★★★★½ A symphonic celebration of Nigel Butterley’s 80th birthday.

Iwaki Auditorium
October 31, 2015

Eminent Australian composer Nigel Butterley AM turned 80 in May, 2015, and this (unfortunately) rare performance of his works doubled as a joyous celebration at which the composer was happily present. Butterley lectured for nearly twenty years in contemporary music at Newcastle Conservatorium from 1973, following several decades of prolific and prize-winning compositional output and a long association with the ABC. He became a Member of the Order of Australia in 1991, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Newcastle in 1996. Three of his works were performed tonight, along with the world premiere of a new Butterley-inspired work by Elliott Gyger.

Zubin Kanga is an internationally acclaimed pianist who specialises in contemporary new music repertoire, and his performance of Butterley’s Uttering Joyous Leaves (1981) for solo piano opened the programme. This intricate and densely-compressed work was commissioned for the Sydney International Piano Competition in 1981, and was given a reading glistening with delicacy and precision by Kanga. Elliott Gyger’s From Joyous Leaves (2015) is a concerto for piano and chamber orchestra that ‘draws its inspiration and materials’ from Uttering Joyous Leaves. Gyger holds degrees in composition from the University of Sydney and Harvard University, was taught by Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards, and is currently Senior Lecturer in Composition at the University of Melbourne. From Joyous Leaves is a product of Gyger’s long and fruitful association with Butterley, and Kanga again performed the piano part, this time on a prepared piano with various strings muted and altered. This made for some particularly exciting interplay between trilling piano, xylophone and celeste, as well as shimmering brass and lush strings. It was an honour to be present at the world premiere performance of this marvellous and quite beautiful work, which will hopefully receive further attention by concert programmers.

But the night belonged to the two large-scale and rarely-performed works by Nigel Butterley. In the Head the Fire (1966) is a complex and ambitious radiophonic (composed using electronics) epic that was commissioned as an entry for the Prix Italia, a competition established in 1948 by National Italian broadcaster RAI. As a work composed of segments recorded separately and assembled in the recording studio, this ‘live’ performance was its first public performance in a concert hall, according to Elliott Gyger, who introduced the work. It consists of apocalyptic texts (both sung and spoken) from ancient works including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the War Scroll (c. 150 BC), Christian liturgical excerpts and an early Irish poem, The Song of Amergin. There are seven parts in all, with orchestral and electronic accompaniment, manipulated and processed to form a kind of massive studio oratorio. In the Head the Fire won the 1966 Prix Italia prize for musical compositions with words, famously ahead of Luciano Berio’s Laborintus II.

From Sorrowing Earth (1991) is Butterley’s only work for full orchestra since the Symphony of 1980. Rich and filled with drama, it features three percussionists, as well as piano, celeste and harp. The writing for strings and brass is particularly powerful, and, following a ‘lengthy build-up to a shattering climax’, a diaphanous flute part carries the work into a contemplative finale. From Sorrowing Earth is captivating, mysterious, filled with intricate lyricism and so utterly accessible that audiences should have the chance to experience it far more regularly. The terrific Arcko Symphonic Ensemble was conducted by Timothy Phillips, and, following the conclusion of the final work, burst into a rendition of Happy Birthday during which a sprightly but frail-looking Butterley hugged Phillips and looked thoroughly happy with the evening’s proceedings.