Composer Anne Boyd’s new orchestral work, inspired by Australia’s first desert botanic garden, will premiere at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Chancellor’s concert at the end of March. Olive Pink’s Garden is inspired by the work of Olive Muriel Pink, the anthropologist, artist and Aboriginal-rights activist who founded the Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs.

2017 is Boyd’s 27th year as a Professor at the University of Sydney – she was the university’s first female Professor of Music – and the end of the year will mark her retirement from fulltime academia.

Harpist Will Nichols running through his solo part in Anne Boyd’s Olive Pink’s Garden

The work introduces ideas connected to Boyd’s forthcoming opera – part of a trilogy of works inspired by three Australian women, Daisy Bates, Olive Pink and Annie Lock. Each of the women worked closely with Aboriginal Australians and their lives were intertwined in significant ways. “The stories of these inspiring women show a path to cultural maturity through a two-way approach in telling Australian stories as opportunities connecting us culturally and spiritually with our fellow Indigenous Australians,” said Boyd.

Olive Pink’s Garden has additional significance for the composer, as it is one of only a few works she has composed for such large forces, pitting a trio of solo instruments (alto flute, harp and marimba) against the Conservatorium’s Symphony Orchestra.

“I have only written a handful of orchestral works during my career. Women composers rarely have the opportunity to write for an ensemble of this size, which is sufficiently expensive that women composers are seen simply as too high a risk. With a very few exceptions, orchestral commissions more typically go to men,” Boyd said. “My new work is something of a watershed; throughout you may hear echoes of my earlier compositions.”

Olive Pink, a former anthropology student at the University of Sydney, founded her garden in Alice Springs in 1956, lobbying the NT government to establish a Flora Reserve on the site. The reserve was established and Pink was appointed Honorary Curator, a position she held until her death in 1975. Along with her Warlpiri assistant gardeners, including Johnny Jambijimba Yannarilyi, she planted an eclectic collection of trees and shrubs native to the central Australian region, overcoming the challenges of harsh drought conditions and minimal operational funding. Throughout her life she made botanical sketches, a collection of which now held in the University of Tasmania Library.

Boyd has sought to capture the colours of the central Australian landscape, which she has visited several times, as well as aspects of Pink’s character – including her commanding, high-pitched voice and imperious manners – in the fanfare and motto theme of Olive Pink’s Garden. The red and orange hues of the earth, rocks and towering ridges will be provided by the brass and winds of the orchestra, under the baton of Eduardo Diazmuñoz.

Imagining Olive Pink working in her garden, Boyd draws parallels with her own work. “With the privilege of a period of special studies leave, this is a rare occasion I have had the time to sink into an imaginary space, allowing the composition to grow at its own pace and even to give it a good weed it at the end of the creative process.”

Olive Pink’s Garden will be performed alongside Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Gordon Jacob’s Flute Concerto No 1, for which the soloist will be Breeanna Moore, winner of the 2016 Sydney Conservatorium of Music Woodwind Concerto Competition.

The Chancellor’s Concert is at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, March 31