Curated by Australian composer, Matthew Hindson, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s innovative Australian Series features chamber works written by Australian composers and played by Australian artists.  For this concert, the CSO Wind Quintet was augmented by the incomparable (and she is – in the world) oboist, and CSO artist in focus for 2019, Diana Doherty.

Diana Doherty

The concert began with four of the quintet at the back of the room, playing tiny handbells gently tinkling as Kiri Sollis, playing an alto flute, entered from the side at the front, playing Ross Edwards’ hauntingly beautiful, Japanese-influenced, Water Spirit Song. As she made her way to the back of the capacity audience and then slowly to the front, her companions followed, finally ending up on the stage.  It very much evoked a sense of tranquillity and peace.

With the quintet returning to their usual instruments, two more pieces from Edwards followed, the three-movement Incantations and Ulpirra, with its clever structure, almost like a round, with the melody and accompanying foundation passing across the five instruments. These pieces were quite tricky, especially in the up-beat sections, with some off-beat rhythms, and quick-succession entries that required absolute precision. This group of fine musicians were precise at every moment.

Before the next piece, we had something of a prelude, played by Doherty, entering from the back of the audience. It was bright, cheeky and rhythmic, even mischievous, with Doherty engaging the audience along the way to little outbursts of laughter, and concluding with a solid, loud stomp of the foot on the stage, snapping the audience to attention.

Then Hindson introduced 30-something composer, Cyrus Meurant, who described his three-movement 2016 work, Monuments for Oboe and Drones. With the Wind Quintet controlling electronic drones behind the stage, Doherty took us through the influences of centuries of musical styles and cultures. Doherty’s oboe, being a double reed instrument, created many colours and textures, even emulating the bagpipes with the embellishments or ornaments that pipers use to break up the continuous melody line. Hindson described the work as having “nothing quite like it in the whole world”.  It was an extraordinarily entertaining piece, especially in Doherty’s hands.

World premieres are always exciting, and the next work by Aboriginal operatic soprano and composer, Deborah Cheetham, was made as poignant as it was exciting when she told the story of its origins. Cheetham, along with her eight siblings, were in the Stolen Generation, removed from her family, language and country, Yorta Yorta, around the River Murray, stretching westward from Albury-Wodonga.

Her paternal grandfather, Kunkus, was from Yuin (on the Sapphire Coast of NSW), a place she had not visited since she was 15. It was only in 2018, at the age of 54, that she returned to Yuin, in the company of her brother, Tony. They heard stories of their grandfather and climbed the spiritual heart of Yuin – Gulaga, Mother Mountain (Mount Dromedary). The only way she could express how she felt about that reunion – that renewal (hence the title for this concert) – was musically. And, so, she wrote Gulaga for flute, clarinet and oboe. Joining Sollis and Doherty, was clarinettist, Eloise Fisher.

This is an extraordinary work. It is very musical, with wonderful melodies and harmonies. But even more special is the seamless and intimate interaction between the three instruments. The melody and harmonies closely interweave through a piece that has charm in equal measure with aura. It is very obvious it is written from the inner heart, and these three musicians played it from the same place. It evokes the spirit of 2,000 generations of Yuin people and, after the audience’s warmest applause for the musicians and the composer, Hindson was in no doubt it would be “played for generations to come”.

Closing this quite wonderful concert was another piece by Ross Edwards, Yanada, the companion piece to Ulpirra, heard earlier. The composer had dedicated it to Doherty, who was joined on-stage by the members of the Wind Quintet, but once again, bells in hand, softly and gently tinkling in support of Doherty’s expressive and evocative oboe. Then the quintet, playing the bells, left the stage with Doherty following in slow procession, still playing, ultimately bringing this truly memorable concert to a close.