Review: Sculthorpe’s new shifting kaleidoscope of sound

Cello player in Concert 5. Photo by Jufith Crispin
Cello player in Concert 5. Photo by Judith Crispin
THE second evening of the Canberra International Music Festival presented the premiere of Peter Sculthorpe’s new work “The Great South Land”.

Adapted from his 1982 opera, this piece was performed by orchestra, choir and soloists, and broadcast on ABC National. Based on the story of explorer Pedro Fernandes de Quiros, this programmatic work reprises Sculthorpe’s well-known devices – seagull calls produced by harmonic glissandi on unstopped strings, the ecstatic sonorities of “Sun Music”.

Here the composer  evokes his various musical forebears – the film-like gestures of Ross Edwards and Richard Meale, material from Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu,”  from British folktunes and American songs, notably Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean”.

Sculthorpe uses the entire palate of 20th century orchestral colours including sprechstimme, spoken rhythms and extended techniques for strings (sul ponticelli, sul tasto, etcetera) He adopts a Lindberg-like approach to sotto voce choir, having the choristers periodically turn their backs on the audience. By juxtaposing quintessentially modernist colours with folktunes from England and America, the composer is asking us:  “Where does concert music like this belong now?”

“The Great South Land” is in 27 sections, divided into three “voyages”. The long and complex score presented numerous challenges to the players, led by another stunning performance by conductor Roland Peelman.

Orchestral percussionists, largely consisting of ANU DRUMatix, worked overtime to render a shifting kaleidoscope of sound effects and leitmotifs. The composer’s most sophisticated writing is for the string section  – led beautifully last night by Canberra musicians, Max McBride, Tor Fromyhr and David Pereira.

Mass choirs, of the School of Music Chamber Choir, Oriana Chorale and Canberra Choral Society, coped extremely well with often quite modern choral writing. All the solo singers were noteworthy, while ethereal bel canto arias graced the tenor and soprano parts (sung by Andrew Goodwin and Louise Page),  the baritone and mezzo-soprano parts (sung by Simon Lobelson and Christina Wilson) were essentially long recitatives.

Goodwin presented as a fine romantic tenor, perhaps even a Verdi tenor.  Simon Lobelson and Christina Wilson, both excellent singers, were given little chance to shine as their parts were often obscured by orchestra and lacked the lyricism of other vocal lines. It was sometimes necessary for these singers to project the weakest part of their range over snare drum rolls and tutti crescendi.

The star of the evening was undoubtedly Louise Page, whose rich tones and flawless intonation was an absolute joy. The most evocative parts of this work were where the composer was at his simplest, just music without seagull calls or quotation, and those sections were very beautiful indeed. It was encouraging to be again able to attend a premiere in Canberra of an Australian work.

Judith Crispin is a composer, writer and artist and the director of  Manning Clark House

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