It was not a triumph.
The lack of printed program necessitated an almost constant commentary from the conductor. There were mother-in-law jokes. There was, quite literally, a plastic rose between-the-teeth moment.
As something billed as “new music”, it is difficult to imagine a weaker program than Canberra Wind Symphony’s “Bronze”. All of the works chosen by Grey, with the exception of the Rimsky-Korsakov, struggled to assert any resemblance to new music – and Rimsky Korsakov completed his work in 1900. The program began with Samuel Hazo’s “Ride” from 2004, a simplistic work displaying the influence of American band music. This minor work could, with hindsight, be considered the strongest contemporary inclusion of “Bronze”.
Martyn Hancock’s 2018 work “Aurora Australis” is admirable as an exercise in orchestration. It showcased the considerable talents of Canberra Wind Symphony’s young players. The work opens on a tierce de Picardie cadence, a popular film music trope denoting sunburst– a trope repeated so often by Hancock that its effect had migrated from mildly effective to mildly annoying. “Aurora Australis” was a chimera of populist film music devices, employing harmonic language lifted from Stravinsky. Toward the end of this work a single moment of authenticity shone out – a few bars of senza vibrato flute doubled with pitched percussion and synthesiser – I wondered what an entire work written in this voice might have yielded.
Billed as “new music”, David Maslanka’s “Liberation” from 2010, featured large sections of Gregorian chant in Latin – a kind of Monty Pythonesque parody of monophony that made me long for the relative aural modernity of actual Gregorian chant. “Liberation” seems to be essentially a medley of film scenes stitched together. There is a Kung Fu Tam-Tam, a few seconds of cowboy music, some Indiana Jones. An endless array of perfect and plagal cadences. Canberra Wind Symphony performed this work with musicality and ease. The saxophonist, in particular, was impressive – and I would tell you his name, had there been a program.
In what was surely the highlight of the evening, principal flautist Sarah Nielson gave a beautiful performance of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”, a work prefaced by the conductor appearing with a plastic rose gripped between his teeth and what was probably supposed to be a cabaret shimmy. Nielson’s Rimsky-Korsakov was accomplished by anyone’s standards. She exhibited a warm tonal range, impeccable intonation, and flowing sculpted phrases. It was announced that Nielson had won a prestigious scholarship.
“Bronze” came to pedestrian conclusion with two works by Eric Whitacre, his 2005 “Lux Aurumque” and his 1993 “Ghost Train”. This latter was a programmatic work featuring mimetic train whistles and choo choo noises. In fact, the only unifying element of this work was the rondo-like return to train sounds. It would take more space than is afforded here to list the early 20th century works that appear in “Ghost Train” in what might be generously be described as ‘quotation’. Stravinsky is quoted the most often – “A Soldier’s Tale”, “Firebird”, and “The Rite of Spring”. Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” also has a cameo appearance.
Grey’s overarching message was one of supporting new music, and for this he should be applauded. But “Bronze” was not a concert of new music. It was a concert of marginally popular film music – the musical equivalent of a neighbourhood painting fair in park. It is an enormous shame for the talented players of Canberra Wind Symphony.