Australian-based pianist-composer Mark Isaacs (b. 1958) has pursued a unique and demanding career path that has seen him gain international acclaim in both jazz and classical music. Such diversity was nurtured in the crucible of a highly musical family.
Mark's uncle was the legendary British jazz guitarist Ike Isaacs, who worked for many years with jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli and was on friendly terms with many of the biggest names in jazz. Duke Ellington came for dinner one time and there were visits from George Benson, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and many others. As Mark grew older he would have informal jams with some of the famous musicians who would visit the Isaacs household.
Another uncle was violinist Kelly Isaacs who throughout his London-based career was a distinguished soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player. Through his "classical uncle" Mark was able to experience first-hand the highest level of the world classical scene, with connections to Yehudi Menuhin, the London Symphony Orchestra and others.
Mark's father was an accomplished jazz guitarist and songwriter who had one of his songs recorded and released by Petula Clark and Mark's mother had been trained as a classical pianist as well as often singing jazz standards. His father was born in Rangoon, Burma and his mother in Calcutta, India, their forebears being of Baghdadi Jewish origins. They emigrated to London as young adults, where Mark was born. The family emigrated again to Australia when Mark was four.
Mark began piano studies at age five and it was soon discovered that he had perfect pitch. Beginning around age nine, Mark began to experiment with improvising on jazz standards. From age twelve Mark began a ferocious interest in classical composition and began to compose orchestral and chamber works which received high profile public performances and for which he won many awards and scholarships throughout his teens. At the age of 14 he performed the solo part in his own piano concerto on Australian national television. During those high school years he studied classical piano, composition, theory, counterpoint, orchestration, chamber music performance, jazz ensemble work and big band arranging in an intense program of classes and private lessons after school.
He began University studies in classical piano and composition at Sydney University, while at the same time being recognised as one of the major emerging jazz players in Australia, recording his first jazz album as leader while barely out of his teens.
From his early 20s Mark travelled extensively, and as well as a busy professional life he spent periods of time checking out jazz in New York and Europe, studying piano and composition at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, doing a conducting course with Sergiu Celidibache and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, finishing his Bachelor of Music degree in classical composition and piano at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and ultimately completing a Master of Music degree in classical music at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in the USA. His teachers in classical music included many internationally recognised composers and pianists such as Peter Sculthorpe, Isadore Goodman, Alexander Tamir, David Burge, Joseph Tal, Igor Hemelnitsky and Samuel Adler.
In 1981 Mark began work as an orchestrator for Australian film and television productions. From 1984-88 Mark himself composed and conducted the orchestral soundtracks for a series of ten animated telemovies made by Burbank Films, based on classic tales such as Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and Kidnapped. These films were given very wide international television distribution and continue to be screened after 30 years. His film composition forays began while Mark was still an undergraduate student, and saw him conducting orchestras comprising members of the Sydney Symphony and Sydney Conservatorium faculty in the recording studio. He continued to write music for Australian television until 1991.
In 1996 he was awarded a two-year Music Fellowship by the Australia Council for the Arts and he was the winner of the inaugural Miriam Hyde Composer-Pianist Award. Mark also was a prize-winner in the first Tokyo International Competition for Chamber Music Composition, received the 2007 Albert H. Maggs Composition Award from the University of Melbourne, was co-winner of the 2012 Jean Bogan Prize for Piano Composition and was a finalist in the 2013 Paul Lowin Orchestral Prize.
Mark has been commissioned to compose pieces for such prominent Australian ensembles and performers as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Saffire, Tankstream Quartet, Lisa Moore, Deborah Lander, James Morrison, Timothy Kain, Seymour Group, Sydney String Quartet, Synergy, The Australian Voices, Sydney Metropolitan Opera Company, Perihelion, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Southern Cross Soloists and the Australia Ensemble, the latter performing one of his pieces at their Carnegie Hall recital in 1988. His pieces have also been performed in Berlin, London, the USA, Amsterdam (by the renowned Calefax wind quintet), Japan, India, China and released on disc internationally. His output of over 100 through-composed works includes a symphony, a chamber symphony, pieces for solo instrument and orchestra (trumpet, piano, violin, flute & cor anglais), three string quartets, general orchestral music (including for jazz group & orchestra), two books of piano preludes and other piano collections, numerous chamber ensemble works, choral works, an oratorio, a mini-opera, a musical, big band pieces and scores for film, television and the theatre.
In 1994 Mark played the solo part in the premiere of his own piano concerto in St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall with the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, appearing within hours in a major jazz festival in the same city. In 1996 he composed an oratorio which took a fresh perspective on the Joan of Arc story. For its premiere Mark conducted over 1000 performers at the Sydney Opera House. A 2001 orchestral composition was premiered under the baton of internationally-renowned conductor Kristjan Järvi.
Mark has also composed music for film, television and the theatre (writing a jazz score for the Sydney Theatre Company production of Three Days of Rain by renowned New York playwright Richard Greenburg) and he also writes songs (including lyrics). Mark has conducted his music with major Australian orchestras and recorded recitals of classical piano repertoire. He has been involved with the Australian musical community as a commentator, activist and committee member having served for two years on the NSW Ministry of the Arts Music Committee and an Australia Council committee, as well as writing reviews and columns in major publications and founding and moderating the Australian jazz website Ozjazzforum.
