A trip to Tasmania’s Bathurst Harbour with environmentalist Bob Brown inspired the composer’s piece for Diana Doherty.

In mid 2016 I was invited by Bob Brown, one of Australia’s leading environmentalists, to accompany him on a visit to Bathurst Harbour; a pristine waterway on the South West Coast of Tasmania contained within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Almost completely devoid of modern human intrusion, the area was the home of the Needwonnee people for many thousands of years and is accessible only by boat, plane or foot.

Nigel Westlake and Bob Brown

It is a magical patchwork of button-grass moorlands, heathlands, and estuaries, bordered by jagged peaks, wild rivers and rugged coastlines.

My introduction to this place of exquisite beauty became the backdrop to my next project, an oboe concerto commission for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. As I pondered the ensuing collaboration with soloist Diana Doherty (SSO Principal Oboe), the memories and significance of my expedition with Bob continued to infuse my consciousness, leaving fingerprints on the concerto score in subtle and mysterious ways.

As a young boy, my parents had introduced me to the wilds of Tasmania and I am forever grateful to them for instilling in me a deep love of Australia’s wilderness fostered during numerous walking and boating expeditions.  

My trip to Bathurst Harbour reminded me of the preciousness of the wilderness and of mankind’s propensity to become subsumed by materialism, neglecting our connection to country and the wonders of the natural world unless they can be quantified by monetary worth.

Such wild places are truly priceless and we exploit and destroy them at our peril.

SSO Principal Oboe Diana Doherty

Work on the concerto began when, in an act of courageous exploration, Diana dropped around to my studio one morning and allowed me to record her performing a dazzling stream of freeform improvisations. Always up for a challenge, she had accepted my invitation to do so with characteristic enthusiasm and good will.

To hear such an accomplished classical player liberate themselves from the constraints of the notated score in this way, enter ‘the zone’ and follow their musical intuition through a myriad of patterns, riffs and sequences was a privilege indeed, and the best possible way for me to infiltrate Diana’s highly unique, dynamic and virtuosic approach to the instrument. Her visit left me inspired and ready to start work.

Performed in a continuum, the concerto can be divided into four distinct sections, the first two of which are closely related in terms of energy and contour. The third section is a slow movement where long, sustained oboe phrases are supported by a detailed filigree of repeated patterns that ebb and flow in dynamic waves. A syncopated string canon forms a bridge to the final section which is perhaps the most playful and extrovert in manner, building as it does to a traditional style big finish.

Composed expressly for the prodigious talents of Diana Doherty, this commission has been made possible through generous funding provided by Jane Mathews AO and Symphony Services International. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Diana for so generously sharing her truly wonderful spirit, expertise, advice and artistry with me during the writing process. My sincere thanks to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Maestro David Robertson for their continued support of my work and for the commitment and energy they bring to the premiere of this new work.

Diana Doherty and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will perform the world premiere of Nigel Westlake’s Spirit of the Wild in Colour & Movement at the Sydney Opera House, February 22 – 24