Review: Westlake’s rare ‘Glass Soldier’

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IT  takes a particular kind of mind to put music, glass and war together, but the artistic director of the Canberra International Music Festival, Christopher Latham, did just that last night at the Fitters’ Workshop where he introduced and conducted a concert melding all three.

“The Glass Soldier Suite” is a musical look at the story of Nelson Ferguson, World War I trumpeter, stretcher-bearer, painter and later, after being blinded by mustard gas in the battle for Villers-Bretonneux, stained-glass artist.

Latham at long last explained why he and a team of glass experts had been coating the Workshop windows with coloured film, matching his theory that several painters became stained glass artists after the war because the ‘muddy’ mixtures of colour pigment reminded them of the trenches, whereas the dazzling white produced by mixing colours in light was a source of inspiration.

The Fitters’ Workshop was to Latham, we heard, a building of inspiration – “My Taj Mahal” – a place where anything could happen, even circus performances.

Seen by Latham as a tale of healing, the Ferguson story supported his frequent assertion that musicians, often ambulance officers and stretcher-bearers in the war, suffered an abnormally high percentage of casualties.

Although the concert was book-ended by Paul Goodchild’s touching rendition of one of Ferguson’s favourite tunes, “The Minstrel Boy,” a pastoral suite by Ernest Farrar, and an ever-so-quiet rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Dutch soprano Simone Ricksman, all eyes and ears were on Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s “The Glass Soldier Suite,” originally scored and performed by the MSO for Hannie Rayson’s 2007 play on the subject.

There was a note of irony in the absence of composer Nigel Westlake, unexpectedly called upon to make revisions to a Hollywood film score, for the coloured drama of “The Glass Soldier Suite” suggested nothing quite so much as cinema.

Latham conducted the special Festival Orchestra with great sensitivity, initially in the opening movement, “The glass soldier,” bringing out the rich quality of the violas played by James Wannan and Kieran Welch. We were to hear more of these two as the concert progressed.

“The age of destruction” was the title of the second movement, dominating the normally quiet workshop with the insistent rhythms of percussion, basses and even a wind machine.

In the third movement, the lyrical lament, “White birds fly over the Valley of the Somme,” was given life by cellist David Pereira, especially moving when you know that Ferguson, in his later years, made a cello and performed on it.

The fourth movement, “Symphonies of glass,” was the easiest to understand, evoking as it did the stained glass windows in French churches, with Alice Giles’ delicate harp and the soft percussion instruments creating a refined and thoughtful atmosphere. Westlake’s introduction of the Advent hymn known to both English and French soldiers, Oh come Oh come Emmanuel,” created a deceptive sense of peace until the music exploded into violence again, with the basses and percussion asserting themselves once more.

The final movement, “I was blinded, but now I see” overtly suggests Ferguson’s reconciliation to his blindness and life. Lighter strings opened the movement, with Goodchild’s trumpet asserting itself in a series of cadenzas to bring Westlake’s rare composition to its optimistic conclusion.

[Photos by Peter Hislop]

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Helen Musa
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  1. I was at that concert and really enjoyed every minute of it…very touching and so much was said and played during this amazing festival, bringing to life again so many musicians… Thank you Canberra Festival…claire Honegger

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