Utopian venture in music

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“A MAP of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing,” Oscar Wilde once said.

Dame Mary on the $10
Dame Mary on the $10

It’s Vincent Plush’s favourite Wilde quote, and it seems exceedingly prescient, for Plush is the featured composer in the Griffyn Ensemble’s coming concert, “The Utopia Experiment.”

The work sees the story narrated by our most celebrated woman poet, Mary Gilmore, of a bunch of ratbags (including her) who emigrated to Paraguay in the 1890s under William Lane to found a utopian colony. The Sydney Evening News in 1883 described the venture as “the wild, fantastical proposal of a few irresponsible individuals to found a species of communistic commonwealth in some undefined locality in the wild, unsettled regions of South America.”

The colony was never to become a utopia, but there she married Victorian shearer William Gilmore, with whom she later travelled to Patagonia at a time of unrest between Argentina and Chile, eventually returning with him to Australia to become one of our most famous writers, editors, and champions of the underdog. A suburb of Canberra is named after the late Dame Mary and her picture is on the $10 note and on stamps.

Vincent Plush. Photo by Peter Hislop
Vincent Plush. Photo by Peter Hislop

Vincent Plush is one of Australia’s foremost composers and also a former director of  Research at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. After first moving to Brisbane he transferred in late 2013 to Adelaide, where he is completing a PhD on “Music in the Life and Work of Patrick White”.

The “Three Paraguay Songs” in the coming concert are taken from Plush’s 12-part, 45-minute song cycle, “The Plaint of Mary Gilmore,” originally written in 1984 for piano and voice for performance by two Sydney friends, Elizabeth Campbell and Anthony Fogg.

Divided into three parts, “Inscription,” “Salutation” and “Report: Life in Cosme,” the words to this new iteration are drawn entirely from the letters of Gilmore. After 30 years Plush was enticed back to Mary Gilmore and Paraguay by Griffyn director Michael Sollis, rearranging the songs for soprano with flute, violin, contrabass and harp. Sollis’ familiar mandolin will lie silent, as Plush says he is needed up front to conduct this complex work.

Running for about 14 minutes, the songs have been rearranged with the lovely voice in mind of Griffyn Ensemble soprano Susan Ellis, whose work Plush admires greatly.

As well as “Three Paraguay Songs”, the concert will feature works by Australian composers George Dreyfus, Nigel Westlake, Eric Gross, and also, to give it the necessary South American flavour, works by Australian-Argentine Gerardo Dirie, Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, and an electro-acoustic piece inspired by the Indigenous people of America, composed by Argentina’s Alcides Lanza.

“The Utopia Experiment “, the Griffyn Ensemble at the   National Portrait Gallery, 7pm, Friday and Saturday Dec 4 and 5, bookings to http://griffyn.iwannaticket.com.au or phone 0466 480 104.  

Memberships are available from http://griffyn.iwannaticket.com.au

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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