In 2003 Mark joined distinguished former Sydney Symphony Orchestra Associate Principal cellist Trish O'Brien in the classical cello/piano duo Tapas which toured extensively that year playing 15 concerts at a variety of venues and chamber music festivals as well a giving a live national broadcast on ABC Classic FM.
Parallel with his work as a composer/pianist in classical music, his jazz career has taken him on tours around the world and into some legendary company. In 1988 he recorded the album Encounters in New York, leading a towering rhythm-section of bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes, two of the artform's most esteemed international figures. This album was released twice in Australia and in Europe on the veraBra label, to very strong acclaim. Other major recording projects have included the 4-CD set of improvised solo piano music The Elements released on ABC Music.
Mark has toured and recorded as leader with the great Canadian jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, for whom he wrote the three-movement Elders Suite. Mark's many tours, performances and festival appearances in Europe, the Baltic States, Russia, the USA, Asia, Australia & New Zealand and the Pacific include appearances three years running at the prestigious Pori Jazz Festival in Finland, performances at the Tokyo Jazz Festival as well as six tours of Russia including a 1995 15-city tour with his trio that culminated in a concert at Moscow's famous Tchaikowsky Hall, where he also did a solo recital in 1996. On the trio's Russian tour he played a concert in Vladivostok where he performed his own piano concerto with symphony orchestra before intermission, returning to the stage after intermission leading his jazz trio in what was remarkable programming for an artist at any level.
Mark's jazz CD Closer of his original jazz compositions for quintet was released internationally on the Naxos Jazz label in October 2000 and received rave reviews in the USA, Europe and Australia. This was followed in 2004 by Keeping the Standards recorded live at The Basement in Sydney with the internationally-acclaimed New York rhythm section of bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum with which Mark had toured Europe and Australia. In 2005 he released the CD Visions with his Australian trio and in June 2006 he recorded a CD Resurgence at Capitol Studios, Hollywood of original jazz quintet compositions with an Australian-American band including Australian guitarist James Muller, American drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. It was released on the ABC/Universal label in 2007, was nominated for an ARIA Award for Best Jazz Album and the opening track Walk a Golden Mile was declared "Instrumental Work of the Year" at the 2008 Australian Classical Music Awards. The release was followed with extensive touring in the Asia-Pacific by the all-Australian version of the Resurgence band which itself released a new live CD of original material Tell It Like It Is in May 2009 followed by an Australian tour and appearances at the Tokyo Jazz Festival as well as the taping of a 70-minute TV special for South Korean national TV in front of a live studio audience. In Mark's second ARIA nomination in three years Tell It Like It Is was also nominated for an ARIA Award for Best Jazz Album and a new recording Aurora was released December 2010 with a Bonus DVD of the Tell It Like It Is concert. A 14-concert Australian tour was undertaken in May/June 2011 including Brisbane’s Valley Jazz Festival and Melbourne International Jazz Festival and the band was nominated for Best Australian Jazz Ensemble and Best Jazz Blend Album at the 2011 Bell Jazz Awards as well as Best Independent Jazz Album at the 2011 Jägermeister Independent Music Awards. In August 2013 Resurgence released the CD Duende, now featuring young Australian vocalist Briana Cowlishaw.
In 2008 Mark's music and performances were featured in a special concert "Mark Isaacs Up Late" at the 2008 Aurora Festival, Sydney's premier new music festival. The concert included the world premiere of his Songs at First Light, a 40-minute work for jazz piano trio and classical chamber sextet. In other recent compositional activities his Sonatine for flute was premiered by flautist Melissa Doecke with Mark at the piano at the 2009 Australian Flute Festival and they later went on to record it for the ABC along with a full program of Australian and French flute and piano music, now recorded for CD. The flute piece was also performed by distinguished artists Geoffrey Collins and Ian Munro in the Australia Ensemble's concert series. His Sextet for strings was premiered in the opening concert of the Australia Ensemble's 2010 season.
From 2005-2010 Mark was involved with programming jazz at the Brisbane Powerhouse performing arts centre, including curating the inaugural Brisbane Jazz Festival.
Recent composing projects include a cello concerto (for distinguished Australian cellist Julian Smiles), a symphony (commissioned by media executive Kim Williams AM for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, premiered in October 2013 and subsequently licensed for television in Australia and New Zealand), a chamber music suite based on The Wind in the Willows in which Mark composed for and played with Australia’s premier classical musicians from the Goldner Quartet, Australia Ensemble and Sydney Symphony with narrations by composer-broadcaster-author Andrew Ford, and Children's Songs, a suite of through-composed solo piano music Mark premiered at the 2012 Adelaide Festival and which he recorded in 2012 for international release by Soundbrush Records. Writing about this work for the CD release Vladimir Ashkenazy said:
This wonderful cycle is highly inventive and inspiring, accessible to children and adults alike. Very enjoyable and touching!
Mark Isaacs’ Chamber Symphony - conducted by the composer - was premiered in July 2015 at the City Recital Hall, Sydney, by the Omega Ensemble with soprano Lee Abrahmsen, and in September 2015 Isaacs conducted the Queensland Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra in a program of his orchestral works.