Iris de Cairos-Rego

Born in 1894 in Sydney Iris de Cairos-Rego was first and foremost a pianist and is described as having a formidable technique; being deft and expressive; playing with sparkling precision, and interpreting with charm, freshness and a delicacy of touch. Throughout her long life she developed the skills to become a prolific composer of piano and chamber music and an inspirational teacher.
Her father, George de Cairos-Rego, was an important musical figure in Sydney and worked as a pianist, teacher, music critic and composer. His family roots were noble ones, descending from Madeira in Portugal. 
Concert notices and reviews appear from when Iris was four. On many occasions she performed in concerts that her father organised for his students. She also had the opportunity to be the soloist with small ensembles playing concerto movements, often with her father yielding the baton. Even at such a young age her repertoire was extensive, and she performed works by, amongst many others, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Rubenstein. Amongst her noteworthy accomplishments was completing the Trinity College Senior examination at aged nine.
In 1907 Iris, at the age of 13 years, gave a much-publicised Farewell Recital in the Town Hall before embarking on a study tour to Europe with her mother and brother. Her father also joined them when he could be excused from his arduous duties in Australia.
Most of her studies were undertaken in Berlin and at the conclusion of the three years Iris performed debut recitals in London. In Berlin she studied under the Spanish virtuoso pianist, and composer Alberto Jonás.  Jonás (1868-1943) a pianist, composer, and piano pedagogue was said to have been the favourite pupil of Anton Rubenstein.
During her time in Berlin Iris also studied harmony with Prof. Keeter of the Stern Conservatorium, who it is said, was revolutionised the study of harmony.
Before her arrival back in Australia in 1910 Iris was engaged to play the Grieg piano concerto with one of the orchestras in London. Unfortunately, King Edward VII died, and the concert was cancelled.  She was however able to perform that concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia under the baton of Joseph Bradley in September 1910.
Iris was one of the first teachers to be engaged at the newly formed Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1915.  In 1914 she joined the Salon Piano trio which gave regular concerts in Sydney. This trio had been formed originally with Mirrie Hill as the pianist and in 1914 Iris replaced Hill as the pianist. At that time the Salon Trio consisted of the players - Iris, Florence Brown (cellist) and Dorothy Curtis (violin). During 1914 Iris gave concerts with the singer, Antonia Dolores in New Zealand and Western Australia and in 1920 appeared as soloist in concertos by Schumann and Beethoven with the NSW State Orchestra and Henri Verbrugghen conducting. She also frequently appeared as associate artist with fellow musicians and teachers from the Conservatorium such as Cyril Monk (violin) and the Austral String Quartet. It has been said that Iris gave the first performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in Australia.
In 1935, Winifred West invited Iris to join the community at Frensham School in the Southern Highlands. Winifred West was born in 1881 in Frensham, Surrey in England - the school, named for her birth village, in Mittagong became a testament to this woman’s remarkable ideas. West collected around her some of the most prominent musicians and artists from the NSW community to teach at her school. Iris was originally invited for a year and ended up spending the rest of her life in the community.  Though, most of her compositions for piano, many songs and commemorative works were written during her time of teaching the girls at Frensham and many were dedicated to fellow teachers or students.
Iris retired from fulltime teaching in 1951 but remained part of the Frensham community until her death in 1987. Only a few compositions were written after 1951 but being part of the musical community meant that there were still concerts and school functions that Iris took part in until her death.  Iris de Cairos-Rego is an Australian legend. A pianist of such tremendous talent and ability who gave pleasure to all who were fortunate enough to experience at least one of her many concerts. She also left some beautifully written piano music which should still be heard on the concert platform. Her tremendous legacy is of incredible value not only to the Frensham School who did appreciate her worth, but to all current pianists, teachers and students.

(Extracts taken from biographical notes by Jeanell Carrigan.  See The Composers’ Series)


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