CIMF review / Brave and breathtaking march of music

Music / CIMF Concert 17: “A Soldier’s Return”. At the Fitters Workshop, May 4. Reviewed by JUDITH CRISPIN

IN a concert showcasing Stravinsky’s iconic “L’histoire du soldat” (The Soldier’s Tale), Canberra Wind Symphony led with a series of contemporary works on military trauma.

Interleaved between movements and works were poems written by serving members of the Australian Defence Forces, created as part of ADF ARRTS (Australian Defence Force Arts for Recovery, Resilience, Teamwork and Skills Program).

Canberra Wind Symphony must be commended for supporting new music with their brave choice of repertoire. To see five contemporary works, including a world premiere, on a single program is impressive – almost unheard of. Geoff Grey directed all of these contemporary works with extraordinary musicality and understanding of the genre.

Peter Meecham, youngest composer of the concert, kicked off the night with his “Letters for Home” (2014). Stately and programmatic, this work featured singing and stomping by the musicians.

The three movements were marked by poems read by Paul English. Bec Lally’s poignant verse on the myth of heroism in war was followed by a suite of haiku by Phil Courtney – “commemoration turning / the world red / with falling poppies”. Elissa Croker’s powerful examination of emotions heralded the final movement, beginning with “Fear is not wanting to fall asleep when the nightmares visit.”

Jodie Blackshaw’s “The Bitter and the Sweet”, a world premiere, opened to bare chords opening on shifting cadential fields. Also programmatic, this work evoked the sounds of aeroplanes and gunfire. Blackshaw’s command of orchestration was evident in her artful use of extended techniques – never ostentatious and always effective. Her work was prefaced by Heath Schofield’s harrowing description of the battlefield, “Not my choice”.

David R Holsinger’s hellish “In the Spring at the time when Kings go off to War” (1988) exploded with the colours of late modernism – cascades of clusters, additive rhythms and evolving pitch fields reminiscent of Penderecki or Ligeti. Holsinger’s evolving meters paid homage to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, a deliberate reference given the title of the work. Brad MacKay’s prose recalled his experience of searching for bombers in Kabul’s crowded streets. “Observe the normal,” he remarks, “and the abnormal will reveal itself”.

Samuel R Hazo’s serene “Chorus Angelorum” (2009) recalled the golden age of American film music. With late Romantic orchestral devices, Hazo conjured an air of peace and redemption. His work was prefaced by Scott Grainger’s beautiful tribute to the husbands and wives of soldiers, “Declaration”.

The final contemporary work, “Lonely Beach” (1992) by James Barnes, conjured the beaches of Gallipoli with musicians blowing into the mouthpieces of their instruments. This programmatic approach unfolded into sounds of battle – gunfire and screams, distant Turkish melodies.

Heath Schofield’s poetry returned with a meditation on loneliness, “Edge of the World”. It takes real courage to reveal one’s inner world through poetry. It is not the same kind of bravery a soldier carries into battle, but anyone who has ever wrestled demons will recognise its cadences. It was a privilege to be allowed briefly into the world of these brave men and women through their writing.

The feature work of the night, Stravinsky’s Faustian “The Soldier’s Tale” (1918), is a theatrical septet with narrator.

Actor Paul English, as soldier, devil, princess, and an array of secondary characters, was always funny, never without gravitas. The septet, comprising Tim Fain (violin), Jacqueline Dossor (double bass), Magdalenna Krstevska (clarinet), Ben Hoadley (bassoon), Fletcher Cox (trumpet), Nigel Crocker (trombone) and Claire Edwards (percussion), functioned as a second actor – a joyful companion, always just out of reach.

Fain navigated the difficult violin part, with its double stops and extended performance techniques, with ease. In the soldier’s battered violin music, or the Paganini-hellfire of the devil, Fain’s intonation was always perfect.

Special mention should be made of double bassist Dossor, who underscored the septet’s rhythmic precision across difficult metric modulations and additive rhythms.

Stravinsky’s signature reeds were expertly rendered by Hoadley and Krstevska, while Cox and Crocker brought us distant wars in subtle timbres – senza vibrato or mutes, the shrill screams of the fallen.

Edwards appeared as field drummer, somewhere far behind the lines, or a sudden interjection of snares or bells. The performance was breathtaking. Nobody hears “The Soldier’s Tale” without questioning their choices in life – but the overarching message is one of humanity. You will fall and get up again. Because a human being is not a thing to be perfected, but a process unfolding – a canvas of moments, of recapitulations and variations. And throughout it all, music walks beside us, a familiar friend, just a little out of reach.

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