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Tozer, Geoffrey Peter (1954–2009)

by Gerry Carman

from Canberra Times

Geoffrey Tozer, by Loui Seselja, 2001

Geoffrey Tozer, by Loui Seselja, 2001

National Library of Australia, 22647452

Geoffrey Tozer was 13 years old when the legendary headmaster of Geelong Grammar School, James Darling, advised him, ''You're wasting your time at school.'' Although Tozer was not a Grammarian, the sage had taken the boy under his wing after hearing him play in concert. He told him, ''What you really need to do is read, play the piano and meet famous people. Get out of Australia as fast as you can. Go and grow.'' Tozer, a child prodigy who would become one of Australia's most acclaimed and recorded concert pianists, had made his professional debut at the age of eight, dressed in velvet shorts, playing Bach's Concerto in F Minor with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A year after Darling offered the advice, Tozer became the youngest recipient of a Churchill Fellowship, which took him to London. The next year he was a semi-finalist in an international piano competition in Leeds.

At 15 he made his international debut at the Royal Albert Hall in London, performing Mozart's Concerto No 15 with Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Tozer, who died, aged 54, of liver failure at his Melbourne home, went on to tour Europe, the United States, Asia and Australia. In 2004 he marked his 40th anniversary in the business with 40 concerts. His recordings covered composers from Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev to Brahms, Bach, Schumann, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart. He reintroduced international audiences to the works of the Russian Nikoli Medtner.

Geoffrey Peter Bede Hawkshaw Tozer was born in Mussoorie, a hill station in northern India, to Veronica Tozer and Geoffrey Conan-Davies, an Anglican minister. His mother had separated from her husband, an army colonel, by the time she arrived in Melbourne in 1958 with Geoffrey and his older brother, Peter.

He is thought to have shown an interest in music while still in his pram, aged six months, when his mother played Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony on the family's wind-up gramophone. He was soon taking records such as Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia, rather than teddy bears, to bed. If one broke, he would cry like the baby he was and put all the pieces under his pillow. At five years he astounded an audience at St Kilda Town Hall with flawless playing of Bach and Bartok. Besides, he was reciting passages from Oscar Wilde's fairy stories at three years, reading Homer at seven and, by 10, Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.

Tozer auditioned successfully at the ABC at the age of eight, after which mother and son walked the 6km home. By the age of 12 he had played five Beethoven piano concerts with the MSO. His early education was at a convent school and then with the Christian Brothers. His mother switched him to De La Salle College when canings began bruising his hands, affecting his violin and piano lessons. He gave up the violin after five years to concentrate on piano. Lessons came from his mother, a music teacher, and private teachers such as Eileen Ralf in Hobart, Maria Curcio and Theodore Tettvi.

Tozer pigeonholed his concert career to graduate from the London Opera Centre (1979-80) and work as a repetiteur at the centre and at Glyndebourne. He then taught at the University of Michigan in 1981-82 before returning to Australia. His many triumphs included a bravura performance of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas in 16 hours, spread across seven concerts over 11 nights in 1994 in Melbourne. He played with Berlin and Moscow symphony orchestras, but his biggest audience was in May 2001, when an estimated 80 million Chinese watched him live on television playing the Yellow River Concerto. He made several tours of China.

Geoffrey Tozer's illustrious career was not without controversy. He became a favourite of Paul Keating, the former prime minister, who, as treasurer in 1989, introduced creative fellowships after meeting Tozer, then the music teacher at the Canberra school where Keating's son, Patrick, was a student. Keating, who believes that Tozer was Australia's greatest pianist, said he felt ''ashamed'' that a pianist of his talents was earning only $9000 a year. He introduced what became known as ''the Keatings'' and the first five-year award in 1989 ($329,000) went to Tozer. When the pianist was awarded a second fellowship in 1994 ($219,098), there was an outcry led by the Opposition protesting that, with so many worthy figures in the arts community, it was outrageous that Keating's close friend was selected a second time. Tozer's supporters say there is nothing unusual in dual fellowships. Tozer himself had followed up his first Churchill fellowship at the age of 14 with a second at 17. He was also twice awarded Israel's Rubinstein Medal, in 1977 and 1980.

Keating had already paved the way for a Canberra enterprise to make Tozer's first Australian recordings, and he promoted the pianist's talents to London-based classical music giant Chandos. He was vindicated when the Chandos recordings won rapturous reviews in Europe, with further success in the US. Tozer was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1992 for his recording of the three Medtner piano concertos with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The recording won a Diapason d'Or prize that year. Tozer later attracted local criticism when he said he would have to pursue his career in London because Melbourne was a ''remote, provincial city'' and Australia had an indifference to the arts generally. He later said he had been caught in a moment of exasperation on a 40 degree day and that there was no question that Melbourne was ''home''.

His other awards included Hungary's Liszt Centenary Medallion, Belgium's Prix Alex De Varies and Britain's Royal Overseas League Medallion. He was never so honoured at home.

Geoffrey Tozer enjoyed the ballet and photography and liked to relax by going for long walks. He is survived by four of his five siblings Peter, Tim, Meredith and Bliss.

Original publication

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Citation details

Gerry Carman, 'Tozer, Geoffrey Peter (1954–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/tozer-geoffrey-peter-29952/text37095, accessed 25 October 2021.

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