raising their four children here. And just down the road from the restaurant, Fiddes had his law practice for more than a decade.

For most of his life, Ross Fiddes has pursued both a legal career and his passion for composing, finding harmony in words and music.     

Ross Fiddes, right, at lunch with Scott Bevan at Paul's Asian Affair, New Lambton. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Ross Fiddes, right, at lunch with Scott Bevan at Paul's Asian Affair, New Lambton. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

ROSS Fiddes was born in Newcastle in 1944. He was a baby when the family moved inland to Gunnedah, because his father was to manage a department store.

Fiddes grew up hearing music in the home. His mother, Una, played the piano and worked with choirs, and so her boy was drawn to the keys. He began learning piano when he was about seven.  

“Mum taught me for two years, then I wouldn’t listen to her, so she packed me off,” Fiddes recalls, explaining he was sent to the local convent for lessons. 

In his New England home, the schoolboy began playing his way through the giants of European music: “Probably the standards like Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. And then when I got a bit older, I found Mahler and Prokofiev and Shostakovich.”

He also liked pop music –  “for a bit of relaxation I used to go to the local radio station … and sit with the DJ”. Fiddes still has every album of rock band Pink Floyd.

“I was fairly eclectic,” he says. “And then I discovered Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet, things like that.” 

More than being a musician, young Ross was a budding composer: “It was weird. I found I could do things. So I wrote them.” 

He wrote his first composition when he was about 12 –  “Not as precocious as, say, Mozart at four. It wasn’t very good”. He can’t remember the music, only the title, Reverie

Word of Fiddes’ playing talent travelled across the countryside. When he was 14, he was “lassoed” by a piano teacher in Tamworth, an hour’s drive from Gunnedah.  

“He had high aims for me,” Fiddes says of the teacher. “He’d already booked me in for the Con in Sydney. He made me make an LP, and that was sent over to Wilhelm Kempff, the concert pianist in Germany. “And he [Kempff] said, ‘Come over and audition’. So I was tentatively booked in there.

“But my folks sat me down and said, ‘You know any musicians we’ve seen who look like they’re doing well?’”

COMPOSER: Ross Fiddes wrote his first piece of music when he was about 12.

COMPOSER: Ross Fiddes wrote his first piece of music when he was about 12.

The teenager let his dream of composing and playing music for a living drift off.

“I probably didn’t have a massive drive at that stage. I was just fiddling around with composing, which I was enjoying.”

Around that time, a local lawyer phoned Ross’ father and said he was looking for an articled clerk. At the age of 16, Fiddes veered into a law career.

For years, Fiddes fitted in his music around his job, performing with local singers, helping run eisteddfods and founding and directing the Gunnedah Madrigal Choir. 

Amid the voices he found the love of his life. It was the late 1970s, and Jill Leitch, a young teacher, was in the choir. 

“Was it her voice that attracted you?,” I ask.

“No, she was a damn good looking woman,” Fiddes replies.

The relationship was born when he fell over her at a party: “There was a blackout. I tripped over her. Landed on her. And that felt quite nice, so I thought, ‘I’d better ask her out’.”

Ross and Jill married at the end of 1979.

“I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without her,” he says. “The support, encouragement, criticism sometimes.”

In 1987 the family moved to Newcastle: “Bigger pasture. I thought more and better music, better education [for their children].”

While working for the law firm Harris Wheeler, Fiddes began exploring Newcastle’s cultural landscape. 

“I went along to a couple of concerts and wondered whether I should move back,” he recalls. “We did better back up in the bush.”

Rather than just sit back, Fiddes involved himself in the local music scene. In the early 1990s, he was the artistic director and principal conductor of Opera Hunter and the Novocastrian Arts Orchestra (now Orchestra Nova). 

CONDUCTOR: Ross Fiddes, centre, with members of Orchestra Nova in 2003.

CONDUCTOR: Ross Fiddes, centre, with members of Orchestra Nova in 2003.

His works were also finding a home and building his name. An opera he had written in the 1980s, The Proposal, which had been workshopped by The Australian Opera, was performed in Newcastle. Fiddes composed an acclaimed opera, Abelard and Heloise, with the libretto by University of Newcastle academic and poet Paul Kavanagh – “As it turned out, he lived 20 doors down the road from us.” 

With a day job and four children, Fiddes would work on his music early in the morning and late at night. But when he started his own legal practice in the mid-1990s, he stopped composing. 

“I was too busy being a lawyer,” he explains. “I still played but it wasn’t regular. I was missing not being involved in music.”

After a break of about 12 years, Fiddes returned to composing when an American singer, Jennifer Wilson, contacted him saying, “I’ve heard some of your music. Will you write a little opera for me?”

The notes flowed once more, including composing a song cycle for a Turkish-Australian singer to commemorate the Gallipoli campaign centenary in 2015. Fiddes loves working with words, particularly poetry, and writing for voices. 

“They give you not just rhythm but a sense of what you want to do with the music,” he says. “They give you drama, joy. Whereas if you’re Beethoven, you can create all those things without words.”

These days, Fiddes has more time for composing, as he has cut back on his work as a lawyer. I wonder if he regrets not taking the music route when he was a teenager.

“Can’t call it regret,” he replies. “You could say ‘what if’. What if I’d done that, would I be somebody who could live off composing?’    

“You’re lucky if you can make a living from what you enjoy, but I’ve always enjoyed law. Being able to live both lives, if you like, has been very fulfilling.”

He practises the piano at least an hour a day, but he’s been playing more lately: “There’s this piece this damned composer wrote called Love Stories, and the piano parts are pretty taxing. I’ve cursed him a few times.”

Composer and lawyer Ross Fiddes with Scott Bevan. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Composer and lawyer Ross Fiddes with Scott Bevan. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

More than having a creative role at the Newcastle Music Festival, Fiddes is one of its founders. The festival grew out of a conversation he had with local conductor and music educator, David Banney, in late 2015.

Now in its third year, the festival, which is on until August 19, allows music lovers, from near and far, to hear what Newcastle is capable of.

“I don’t know of another festival that involves the locals as the primary attribute, if you like, as much,” he explains. 

It’s time for Ross Fiddes to leave. He’s preparing Love Stories, ready to wow an audience. Especially one audience member who has been waiting so long for her songs.

“I do hope – I can only hope – she will love it,” says Fiddes of his wife. “Because it is genuinely for her.” 

Go to newcastlemusicfestival.org

This story Ross Fiddes' wife didn't know what to think of the song he had written for her first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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