Review / Joyous art on a musical canvas

Music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra. At the National Portrait Gallery, August 31. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

AUSTRALIAN music by Australian composers played by Australian musicians in interesting Canberra venues; they’re all the ingredients needed for the CSO’s very interesting and enjoyable series of chamber recitals.

Matthew Hindson, himself a composer of fine renown, is the series curator and compere. This recital featured Alice Giles playing harp and Virginia Taylor the flute.

Flautist Virginia Taylor.

The program of seven short works by living Australian composers included five world premieres. Four of the (quite young) composers were present to hear them. The Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition of works by itinerant artist John Dempsey (1801-1877), “Dempsey’s People: a folio of British street portraits 1824-1844”, inspired four of the new works.

The exhibition is an extraordinary collection of miniature portraits of life in 19th century England and show exquisite detail (magnifying glasses are available for a closer look).

Most of the works carried quite abstract melodies and were in etude (study) form, but not so academic as to be inaccessible. Ian Whitney’s piece “A Painting by Magritte” for solo harp tested Alice Giles’ mettle and, for me, it was the pick of the new works. It had just about everything imaginable that could be played on the harp and Giles was brilliant.

Another piece that captured my attention was Claire Johnston’s “Behind Blue Eyes for Flute and Harp”, inspired by Dempsey’s “Selling Watercress, Salisbury”. This is the only work in the exhibition carrying two figures and Johnston looked behind the eyes (her partner’s eyes are blue, she told us) for any sign of forbidden love between the two figures. This also captured the imagination of the gallery’s director, Angus Trumble. Giles and Taylor may well have turned forbidden love into permitted love.

Also in the program were works by established composers, Larry Sitsky and Anne Boyd. Sitsky’s “Two Pastorales for Solo Flute” showed unmatched mature beauty. Taylor was sensitive, thoughtful, and greatly expressive.

Boyd’s piece, “A Feather on the Breath of God for Flute and Harp”, was very much in the Japanese form and the two artists gave it exactly the kind of Zen needed.

Although written for shakuhachi and harp, Taylor’s flute, in perfect blend with Giles’ harp, created a delicate, meditative calm. The mind’s eye could see a quiet Japanese garden with an occasional bird in song and a water feature gently creating the ripple effect that Taylor emulated superbly.

Art-inspired music. Rarely is it as successful as it was in the music and the playing in this recital.

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