The QPAC audience was treated to an intimate lesson in ancient navigation and then transported to simpler times, travelling over seas and desert, ending amongst the stars of the Southern Cross in Maps and Journeys: Navigating by the Sky from the Brisbane-based Southern Cross Soloists (SXS), a leading Australian chamber music ensemble led by Artistic director and oboist, Tania Frazer. This concert, presented with QPAC as part of the Queensland Music Festival, is the second of the three-part 2019 concert series program exploring the facets of human curiosity leading to amazing discoveries.

Southern Cross Soloists and guests performing Maps and Journeys. Photograph © Stephen Henry

The collection of classical music was inspired by navigation and maritime voyages spanning each century from the 21st century world premiere of Ginan: Songs of Knowledge by John Rotar, back to the 18th century virtuoso Antonio Vivaldi’s La tempest di mare, RV 433 (The Storm of the Sea). The concert was presented by Lucas Burns of ABC Classic FM’s weekend nightly program, who divides his time between his radio work and sailing with his partner, guest speaker Trevor Hill. Hill has won many sailing races over the years including the short-handed division of the Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race. Between each piece both Hill and Burns shared their experiences whilst journeying across the seas, and discussed the evolution of maritime navigation by the precession of the stars using a map and sextant, to the GPS, which we primarily depend on today.

The concert opened with the Vivaldi, with a burst of energy from the Allegro, as the waves tossed about with growing veracity from the rising scales from the strings. The intensity showed on the faces of guest viola artist Nicole Greentree and English guest violinist Victoria Sayles, accompanying the SXS on the harpsichord, cello, flute and violin. The lull of the Largo had a pretty melodic motif with triplets recreating the lap of the waves, before the vengeful storm crashed back with fluttering flutes and ascending trilling scales from the talented guest artist Jonathan Henderson to reach a tempestuous conclusion.

The sea journey continued with the Adagio and Phrygia from Spartacus by the Armenian composer and conductor Aram Khachtuarian, famously popularised as the theme tune in the 70’s by the BBC’s long-running maritime drama series The Onedin Line. Because of this association, the soaring melody now evokes visions of tall sailing ships majestically riding the waves with billowing white sails. Originally, however, it was known as the most memorable romantic tune in the ballet Spartacus, when Spartacus is reunited with his wife. The woodwind and strings carried the love theme beautifully, until a fanfare from the french horn, by Alex Miller, encouraged the melody to swell in adulation before the strings faded to the end.

Ashley Smith, Tania Frazer, Katya Willett, Jonathan Henderson. Photograph © Stephen Henry

The soft rhythm of the didgeridoo wafted across the audience from the back of the Concert Hall, as Chris Williams, a descendant of the Wakka Wakka people of Queensland and award-winning trumpeter, strode down past the audience without a pause in the circular breathing, and onto the stage, playing the haunting introduction of the String Quartet No.12 (From Ubirr) Earth Cry by Peter Sculthorpe. Seated centre stage and changing between two didgeridoos, the kookaburra called out as the Earth cried for balance, whilst the ensemble emulated the sounds of nature from the Australian outback in a beautiful plea for us all to re-attune to the land. Having seen the piece played by the ARIA award-winning William Barton, the seamless breathing and expertise of Williams, who has played a solo performance at the Vatican, was astounding and easily comparable to the esteemed Barton, as his haunting sounds of the animals of Kakadu rang throughout the concert hall.

Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) followed, one of the most famous non-symphonic pieces and the most admired of Debussy’s orchestral works. The composition was arranged by the young, talented and innovative composer in residence, John Rotar. Divided into three ‘sketches’, La Mer elicits imagery of the ocean in three atmospheric conditions using lilting melodies, articulated rhythms and quickening tempos to recreate the dynamic wave motions from calm to a raging tempest. The nine musicians seemed to be overcome by the oscillations of the melodies at one stage, as they all synchronously bobbed up and down like buoys on the waves they were creating.

Chris Williams and Alex Raineri. Photograph © Stephen Henry

The highlight of the concert was Rotar’s Ginan: Songs of Knowledgewhich was written in collaboration with Williams. Australia’s First Nations People were the world’s first astronomers, navigating using oral star maps transposed onto the land in combination with songlines for at least 60,000 years. Ginan: Songs of Knowledge was introduced by Rotar, as he described his inspiration to be the official renaming in 2017 of the fifth star in the Southern Cross constellation (Crux), Epsilon Crucis to Ginan, the Northern Territory Wardaman people’s name for the orange giant that lies 228 light years away. The star represents a special red-dilly bag full of the songs of knowledge which were brought by the red flying foxes up into the sky from the underworld where they were found by the Mulugurnden (the crayfish). The songs associated with the brown-red star refer to stages of initiation, and are managed by the stars in the constellation Scorpius. The haunting music reflects each stage of the story, musically mapping a journey of ascent through knowledge from the Subterranean, to Above Ground, until soaring among the Celestial. The music is in a similar vein to Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry, but has a unique synergy between the didgeridoo and orchestral instruments, using soaring scales and a melange of melodies interspersed with significant contemplative pauses. The concert ended with a toe-tapping epilogue where the didgeridoo and ensemble harmonically congregate to race to an exhilarating conclusion.

Maps and Journeys: Navigating by the Sky was a stimulating and insightful musical journey through space and time with Ginan: Songs of Knowledge as a spectacular destination!