Harpist extraordinaire Marshall McGuire, celebrates his 50th birthday in style.

Turning 50 is a watershed moment for anyone but for Australia’s harpist extraordinaire Marshall McGuire it was an excuse to celebrate some of his favourite chamber music with friends and collaborators in the intimate surrounds of Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room.

In a career inspired by watching Harpo Marx weave his musical magic in among the Marx Brothers’ mayhem in A Night At The Opera, McGuire has worked with a diverse range of this country’s top musicians and ensembles, and a few of them were there backlit by the room’s stunning views of the Harbour to help mark his half century.

The season opener for the Utzon Series also included the audience in the birthday party with miniature cupcakes in the interval as well as the customary free glass of wine on arrival.

McGuire opened serenely with his own solo arrangement of the Aria from JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the simple and elegant melody perfectly suited to the harp.  

From the old to the very new with the world premiere of a piece McGuire commissioned from his friend of 25 years Gerard Brophy. They first collaborated for Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide Festival and this new birthday work, Constantinopolis, three pieces inspired by the city of Istanbul, reflects the composer’s fascination with eastern cultures (he spends part of his year in Calcutta).

Co-dedicatee Christina Leonard’s soprano saxophone’s sinuous lines wove arabesques over a gently rocking harp motif for the first part Uskudar before the piece slowly built to whirling climax in the final passage, Uc horan.

The harp and saxophone make surprisingly compatible partners and this was also to the case with two pieces featuring the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo end-blown flute, masterfully played by Riley Lee. 

Michio Miyagi lost his sight by the age of eight but memories of fishermen working their nets and hauling their catch in while the gulls circled inspired his most famous piece, Haru No Umi (The Sea In Spring).

This led to an Australian work fusing the two cultures, Life In A Day by Stuart Greenbaum, an attractive piece where the jazz influences often recalled for this listener the New Age albums of Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider.

McGuire and New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes have been friends for several years but hadn’t collaborated together as soloists until McGuire arranged some of Schubert’s songs for harp.

Two favourites – Heidenroslein and Im Frühling – as well as meatier fare from the Winterreise cycle, Der Leiermann and Frühlingstraum, made the wait for this collaboration well worthwhile.

After opening the second half with Into The Dreaming, a cello piece by the late Peter Sculthorpe that the composer rearranged for McGuire’s first album, Melbourne-based ensemble Flinders Quartet took to the stage to perform Ross Edwards’s popular Arafura Dances with its sunny feel.

The work was inspired by the sounds of birds and insects and views of the Arafura Sea when he was in Arnhem Land and features a lovely lilting arioso sandwiched between two of his signature rhythmic Maninya dance/chant movements.

The quintet was joined by two Sydney Symphony Orchestra regulars, clarinetist Frank Celata and associate principal flute Emma Scholl for the icing on the McGuire birthday cake, a scintillating performance of Ravel’s demanding but rewarding Introduction and Allegro.

This work, with its contrasting textures and colours from wind and strings over some spectacularly rhythmical harp, brought a varied and delightful afternoon to an exhilarating close.

Next up in the series are Harry Christophers and Members of The Sixteen on Monday, March 9, at 7pm