Townsville 2012: Day 6 - Composer In The House

Nigel Westlake is our Composer in Residence - I find out what that means

After a splendid recreational day of isolation and bush walking on nearby Magnetic Island it was back to chamber music business with a vengeance.  This mornings Concert Conversations featured Nigel Westlake, our approachable Composer in Residence and so I thought that I should devote todays blog post to what that means and bring readers up to speed with a few more Festival artistic highlights.

I collared Mr Westlake a couple of days ago and asked him a little about what being ‘in residence’ at AFCM is all about.  Although there is no specific commission from the Festival, Nigel was keen that he and Piers should programme some recent work, and in particular, the two guitar version of the 2010 solo sonata especially written for the Grigoryans.  His other main ‘duty’ which he was keen to identify as a privilege is to drop in on rehearsals, and in some cases lend a conductorly hand.  Given that some of his music is quite tricky, no doubt the performers consider it an equal privilege.

Westlake has always been a hands on type - the sort of man to go poking around his own home in search of a hungry redback or the odd maggot to record for Entomology (see previous blogpost).  His initial composing impetus however was to enable him to get inside the minds of Mozart, Weber and Brahms and thereby reach a deeper understanding of what they wrote.  For many years he was primarily a clarinetist, taught by his father Donald, clearly a big influence on many a young player.  He pretty quickly joined up with the Australia Ensemble, however, who demanded he write something for them and that, as they say, was that.  It was his mother who cut out an advert seeking applicants for the first ever Australian film composers course.  Several scores for TV and film docos lead to important meetings with directors and eventually he burst onto the scene with his hugely popular music for Antarctica.

Speaking candidly about the film making process Westlake was quick to point out some of the pitfalls.  The music is the last thing to be added to a film and so at this point, he says, you get a whole load of producers and directors who suddenly feel that they are musical experts.  The trick is to figure out politically who you have to ‘wrangle’ to get your point of view across.

His biggest hit came when he got a call about Babe, the now famous talking pig.  Jerry Goldsmith’s score had been rejected (on the basis that he wouldn’t change a note) and Westlake’s demos were just what was wanted.  After that, he could have moved to Hollywood and never looked back, but for him, commissions back home were equally important and so here we are today.

A host of compositions (and a slew of recordings) behind him, Westlake is clearly very much in demand by both organisations and musicians.  Certain artists are indelibly associated with Westlake’s music - John Williams and Timothy Kain for starters - but it is great to see the baton being passed to the Grigoryan brothers and there is talk of a double guitar concerto.

One of the pleasures of the Festival for me has been hearing some of Westlake’s less familiar music.  Tomorrow I’m looking forward to the Goldner’s playing the String Quartet No 2 but today we had the Storionis plating the Piano Trio and that was quite something.  This three movement work is ‘pure music’ according to the composer but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in hearing, if not a programme, at least a feeling of atmosphere - a certain melancholy and sense of space.  Maybe it was my five hours on Magnetic Island, but there was something evocative, open air and yes, Australian about it.  This was especially true of the beautiful slow movement, formed out of a simple piano pulse over which the violin and cello duet, bouncing ideas off of each other at one moment, then coming together in rapturous flights.  The scherzo finale, for all its upbeat energy still has a mournful quality about it.  This is a haunting, powerful work and I’m very glad to have had the chance to hear it played so well.  As the Storioni Trio curate their own festival in Eindhoven, it would be nice to think that the work might travel with them.

While we are on the subject, I’d just like to mention the Storioni’s account of Ravel's Piano Trio in A Minor from Monday evening.  This was a Festival highlight by any standards from magical opening to passionate close.  The pianist created the perfect mood over which his partners spun effortless legato lines, achieving exquisite pianissimos.  The Passacaille was transfixing, the artists digging deep within to generate a spellbinding moment of stasis.  The release of the finale was total and was Bart van de Roer’s finest hour producing keyboard playing of passion and great strength.  The standing ovation was fully deserved.  More please.

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Clive Paget
The thoughts and roamings of Music Critic and Limelight Deputy Editor Clive Paget.
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