In the winter of 2016, Australian environmentalist Bob Brown invited composer Nigel Westlake to Bathurst Harbour on the south-west coast of Tasmania. Westlake would later describe the region as “a magical patchwork of button-grass moorlands, heathlands, and estuaries, bordered by jagged peaks, wild rivers and rugged coastlines.” His introduction to the wilds of Tasmania, a place of exquisite beauty, became the inspiration for his next project, an oboe commission for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Diana Doherty. “The memories and significance of my expedition with Bob continued to infuse my consciousness, leaving fingerprints on the concerto score in subtle and mysterious ways,” he said.
Doherty is a vivacious and expressive player and a remarkable virtuoso. Matched with Westlake’s imaginative, complex sense of timbre and orchestration (the composer also conducts), the four-part Spirit of the Wild, is technically impressive and allows space for emotion, wonder and mystery. It is richly evocative of both the landscape and its threats. Westlake’s trip had reminded him “of the preciousness of the wilderness and of mankind’s propensity to become subsumed by materialism, neglecting our connection to country and the wonders of the natural world unless they can be quantified by monetary worth.”
The final movement of the concerto, and its driving, repetitive, obsessive motifs, provides an apt segue into Steve Reich’s The Desert Music from 1983. The two share a concern for the consequences of modernity; Reich’s source texts, the poetry of William Carlos Williams, were penned in the decades after the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realise his wishes. Now that he can realise them, he must either change them or perish,” mused Williams.
These are vastly different pieces of music, however. The Desert Music, although more expansive in its instrumentation than usual for Reich, is typical of the composer’s minimalist output: intricate patterns, complex rhythms, evolving textures. A mesmerising, hypnotic work. Here, in a live recording, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is extraordinary under conductor David Robertson. Both pieces demand technical brilliance of differing kinds. With the uncanny precision of Synergy Vocals, this is perhaps one of the best live recordings of The Desert Music available and, paired with Westlake’s remarkable meditation on the Australian landscape, an essential release.
Composer: Nigel Westlake, Steve Reich
Composition: Spirit of the Wild, The Desert Music
Performer: Diana Doherty o, Synergy Vocals, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Nigel Westlake, David Robertson
Catalogue Number: ABC Classic 4817899
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Westlake and Reich is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in May. Read our interview with David Robertson.