Bizarre, quirky, political and rebellious: the imaginative world of Martin Wesley-Smith.

Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Saturday 21 February 2015

Composer Martin Wesley-Smith is 70 this year, along with his twin brother (and regular collaborator and lyricist) Peter. To celebrate this landmark birthday clarinetist Roslyn Dunlop organized a concert in his honour, and the evening of music on offer was quite a ride.

An expertly curated mix of vocal, solo, chamber, electro-acoustic and multi-media works dating as far back as 1978, this showcase took us deep into the witty, endlessly inventive and entirely unique universe of Wesley-Smith. Despite the extensive demands of this programme, Sydney Conservatorium did a magnificent job (along with Greg White and Jon Drummond) of managing all the technical aspects of the event, which were all handled flawlessly.

Martin Wesley-Smith’s music is known for its political commentary and quirky Lewis Carroll influences, and this tribute to the composer certainly re-iterated his political proactivity and love for wit and the surreal.

Ros Dunlop performed three works, Weapons of Mass Distortion (2003), Papua Merdeka (2005) and was joined by cellist Julia Ryder for Merry-Go-Round (2002). These were audio-visual works with electronic components that paired video and sound to make their complex points. Weapons of Mass Distortion highlighted the use of deceptive language devices in politics, using electronic sound and visual media to relate to specific historical and current examples (The Vietnam War, Australian asylum-seekers and Iraq invasion are all evoked) told through the prism of Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty who said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”.

The composition of Merry-Go-Round was particularly interesting for me. Wesley-Smith displayed text in sync with Ryder and Dunlop’s notes, which made an interesting correlation between the unpredictable melody of language and the controlled contour of a musical phrase. This was a technique that was clearly favoured by Wesley-Smith, utilising the use of projected text in several of the evening’s pieces, but I felt that it was put to most significant use in Merry-Go-Round.

Daryl Pratt, David Miller and Geoff Collins performed Janet, a trio written by Wesley-Smith in 1995 as a musical portrait of a woman that the composer once knew. In it he gave an interpretation of the subject’s character and musical interests. I felt the work was rather schizophrenic, however that may simply have been an apt reflection of the subject!

Sydney Chamber Choir conducted by Paul Stanhope opened the concert with a personal favourite, “Two Songs for Snark-Hunters” (1985) – an especially poignant moment for me as it was this work that inspired me to be a composer when I was in high-school 16 years ago. These works form part of Boojum!, a choral musical theatre piece which premiered at the 1986 Adelaide Festival. Once again Wesley-Smith takes his inspiration from Lewis Carroll, in this instance from his epic nonsense poem “Hunting of the Snark”. Sydney Chamber Choir gave a heart-warming performance, easily flowing through the work’s fast-paced witticisms and maintaining excellent balance throughout, albeit at a slightly modest tempo.

The other vocal works in the program were performed by three accomplished sopranos. Nicole Thomson made a brave come-back performance after an 18 month break recovering from vocal problems. She performed “The Fighters Who Fell” (1990), “Don’t Let Me Persuade You” (2009) and also gave a heart-breakingly bitter-sweet performance of “Baghdad Baby Boy” (2007).

Soprano Karen Cummings and pianist Robert Constable gave a hilarious performance of Second-Hand Sale (2006/14), featuring an old car, an ex-boyfriend and a pre-loved prime minister (Tony Abbott in this case).

Soprano Wendy Dixon and pianist David Miller have been performing together as a duo for many years and the two affable performers brought a sense of traditional art-song to their interpretations of Wesley-Smith’s music. When We are Old and Gay (1988) and I’m a Caterpillar of Society (1978) were very confidently performed with the satire of the works standing out with Dixon’s skilled and dramatically taught delivery.

In addition to the vocal talents on display there were also plenty of instrumental delights which explored another recurring theme in Wesley-Smith’s music: the South-East Asian country of East Timor. Tim Kain performed Koele Mai for solo guitar, a work which he commissioned in 2002. A very tranquil work, it used the melody of an East Timorese folk song of the same title as its starting point. Welcome to the Hotel Turismo (2000) was performed by cellist Julia Ryder. Another multi-media piece, this work depicted the decimation of the East Timor city Dili.

Rachel Scott gave a haunting performance of Uluru Song (1993). The piece presented a lilting pizzicato with vocals theme that was interrupted by a gentle bowed harmonics section. Rachel’s navigation of the work’s delicacy and expressiveness made this a great experience.

Flautist Geoffrey Collins performance of Balibo (1992) was the highlight of the evening for me. This somewhat virtuosic showpiece, pairing technically dazzling flute acrobatics with electronics was inspired by the East Timorese town of Balibo where five Australian journalists were murdered by Indonesian forces in 1975. Unlike much of the rest of the programme there was minimal use of text, and no visuals in this work. The somber subject of the piece didn’t call for elated ovation, however Geoffrey’s flawless execution was a fitting tribute to the victims of this tragic story.

In addition to the celebration of all things Wesley-Smith there were some additional performances that came as a welcome surprise. Violinist and composer Jon Rose improvised a kaleidoscopic cacophony of light, heavy, beautiful and distorted sounds whilst he recounted memories of his experiences performing with Wesley-Smith at the Centre de Georges Pompidou in Paris. Another surprise was the encore performed by counter-tenor Tobias Cole and his family (The Cole Minors and Majors). I’m Walkin’ in the City, made famous through the children’s television programme Playschool, performed as a family, singing and tap dancing together, was a delightful way to end the evening. 

This 3-hour epic may have been challenging, unerring in its bizarreness and at times extremely gritty, but thanks to Ros Dunlop charming MC’ing and Martin’s sensitive curation by the end of it I was well satisfied, and wanting more. Wesley-Smith has hinted at a new piece he is currently writing for Australia’s acclaimed a cappella group, the Song Company. I personally can’t wait to hear it.

ABC Classic FM’s Stephen Adams conducted an interview with Martin Wesley-Smith in his home in Kangaroo Valley in NSW.