★★★★★ In Claire Edwardes’ hands, Iain Grandage’s eclectic, new percussion concerto is spectacular.

Federation Concert Hall, Hobart
24 July, 2015

Internationally acclaimed percussionist Claire Edwardes and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra joined forces to present a spectacular concert that was a testament to their calibre and stamina. Australian composer Iain Grandage’s thrilling new percussion concerto, Dances with Devils, was bookended by audience favourites by Humperdinck and Bizet.  

The concert opened with a suite of five excerpts from Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, forming a mini-symphony to narrate the popular Grimms fairy tale. The Overture’s opening horn quartet melody was delivered with exceptional clarity, and principal cellist Sue-Ellen Paulsen delivered a divinely expressive solo in the second movement. The string section as a whole produced excellent delicacy and grace in the slower final movement. Conductor Nicholas Carter, currently Associate Guest Conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, inspired a vibrant sound with his energetic direction. 

The highlight of the afternoon concert was Iain Grandage’s new percussion concerto, Dances with Devils. Each of the four movements is based on a story from the Australian Gothic literary tradition of the 19th century, revealing the transformation of old world elements (such as ghosts and spectres) into events that resonated with the Australian colonial experience. Grandage himself introduced the eclectic variety of instruments adorning the stage, demonstrating the musical technique required to play the waterphone (a series of vertical bronze rods raised from a circular base, that, when bowed and rotated mid-air, creates an otherworldly sound synonymous with horror movies from the seventies). Claire Edwardes, accurately described as a “sorceress of percussion”, gave a stunning performance of Dances with Devils.  

The opening movement, The Chosen Vessel, is based on Barbara Baynton’s 1896 short story of the same name, narrating the fear of a young woman dreading the return of a swagman to her hut. The driving rhythmic layers of the lower strings embodied the ominous undercurrent of the story, over which Edwardes produced an array of different textural qualities on the marimba. She made the physically demanding part appear effortless and the work emerged as not only a musical showpiece, but also a visual one.

Based on a story by Edward Dyson, the second movement depicts a woman who, tormented by the incessant birdcall around her bush home, chooses death by drowning for herself and her child. Grandage elaborated on the correlation between his instrumentation and the story by introducing his newly invented instrument – a pulley system attached to Edwardes’ arms allowing her to raise and sink two tubular bells into glass cylinders of water. Striking the bells as she submerged them, Edwardes created an eerily unsettling effect as the pitch sank in accordance with the bell. Her absolute mastery of all things percussion was truly spectacular to watch.

The third and fourth movements showcased Edwardes’ virtuosic prowess as she tackled bass drum and tom-toms with her right hand whilst simultaneously executing complicated marimba passages with her left. The performance was deservedly met with a standing ovation.

A selection of movements from Bizet’s Carmen concluded the concert, with the TSO maintaining the vibrant enthusiasm conjured by Edwardes in the concerto. Thunderous applause from the audience drew Carter back to the stage three times, and a palpable sense of enjoyment and satisfaction ensued as the orchestra launched enthusiastically into the Toreador Song as an encore.