★★★★☆ International and sweeping revisitation of World War One.

Concert Hall, QPAC
November 24, 2015

A hundred years have passed since the disastrous landings at Gallipoli; the last ten of them have been spent assembling The Gallipoli Symphony. Over the past decade, eleven noted composers from Turkey, New Zealand, and Australia have come together to reflect on a shared history and to musically retell the campaign’s story. Following an international premiere in Istanbul, the completed symphony has been brought to Australian soil for the first time.

With eleven compositions packed into a mere ninety minutes, the programme was incredibly brisk, but conductor Jessica Cottis leapt from theme to theme with consummate skill. Under her confident hand, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the St. Joseph’s College and All Hallows’ School Gallipoli Choir, The Australian Voices, and a clutch of seven soloists joined forces with remarkable unity and colour.

The first work, Gelibolu, opened the night with perhaps the most unusual instrument in percussion soloist Michael Askill’s arsenal – a bowl of water. Certainly a rarity for the modern orchestra (though by no means unheard of), this atypical beginning set the tone for an evening that was to foreground unusual solos and heightened narrativity. Composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek was onstage as a soloist, his fine command of the ney leading the orchestra through a dark, earthy rumination on the past. The sharp Turkish tones were carried well, but a profusion of activity in the lower register resulted in a slightly monochromatic finish to the piece.

Gelibolu was followed by another work of musical fusion, Garth Farr and Richard Nunns’ He Poroporaoki (Farewell). The clean, haunting melodies of soloist Horomona Horo, playing traditional Maori instruments, wove through a supportive strings section in a restrained and delicate ode to the departing New Zealand troops. Capable blending was succeeded by a return to Old World pomp, with the imperial swagger of Graeme Koehne’s The Voyage. Koehne pushes the brass to the furthest reaches of untrammelled grandeur, with Cottis drawing some gorgeously clear and full-throated passages from the section. The theme of easy adventure continued in Thoughts of Home (Peter Sculthorpe), though perhaps to less satisfying effect. Despite a promisingly dark opening by Julian Jackson on the chromatic harmonica, the composition resolved early into a nostalgic, pastoral interlude.

The Landing (Elena Kats-Chernin) moved boldly into the dramatic meat of the evening. The insistent repetition of the violins and an unusually drawn-out accelerando built irresistibly to the catastrophic climax of battle, complete with staccato drumbeats that mimicked machine gun fire. Kamran Ince’s The Invasion continued the bombardment, unravelling into a shattering portrayal of the Turkish trench. The soloists and strings quickly fell out of harmony with the woodwind section to create a discordant clash, which Cottis managed with great aplomb. High, frenetic strings evoked psychological distress, while the solid drumbeat added a note of physical destruction. Aiming to mirror, rather than transform, the noise of war, this composition rolled over the audience like an avalanche.

Both God Pity Us Poor Soldiers (Ross Harris) and The Trenches Are Empty Now (Ross Edwards) provided a brief calm, though the latter was perhaps the more successful. Extremely judicious use of William Barton on the didgeridoo conjured the abandoned trenches in a way that the strings alone could not quite manage, with low, guttural trills fading to the breathless sound of what might have been a mournful wind.

Wedged between these pieces was Andrew Schultz’s The August Offensive. The work opened with a truly cataclysmic moment, then dropped back. Flashes of power were shot through with some lovely rich harmonies from the strings, as the piece slowly rebuilt to the devastating cacophony of its opening bars. Penultimate work, Hope of the Higher Heart (Demir Demirkan) then returned to a more Turkish sound, pleasingly bringing the return of Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Bahadir Sener (kanun), and Ozan Arslan (baglama). This composition then moved without pause into the final piece, Future, again by Graeme Koehne. After all that had come before it, the warmth and comfortable chords of Future felt, at first, too cosy a conclusion. However, the piece did eventually find its feet, as all seven soloists joined in the closing passage, finally achieving the unity and gravitas that Future was striving for.

The Gallipoli Symphony is inextricable from the weight of its subject. Not only an exciting and commendable selection of new compositions, it was also an act of cultural reconciliation and historical storytelling. Thankfully, these dual aims worked well together and, on all fronts, The Gallipoli Symphony proved itself marvellously.