The imperial splendour of the Adelaide Town Hall with its faux rococo flourishes, Queen Victoria glowering in the marble foyer, the time-freezing peal of bells from the Post Office tower across King William Street, all the images and sounds of old Adelaide – still so very British in so many respects – gave way to a new spirit of joy and expectation from a new kind of audience, many of whom may not have stepped inside these hallowed civic walls before.
Entering the hall, there were already hints of a very different kind of concert experience from the kind I remember as a schoolboy. This is the hall where my ears ‘grew’, its glorious acoustic setting the bar way above anything I would encounter later at Bennelong Point. A darkened auditorium with a semi-circle of black-clad musicians enveloping the conductor’s podium, a reflection of a time honoured tribal gathering around a campfire, perhaps.
Onto the stage strode two Indigenous men, their naked torsos festooned in traditional paints, Stephen and Jamie Goldsmith, welcoming the audience with traditional chant and light-hearted banter to Karuna country, to Adelaide, “the place of the red kangaroo.” Then, projected over the orchestra, the first of a series of video vignettes from noted didjeridu players, explaining the role of the yidaki in their culture and lives. Finally, the two figures at the centre of proceedings appeared, conductor Luke Dollman and didjeridu virtuoso William Barton, his trio of instruments already carefully placed at the edge of the stage precipice.
Barton lowered us into the gentle calm of the Tyalgum Mantras by Ross Edwards. Many will recall the inspired and inspirational Australian segment in the television programme which followed sunrise across the planet on Millennium Day, January 1, 2001; Edwards’s Dawn Mantras with musicians dotted around the architecture of the Opera House.
Pre-dating that, Tyalgum Mantras was the first of over a dozen meditative ‘mantras’ by Edwards, its slow arc unfurling in gentle roulades of pentatonic euphony, underpinned by the grounding of the low pitch C from the didjeridu. Slowly the audience became aware of bellbird-like ‘pings’ beyond the stage. These came from other orchestral players, moving in ritual silence through the audience, intermittently tapping chime bars at random moments.
Reflection and ritual are at the core of Edwards’ compositional aesthetic, reminding us of that ancient definition of the purpose of music, embraced by John Cage, “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” In that sense, Tyalgum Mantras was the perfect musical opening to this concert, so replete with symbolism. For all the aural beauty of this experience though, at times, the on-stage texture seemed a mite over-cooked, as enthusiastic players savoured their roles and participation.
Of the four white male composers represented in this programme – in a sense, Barton was ‘co-composer’ of all their pieces – Edwards was the only one present. It was a shame that he could not come to the stage to acknowledge the audience and performers: he was trapped in ‘the Queen’s seats’ in the balcony. Another symbol.
Many regard Kakadu as Peter Sculthorpe’s finest orchestral piece. It is certainly one of the most performed, especially by Australian orchestras touring internationally. It had its origins at the famed Aspen Music Festival high in the Colorado Rockies in July 1988 and I recall the tumultuous response from that Sunday afternoon audience whose only experiences of Australia would have been Paul Hogan and ‘that yacht’ which had hijacked the America’s Cup a few years earlier.
Sculthorpe’s music and his physical presence mesmerised that audience, as it would do many times over the years. Written in the Bicentennial year – Sculthorpe agreed with Patrick White’s damning of “the detestable Bi”, which passed without any hint of a treaty with the original inhabitants – it contains many symbols, barely recognisable to most listeners: the soaring horn duo, for instance, derives from the tune notated by Peron and Freycinet on the Baudin expedition of 1801-3, possibly the first European attempt to note Indigenous music. That same tune appears in that overblown Bicentennial conflation, Child of Australia, with its equally unwieldy text by Thomas Keneally.
Sculthorpe always thrilled to the way in which the late Stuart Challender would whip up the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in performances of Kakadu. The Adelaide performance by a smaller orchestra seemed to lack that energy and vitality – perhaps a symbol of the absence of the composer himself (he died in Sydney on August 8, 2014) – but the quieter moments were poised and quite moving. As they did from time to time throughout the evening, Barton’s didjeridus were amplified to the point where they almost drowned the orchestra. Technology at odds with acoustic sound: another symbol?
The two works following intermission were unknown to me. The four movements of the 2007 concerto by Brisbane-based composer Sean O’Boyle are based on the four elements and are Hollywood-colourful in the extreme. The concerto opened with great promise, kookaburras greeting “the dawn of the ages”, but it soon descended into near-cliché.
The programme ended with two movements from the joint composition Kalkadunga by Matthew Hindson and Barton himself, the title reflecting Barton’s Mt Isa origins in Kalkadunga territory. The work’s fourth movement Warrior Spirit is described as “a violent flashback” to an 1884 massacre, evoked in a vivid oration by Delmae Barton, her distinctive wailing soaring into the heavens. The fifth movement Spirit of Kalkadunga opens with a duet between didjeridu and bass drum, placed at the front of the stage, and inspired a symbolic dialogue between Indigenous and European musical traditions. It was deeply felt and genuinely delivered, with nary a hint of triumphalism or political correctness.
A pity that there was no time for the first three movements of this fascinating work. If indeed the ASO was allocated only two rehearsals for the entire concert, then each of the orchestral players deserves special commendation. And especially the role of conductor, Luke Dollman, in managing a diverse enterprise so fluently. As it has done on many occasions in the nearly four years I have been back in my hometown, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, even without a number of its principal players as it was on this occasion, rises to the occasion, and beyond expectation. Let’s hope that their contribution was noted by the political suits in abundant evidence at this concert.
Special mention also to the digital projections of Luku Trembath, which accompanied every moment of the music in a truly empathetic manner. Too often such exercises can reduce the music to the status of film accompaniment. Not so with Trembath’s slow-motion panning over Kakadu’s waterholes and forests, and dot paintings seen through the lens of a kaleidoscope.
Beyond the concert experience, there was a display in the Town Halls’ “reconciliation room,” the Mankurri-api Kuu, highlighting the place of the concert as a major component of the Yidaki exhibition running at the South Australian Museum until July 16.
But the evening belonged to William Barton. For almost the entire evening (nearly two-and-a-half hours), his imposing figure and winning personality was centre stage. Here was not just the didjeridu virtuoso composer-performer recognised the world over, but also an impressive singer, his powerful high baritone voice evoking the oratory of ancient songmen and the passion of contemporary troubadours like Sting. He was rewarded by a sustained standing ovation from the audience, deeply moved by an experience that had touched them to the core.