Great Hall Rising was originally conceived to be staged inside Parliament House but unfortunately COVID restrictions prevented that occurrence. Nevertheless, this all-Australian program, including composers and musicians, touched on events that have influenced our history and shone a light on our democracy.

Aunty Delmae Barton and William BartonAunty Delmae Barton and William Barton at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

Vincent Plush’s 40-year-old horn piece, Bakery Hill Rising, in memory of the Eureka Stockade of 1854, opened the concert. This haunting and beautifully realised work for french horn, tells the story of the stand taken by the Ballarat gold miners against British taxes, where 20 miners died and many more arrested. Famously, they raised the Stockade Flag, which was shown on a screen during this performance to remind us of the tragedy that occurred. Aidan Gabriels entered the Fitters Workshop poignantly playing this horn solo, the stirring music enhanced by elements of Percy Grainger’s The Duke of Marlborough and fragments of an early folksong, Freedom on the Wallaby. Assisted by an additional soundscape from pre-recorded horns, the story unfolded tragically and was given an evocative and moving reading.

Aunty Delmae and William Barton’s Welcome was an entertaining Welcome to Country but also drove home a powerful message. Commencing on guitar and vocalising sounds to accompany his mother’s sung and spoken words, Barton also used his didgeridoo to create both the atmosphere and relevant noises of the bush. Aunty Delmae’s welcome song, based on a child’s prayer of peace, was imbued with strong messages of reconciliation, love, hope and justice. Represented simply but forcibly, this left an indelible impression.

Véronique Serret, James Wannan, Blair Harris and Jason NobleVéronique Serret, James Wannan, Blair Harris and Jason Noble. Photo © Peter Hislop

Young Sydney composer, Johannes MacDonald’s world premiere, The Sun is Coming (a warning from Ra), explored the possibilities of a rarely-heard instrument, the contrabass clarinet. Superbly played by Jason Noble, this fascinating instrument emitted dark, almost subterranean, gravelly sounds giving the impression of an ancient creature rising from the murky depths. There were deep, throaty colours within the soundscape, alongside diverse textures from the instrument itself. A disturbing but very well written work.

Lyric soprano Susannah Lawergren gave a sensitive and emotive reading of Judith Wright’s poem, Late Spring, accompanied on piano by Roland Peelman. Composed by Elena Kats-Chernin, as part of Katie Noonan’s Love and Fury project in 2016, the poem describes the coming of spring with images of flowers, pears and the moon, all sketched lovingly by Lawergren’s lush soprano.

Moya Henderson’s work based on the elusive Min Min Light is an energetic piece in four sections, jam-packed with evocative musical colours and textures and giving all the instruments an opportunity to shine both individually and together. Composed for a quartet of violin, viola, cello and clarinet, Véronique Serret, James Wannan, Blair Harris and Jason Noble impressed with their fine playing and delivery. Starting with a bright and breezy violin interacting with a dance-like quality on the clarinet, the music bounced around the instruments to accommodate the capricious nature of the Kooralie (light). The second section, entitled “not to be frightened” is introduced by the dark tones of the cello and bass clarinet, the upper strings joining to create the fast rhythms of the mysterious dancing light. The raucous sounds of the cello bowings were unnerving. The third section touched on the bright, ethereal nature of the light, the high strings turning into ghostly sprites, while the fourth shows the clarinet in upbeat mode, scudding through the darkness. A marvellous piece of writing.

The Golden Gate Brass Quintet at the Canberra International Music FestivalThe Golden Gate Brass Quintet. Photo © Peter Hislop

Luke Styles’ Solder, also a world premiere work and written for a brass quintet, compared the making of a brass instrument to that of composing a new work, both with their own challenges. An interesting premise, the work began strongly with brash metallic brass and syncopated rhythms. However, over its three sections with a short final coda, the work lacked sufficient variety and needed a wider range of textures and colours to differentiate the movements. The Golden Gate Brass Quintet worked hard to bring Styles’ vision to life while the final coda with two muted trumpets was a successful finale.

Ngukurr Songmen Daniel and David Wilfred, from South East Arnhem Land, famously heard in the recent Hand to Earth, sang and played music from the Yolŋu Manikay (songs) complete with bilma (clapsticks) and yidaki (didjeridoo). The four pieces concentrated around bird-song, water and the waterhole and walking home to Country and, in their different ways, were all spine-tingling while imbuing an enormous sense of their history and culture. Daniel’s powerful voice alongside David’s sublime craft in playing the didjeridoo was a pleasure to watch and hear. We are indeed privileged to have heard them.

All in all, an immensely interesting and diverse concert of new and revisited works that spoke to who we are musically and the events that shape us.

The Canberra International Music Festival runs until 9 May


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