WHAT is it about those Griffyns? They always seem to come up with quirky concert themes with generous smatterings of esoteric music that challenges comfort zones.
And yet they seem to be able to turn all of that into highly entertaining concert events that make the unfamiliar memorable and even the strange normal.
“The Utopia Experiment” was no less an example of out-of-the-box thinking with a performance that thoroughly challenged, delighted and satisfied the spellbound, admiring audience.
In a thoughtful and diverse program that took us from Australia to South America and back again, via Dame Mary Gilmore, the Griffyn Ensemble showed not only how amazingly versatile they are, but also what fine musicians they are.
Soprano Susan Ellis, played the role of Dame Mary Gilmore, singing and narrating the story of her failed attempts, with William Lane, to establish a utopian colony in Paraguay in the late 19th century and of her return to Australia.
Chris Stone (violin) and Laura Tanata (harp) began the concert superbly, if softly and gently, with a wistful, quite ethereal piece by Nigel Westlake, “Beneath the Midnight Sun”. Then the whole ensemble came together for the music suite, “Mary Gilmore Goes to Paraguay”, by George Dreyfus. With plenty of light and shade, the music was quintessentially Dreyfus, even with little hints of the theme from “Rush”.
The central piece was “The Paraguay Songs” from “The Plaint of Mary Gilmore” by another Australian composer, Vincent Plush, who was in the audience for the performance of this extraordinary work founded on letters from Dame Mary.
Griffyn director Michael Sollis laid his mandolin aside to conduct the quite complex work, made more so by the fact that the letters, with no rhythm or meter of their own, were set to music. Susan Ellis was brilliant, singing the words from the letters on a free line of no real melody against a quite abstract instrumental line.
Another major piece in the concert was “The Freedom of Silence” by Argentine-Canadian composer, Alcides Lanza (b 1929), with words by Canadian artist and poet, Michael Robinson. It had a strong environmental sentiment, which seemed strangely incongruous to the Gilmore theme, but nonetheless worked musically, again with a very ethereal structure. The ensemble was superb, beautifully supported by Ellis’ insightful interpretation of the vocal line.
There were other pieces, too, all linked together by Ellis’ narration, as Dame Mary, who was not above giving a solid endorsement of the Griffyn Ensemble’s 2016, tenth birthday, season of concerts.
Utopia might have been a failed experiment for Dame Mary Gilmore, but for the Griffyns it made a successful finish to a fine year of music-making.