Vincent Plush’s new orchestral work for the Canberra Symphony celebrates the vision of Walter Burley Griffin.

This year’s Canberra Centenary celebrations are a good excuse for quite a number of extracurricular musical events, but none perhaps are as intriguing as the Canberra Symphony’s latest commission. March 27 sees a world premiere from one of Australia’s most intriguing composers, Vincent Plush. His latest work, and his first major orchestral piece in nearly 20 years, is Secret Geometries: a musical reflection on the aspirations of architect Walter Burley Griffin for Australia’s national capital.

Limelight caught up with London based conductor, Geoffrey Simon, one of Plush’s long-time collaborators, who will introduce the new work to Australian audiences. “Vincent is very iconoclastic”, he enthuses. “He’s very much heard his own voice and beaten his own trail.”

So how did the two of them meet? “We were invited by Queen Elizabeth to put on a performance around the time of the millennium”, says Simon. “It was a piece we called ‘Symphony 2000’ for an invited audience of all the commonwealth high commissioners. The Queen was there with the Duke of Edinburgh and it went very well – a spectacular thing. The orchestra was my orchestra of twenty cellos, The London Cello Sound, and Vincent wrote the music. It was a very multicultural piece with the cello orchestra acting as accompanist to more ethnic instruments up front. We even had African dancers with singing and percussion.”

Soon after Plush took a job in Canberra, as Manager of the Recorded Sound branch of the National Film and Sound Archive, which rather curtailed his compositional career. “Before that he composed quite a lot”, says Simon. “His big piece was called Pacifica; a really dramatic and dynamic piece which I performed a lot in different countries including Australia. It’s a big rolling piece like the Pacific Ocean and it touches on continents all around the pacific rim, not just Australia but South America too. It’s redolent of the huge span of that ocean. It’s a big, sweeping, wonderfully voluptuous piece.” A brief trawl of the internet reveals that the ABC are sitting on a rather fine performance of the work, available via the Classic FM website. It’s a most attractive piece, complex, yet approachable. It was György Ligeti, no less, who said of it: “In time Pacifica will be seen as one of the most important orchestral works of the late 20th century”. High praise indeed.

So how does Secret Geometries compare? “It’s a big contrast”, says Simon. “The piece follows Vincent’s interest in geography because, of course, it’s about Canberra. Having lived there, he was fascinated by the history and Walter Burley Griffin in particular. It’s a highly designed city and Vincent felt or read or suspected or heard that there was quite a lot in the planning that might have a spiritual or environmental context. He’s tried to get his head into the essence of what that might be.”

How does that all translate in musical terms, I ask? Simon elaborates: “He uses some of the letters in the name ‘Canberra’, like the C, the A, the B and the E as important melodic elements. It’s in the key of C Major and you hear that C thundering along at various points, which kind of anchors it. He also finds musical analogies for the ins and outs of the way Canberra winds around the lake. He kind of mirrors that, but he also tries to create the mood and atmosphere of Canberra at different times of day and in different parts of the City. There’s also a musical analogy of church bells, played in an anisotropic rhythm. It’s very colourful in that regard. There’s even a little bit of swing in the beginning as a prelude to the first time you hear the first tune.”

How does he think audiences will react? “Obviously it’s a world premiere so we will only know when we play it, but looking at the score I think it’s going to be a very fine piece”, he replies confidently. “I think it will be very evocative. Unlike Pacifica it’s short, it's less than 10 minutes and the orchestration, because of what the CSO is, is not so heavy. It’s for a basic orchestra with double woodwinds and normal brass – four horns, three trumpets, trombones and a tuba. There’s a couple of percussionists – not your whole raft – with a harp, piano and strings. The textures are a little untypical of Vincent in that they are not all that complex. I think the audience will find them quite compelling.”

Did he have any input in the work himself? “There’s a beautiful melody which derives from our Commonwealth Institute concert”, he says proudly. “I love collaborating with composers and because Vincent and I have worked together for so many decades he seems to trust me and lets me have my bit of input. I think we came across the idea together of using this beautiful tune because it had its genesis in a commonwealth event and here’s Canberra, the capital city of a major commonwealth country”.

Secret Geometries by Vincent Plush is premiered by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra on March 27 and 28.