★★★½☆ Mythic trees and glaciers abound in the Sydney Con’s wind symphony showcase.

Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Verbrugghen Hall
August 24, 2017

Lonely notes from the contrabass clarinet opened Cameron Lam’s Yggdrasil: The World Tree, a brand new concerto for the instrument and wind symphony, and one of two world premiere’s on the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Wind Symphony’s programme entitled Of Nature and Humanity. The instrument’s timbre, particularly in its high register, is almost saxophone-like, and soloist Susan Newsome’s pitch bending gave the quiet introduction a slightly smeary, jazzy quality up high, the lower register rumbling ominously. Subtle shadings of sound emerged from the body of the ensemble, high single voices growing seamlessly from the soloist like branches and leaves unfurling, becoming gradually thicker and lusher.

The concerto – one of two world premieres on the programme – was inspired by the Norse myth of Yggdrasil, the immense tree that connects the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. Channelling ideas of creation and destruction, Lam’s concerto – led by the SCM Wind Symphony’s conductor John Lynch – builds from the solemn opening, the tree’s birth, into a fantastic world in which mythological stories come to life. Rattatosk the squirrel scurries through piccolo and soprano saxophone, while the lower brass paint the tree’s mighty roots and the serpent that lives there. But the larger drama is one of tension between fire (the woodwinds) and ice (brass) that plays out on an epic scale across the work, which runs a gamut of colour from tenebrous bass rumblings to glittering percussion and chirping winds.

In the midst of all this is the contrabass clarinet, the tree, the plumbs both the window-rattling depths and the soaring heights. The concerto charts a course of destruction and ultimately rebirth from the ashes, Newsome’s contrabass emerging once more from silence to build a new world of flickering winds and immovable lower brass shot through with bright trumpets. A particularly powerful effect saw the entire ensemble clicking keys or tapping their instruments, first in march-like unison then as a white-noise wash of sound. The finale was an almost blinding brightening of sound that ultimately settled in a peaceful denouement. The epic concerto is a wonderful exploration of the contrabass’s colours, bringing to life this myth in both dizzying detail and ambitious scope.Yggdrasil is the fifth in a series of tree-themed compositions Lam has written for Newsome, who is Lecturer in Clarinet at the Sydney Con, and Lam is already working on an arrangement of the work for orchestra, slated for a 2018 premiere.

The other world premiere on the programme, Andre Nowicki’s Sacred Glaciers, was similarly epic. Preoccupied with concerns about global warming and the unbalancing of glaciers’ cycles of melting and freezing, the work opened in darkness, with two musicians playing hand flutes (ocarina-like instruments formed by cupping the hands together and blowing through them) on either side of the stage. Soft piccolo, celeste and glockenspiel evoked shimmering, icy landscapes, the texture gradually building with weighty inevitability, a roaring of sound that would crash over the audience like a wave. The ensemble was joined by Mongolian throat singer Bukhchuluun Ganburged, who – singing from behind and above the audience – filled Verbrugghen Hall with the haunting sound of Khuumii (throat singing), manipulating his voice’s overtones to vivid effect, acting “as a shaman or intermediary between humans and the natural world, honouring the landscape and drawing on its healing energy.” The tension ultimately receded to lighter, softer forces, harp and hand flute fading into silence.

The performance of both premieres was powerful and in the Nowicki the position of hand flutes and Ganburged created an encompassing musical experience. The effect could have been enhanced further, however, by using dedicated hand flute players, saving the musicians from having to walk back to their positions in the ensemble during an otherwise tranquil moment in the music. Evocative electronic soundscapes – Daniel Blinkhorn’s Interludes 1 and 2 – were spread through the programme, filling the hall with the sounds of water and nature. The music of rain, insects and frogs gradually transforming into textural, engine-like sounds.

The concert was bookended by more standard repertoire. The programme began with Dvořák’s Serenade in D, double bass and cello reinforcing the bass and adding to the richness of the wind ensemble’s sound (as per the composer’s revised version of the work). Played with energy and precision, the highlight of this work was Katherine Mostert’s oboe playing. The piece is almost an oboe concerto at times and her smooth, concentrated sound and spinning vibrato shone in the second and third movements, as did her duets across the ensemble with clarinettist James Julian. If the energy flagged a little in the fourth movement, the ensemble’s acceleration into the final bars picked it up again.

Florent Schmitt’s tone poem of 1913-14 Dionysiaques, Op. 62, continued the mythological theme, with whirling French colours celebrating the Greek goddess of wine. From the growling bass opening, the bacchanal features slinky clarinet, drama building in bass clarinet bassoon and contrabassoon before the party intensifies into frenzied excess and mad climax.

A wide-ranging but fascinating concert, Of Nature and Humanity showed the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Wind Symphony is in great shape (and excellent hands with John Lynch), embracing both traditional and new contemporary repertoire with professional focus, energy and virtuosity.