13 March 2013

Happy birthday

In a nice little twist, at the end, after the premiere of our own Symphony for Canberra, the CSO/Centenary Choir sang Happy Birthday. It s a cute end to a big event, Canberra’s 100th birthday bash, and it's fitting for this town, intelligent but also suburban and homely as it is. But then I've always noticed how this city is bigger than its population suggests. Canberra is only ~360,000 - just 2 Commonwealth lower house MPs although representing the two largest electorates in the country - but it's got five universities and draws APS and defence staff from around the country and private sector to provide for it, and, despite all the cynicism, these are capable and pretty corruption-free. Australia is generally well governed (by both sides of politics with the support of a professional public service, although some annoyance is due at present) and Canberra plays a large part in that. A corny but self-confident happy birthday salute is fitting.

It followed the premiere of Andrew Schultz's Symphony no.3, Century. This is a work of ~45 minutes, composed for orchestra and youth and adult choirs. It's actually two interleaved works (a capella choir and orchestra) each of three sections with each paired section comprising a choral exposition and an instrumental movement on the theme. The theme is Canberra and its architectural design, with the choirs singing three passages from architects Burnham, Sullivan and Burley-Griffin about architecture and democracy from the time of the Canberra design competition of 1913. I enjoyed the work immensely: the choral counterpoint; the sweeping and passionate instrumental passages; the swells of pride. I’m not sure I really heard Canberra in it, but music is the most abstract of the arts. I’ll sound like a wine taster here, but I heard mostly drama and thunder and awe, spots of Scandinavia and even Wagner, especially in the first movement, and later English gardens and worthy explorers. This later was perhaps most in tune with the round roads and rolling hills and sheep plains of Canberra’s environment. Regardless of that, I loved it with its vibrancy and modern harmonies and lush and swelling presence. What a great work to honour the centenary and what a great decision to honour it with a symphony. Acclamations all round!

We didn't do the whole hog on the day. There were five or more stages, lots of food and events and migrating minstrels, even boating displays and Brass Knuckle Blues Band and others slouching on boats. We missed several other stages with worthies including The Church, The Gadflys, The Falling Joys, Paul McDermott, Mirramu Dance Company and William Barton - several of whom were from Canberra. Again, this was a homely affair. The big bubbly bar was on everyone's lips. We searched for Michelle Nicolle with no luck. But we did catch two modem classical outfits.

Firstly, Topology. They were my band to catch for the day and they were fabulous! I’d seen them before and had been mightily impressed. This was more than I’d expected or remembered. They are perfectly described on the Net as "Pulse driven contemporary Australian chamber music with cinematic energy. A quintet of violin, viola, double bass, saxophone, piano. Genre: Classical: Contemporary”. I’d add that they are relevant. There's a popular sensibility here, in rhythmic strength and in references to the Round roads of Canberra and to political events. Gough Whitlam was a piece that featured samples and loops of the voices of Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating and John Kerr that were cut and spliced to a waltz and interpreted as music. How apt, given that the performance was only metres from the steps of Old Parliament House where Gough spoke those immortal and bitter lines "Well may we say "God Save the Queen", because nothing will save the Governor-General". But it was the words of Keating about the “unprincipled act" that really made the argument. This was stunningly impressive and relevant music from Topology. Topology is led by Canberra's own Robert Davidson, bassist, out of Brisbane.

Secondly, the Griffyn Ensemble performing with astronomer Fred Watson. It seems a strange combination, but they were performing various constellations from a piece called Southern Sky by Estonian astronomer / composer Urmas Sisask. This piece was written by Sisask after a visit to Mt Stromlo and first performed with a dedication to Canberra only a week before the fires that destroyed the observatory and 450 houses around Canberra in 2003. This was less outspoken music than Topology. Again I found the music abstract and hard to relate to the theme (eg, constellation Mensa = table > music with theme of bushfire). There was melody from flutes and clarinets, gentle accompaniment from harp and vibes, some Wagnerian soprano voice (Volans) and some fading glory on mandolin (Dorado). A more interiorised music played mostly with softer tones and classical chops.

Then to finish, the mandatory fireworks and one or two fabulously lit skies, mostly with ruddy hue and overwhelmingly large vistas. It’s public art and entertainment, but this was classy stuff. Well done. The Canberra Symphony Orchestra with the Centenary Choir performed of Andrew Schultz's Symphony no.3, Century. They were conducted by Nicholas Milton. Topology are led by Robert Davidson (bass) with Christa Powell (violin), Bernard Hoey (viola), John Babbage (saxes) and Therese Milanovic (piano). The Griffyn Ensemble was led by Michael Sollis (composer, mandolin, bass) with Kiri Sollis (flute), Matthew O’Keeffe (clarinet), Meriel Owen (harp), Wyana Etherington (percussion) and Susan Ellis (soprano). Fred Watson (astronomer) provided commentary.

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